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Kaskeset

Binghamton University, SUNY

Made From The Best Jews on Earth (2002)

3.3

September 24, 2002

Tuning / Blend 3.3
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.3
Sound / Production 2.3
Repeat Listenability 2.3
Tracks
1 Noladti Lashalom 3.7
2 Sara 3.0
3 Abram 2.7
4 Papirosn 2.3
5 The Chabad Medley 3.0
6 Yo!KaskesetRaps 3.3
7 In Yisrael (Around The World) 3.7
8 Lema'an Achai Verayai 3.0
9 River of Dreams 2.0
10 Haray At 2.7
11 L'cha Dodi 3.0
12 Der Rebbe Elimelekh 2.7
13 The Latke Song 3.3
14 Acheinu 2.7
15 Shir L'shalom 4.3
16 David and Goliath 3.3
17 The Last Butterfly 3.0
18 Oz V'hadar/Uv'nei Otach 3.7
19 Tubdavening 3.3
20 T'filat Haderech 3.3

Recorded 2000 – 2002
Total time: 72:58, 20 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Noladti Lashalom 4
2 Sara 3
3 Abram 3
4 Papirosn 4
5 The Chabad Medley 4
6 Yo!KaskesetRaps 3
7 In Yisrael (Around The World) 4
8 Lema'an Achai Verayai 4
9 River of Dreams 2
10 Haray At 3
11 L'cha Dodi 3
12 Der Rebbe Elimelekh 3
13 The Latke Song 4
14 Acheinu 4
15 Shir L'shalom 5
16 David and Goliath 3
17 The Last Butterfly 4
18 Oz V'hadar/Uv'nei Otach 5
19 Tubdavening 4
20 T'filat Haderech 4

Kaskeset is a fun and very talented group. I've had the pleasure of watching them perform live once, and after listening through this album, I can tell you that this group is for real. They do a lot of things well, but in my opinion what makes this group special is its uncanny ability to remain true to itself. Many collegiate groups revolutionize over time into a group that they're not. Every group strives to be just like the latest and greatest thing on the scene. Not Kaskeset. They've held onto their roots, and for this, they should be proud.

Made From the Best Jews on Earth is one of those albums that are just a pleasure to listen to over and over again. All of the arrangements are extremely well constructed, a major step forward from their previous release, Shir Pleasure. One of the things that did bother me was that three of the strongest tracks were all given a home at the end of disc: Shir L'shalom, Oz V'hadar/Uv'nei Otach, and T'filat Haderech. I would've like to have seen these spread out across the project, especially in the middle, where the weaker tracks were put.

The soloists on this album ranged from first-class (Papirosn, Shir L'shalom, and Oz V'hadar/Uz'nei Otach) to coach (L'cha Dodi and River of Dreams). Some soloists were better stylistically than others, and some just had a natural tone that was pleasing to the ears. In general, with the few aforementioned exceptions, the soloists did a great job of capturing their respective songs and making them their own.

The biggest downer on the album for me was River of Dreams. We've all heard songs where the soloist ruins a perfectly good track. In this case, I think it was the background that made the soloist come across weaker than she may otherwise have been. The background singers in this chart needed to present themselves as an inspirational gospel choir from the deep South. They needed to fill the words with soul and energy, passion and vigor. This didn't happen at all. Hell, I doubt if they could've passed as a Sunday log-jammer's choir from Butte, Montana. This was definitely not Kaskeset at its best.

Vocal and body percussion was great in some spots and awful in others. Man, I hate to keep picking on this chart, but the VP in River of Dreams was fluctuating in tempo every couple of bars, which made things even more difficult for the song itself. Remember that the VP is the metronome for the group, a never-changing, consistent beat pattern to build the song on. If the beat isn't stable, I can guarantee that whatever is placed on top of it isn't going to be stable either. On a positive note, the tandem of Mike Boxer and Evan Kiviat did a phenomenal job on their respective percussive performances.

A few spots of studio artifact show up to the trained ear on this album. I questioned Kaskeset's director about these problems before writing this review, and he informed me that they were caused by problems encountered during mastering. These spots are nothing to be alarmed about. You won't even hear the artifact unless you're listening intently for it.

