- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006



Epic/Or Music/JDub

Standing onstage clad in traditional Hasidic garb — black suit and hat, white shirt and prayer shawl — 26-year-old Matisyahu looks more poised to deliver a sermon than to rock a mike. But in a way, the artist manages both with his innovative remix of the familiar reggae genre.

Perhaps the combination isn’t as incongruous as it sounds. After all, reggae has long cloaked spiritual messages in its seemingly innocuous, head-nodding melodies. The man synonymous with reggae, Bob Marley, presented equal parts music and message. His lyrics doubled as incendiary social critiques about war and oppression, all cast in the Rastafarian language of Babylon, exodus and Zion. In fact, blow aside the cloud of ganja smoke, and reggae seems a fairly appropriate choice for an Orthodox Jew looking for a musical outlet. (Just don’t expect said Hasid to do a show on a Friday night.)

On his new release, “Youth,” Matisyahu displays for the first time the full scope of his talent. On this, his major-label studio debut, we hear a confident MC who’s matured since his earlier work, yet remains young and resilient enough to play with his genre.

While his first two albums, 2004’s “Shake Off the Dust … Arise” and last year’s chart-topping “Live at Stubb’s,” proved his lyrical chops and live presence, they looked more to reggae’s past. On “Youth,” Matisyahu — aided by veteran producer Bill Laswell (Herbie Hancock, Sly & Robbie) — offers up a diverse disc that imagines reggae’s future and his place in it. Tunes range from reggae rock to acoustic ballad, and rhythms span from new school hip-hop to traditional klezmer.

Yes, the album is peppered with songs characteristic of his tried-and-true style, including the opener, “Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth,” and the single, “King Without a Crown.” But tracks like “Jerusalem” and “Time of Your Song” pulse with synthesized beats that show Matisyahu’s willingness to explore.

Musical influences shine through, as in the “Redemption Song”-esque “What I’m Fighting For” and the Phish-like “WP.” Unfortunately, some of these approximations feel a bit forced; Matisyahu is most successful when he is most himself.

He’s at his best on “Youth’s” title track, which not only rocks out way harder than the other songs but also presents a