This is a super album. It's a smidge too long, but since it has a little bit for everyone it's hard to get nit-picky about the length of it. If you don't already have a Jewish a cappella album in your collection, this is the one to get.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Noladti Lashalom 3
2 Sara 3
3 Abram 3
4 Papirosn 2
5 The Chabad Medley 2
6 Yo!KaskesetRaps 4
7 In Yisrael (Around The World) 4
8 Lema'an Achai Verayai 3
9 River of Dreams 2
10 Haray At 2
11 L'cha Dodi 4
12 Der Rebbe Elimelekh 2
13 The Latke Song 3
14 Acheinu 2
15 Shir L'shalom 4
16 David and Goliath 4
17 The Last Butterfly 3
18 Oz V'hadar/Uv'nei Otach 3
19 Tubdavening 3
20 T'filat Haderech 3

This one really hurts to write.

Founded in 1996, Binghampton's Kaskeset released its ambitious, if uneven, first album Shir Pleasure in 2000. The reviews — from me and the other RARBers — were mixed at best. The most common quibbles were intonation problems, lack of energy, poor mixing/engineering, and repertoire selection/arrangement issues. Everyone agreed that the group showed promise, but that there was still a ways to go.

As someone who has spent more than his fair share of time in the Jewish a cappella world, nothing would have pleased me more than to tell the world that with their second release, Made from the Best Jews on Earth, Kaskeset had solved its problems, or at least made progress, and was continuing on the road to greatness. Sadly, this second album is an even more ambitious effort than the first, and the magnitude of its ambition draws even greater attention to the magnitude of its flaws.

Most regrettably, many of the problems evident on the first album remain. There are still noticeable tuning and intonation issues in virtually every song. True, there are fewer than last time, and on the whole, the women fare far better than the men, but they are unmistakable, and they range from the almost forgivable to the truly bothersome. The lack of energy is still pervasive. Again, there are exceptions (L'Cha Dodi and Shir L'shalom to name two — Michele Dardashti, why only one solo?), but upbeat tunes like Ani Noladti (a very poor choice as an opening track), River of Dreams, and others fall flat. Issues with the mixing of the first album (4 of the 5 RARB reviewers rated it "Weak" or worse) have been only selectively fixed. The entire album has been recorded with excessive reverb and the basses most often sound like their singing while being smothered by pillows. While the sound is a bit fuller than last time, the solos in Ani Noladti and Sara are barely distinguishable from the background, and in The Chabad Medley the reverse is true (the solos often mask the little background I can hear). In general, the levels and vocal processing call attention to themselves far more than they should, and the results almost always detract from, rather than enhance, the music.

Lastly, there is repertoire selection/arrangements. First, I offer the same caveat as I did in my review of the first album. I'm fluent in Hebrew; I am familiar with virtually all of the material on this album as it was recorded by the originating artists, and I've even sung some of it myself. So my issues may be not be typical of the uninitiated a cappella listener who happens across this album.

That said, while the first album featured 14 songs, this album features 20 songs. This is long by any stretch of the imagination, and as you may have guessed, the selections I dislike outnumber those I like (perhaps I'll burn a CD of tracks 6, 7, 11, 13, and 15 as a consolation prize to myself). I understand the unique circumstances that often affect collegiate a cappella recordings (recording only once every few years, the need to be inclusive, etc.), but the goal must remain to put out the best recording possible. That goal is not served by singing everything except the kitchen sink! Rule of thumb: No one does everything well.

Next, there is the issue of language. English, not surprisingly, is the most comfortable for this group. The Hebrew is fine for the most part, if grossly Americanized, but a few disturbing mispronunciations do creep in now and again. As for the Yiddish, the vowel sounds may be correct, but the passion is nowhere to be found. Yiddish is a language of emotion, and the soloists in Papirosn and Der Rebbe Elimelech give no indication that they have any idea of the meaning of the lyrics.

As for the arrangements, the group's Musical Director, Mike Boxer, arranged or adapted virtually all of the music on this album, so I'm inclined to say that volume perhaps got in the way of creativity. There is plenty of arranging on display, but very little of it distinguishes itself. In several cases, (Sara, Abram, David & Goliath, Haray At), the arrangements have been lifted almost note-for-note from the superior originals, and in others, Mike, who showed a flair for Gabe Rutman-esque syllables on Kaskeset's first album, falls victim to the dreaded A.B.D. disease ("ah" "bah" & "dum"). Most problematic is a noticeable lack of development in the arrangements — by the end of one verse and chorus, the listener has essentially heard the entire arrangement, so while the lyrics may change, there's no variation or evolving complexity which would engage the listener and help to keep it interesting.

I know, I know, this all sounds a bit harsh. But to be honest, I had truly high hopes for this group's sophomore effort, and I'm more than a bit disappointed.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Noladti Lashalom 4
2 Sara 3
3 Abram 2
4 Papirosn 1
5 The Chabad Medley 3
6 Yo!KaskesetRaps 3
7 In Yisrael (Around The World) 3
8 Lema'an Achai Verayai 2
9 River of Dreams 2
10 Haray At 3
11 L'cha Dodi 2
12 Der Rebbe Elimelekh 3
13 The Latke Song 3
14 Acheinu 2
15 Shir L'shalom 4
16 David and Goliath 3
17 The Last Butterfly 2
18 Oz V'hadar/Uv'nei Otach 3
19 Tubdavening 3
20 T'filat Haderech 3

For 73 minutes, Kaskeset tackles Yiddish folk tunes, Jewish liturgy, choral arrangements, the spoken word, doo-wop, a faithful Billy Joel cover, a faithful Take 6 cover, a pop song about latkes, pop songs in Hebrew, pop songs with parody lyrics ...

I admit, I'm mystified by some of these choices. Take, for example, a pretty strong cover of Stevie Wonder's I Wish, starring a powerful (if unpolished) solo from Elishe Rothenberg. Only, the lyrics are Hebrew! Get it? Um, I don't, actually. What does this add to the song? (I guess it allows a Jewish group to cover a song that otherwise might not fall within their mission, but if there's a better reason than that, it was lost on me.)

The group has tons of energy and confidence. Unfortunately, this range of material would strain any group, even one with more musical skill than Kaskeset. Most of the songs have some enjoyable feature (great blend in a duet, a charming arrangment, etc.), but virtually all of them have serious flaws.

Technique is a big issue. The members of Kaskeset are uniformly talented, with clear voices and perceptive ears, but they sound untrained. Even the best singers run out of breath at the end of phrases.

Kaskeset seems to have trouble moving away from the American-pop tone. Color that's perfect for a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover doesn't work on timeless folk songs. If you sing a lovely choral arrangement like Acheinu with bright pop vowels, you end up sounding like a high school choir. Twangy American Rs and diphthongs wreck the traditional feel of songs like Der Rebbe Elimelech.

Overall, the CD lacks subtlety. The group just doesn't know when to say "enough". The opening chord of River of Dreams is virtually the only piano moment on the CD. The group often stresses phrases that would have greater power if sung with a gentler touch, such as the last chord of The Last Butterfly. T'filat Haderech is drenched in enough reverb to drown the whole group.

Several songs aim for laughs, and subtlety is not the key to Kaskeset's humor, either. For the most part the jokes depend on incongruity. Remember Chumbawumba, the one-hit wonders who sang about getting trashed and dancing all night? Well, what if their lyrics were about Jewish ritual instead? Ha ha! Yeah. If you're not laughing already, you're not going to.

I'm not being fair. The jokes occasionally reach the sophistication of puns ("Slim Shady" sounds a lot like "Zayde". Get it?).

Kaskeset has tons of heart and plenty of decent pipes, and that means there's great potential here. The next album could be so much better if Kaskeset keeps a few ideas in mind. First, less is more, in more ways than one. A controlled piano can have twice the punch of a fortissimo, and eleven great songs make a better CD than 20 weaker ones. Second, a joke song that brings down the house live may not work when recorded without your shayne punim. Third, polish, polish, polish. The best groups sound that way not just because they're good, but because they were in the studio at 3 a.m. nailing the fifteenth take. It doesn't sound like Kaskeset was able to give this project that kind of attention. Until they do, I don't think their albums will be worth the price.


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Ordering Information

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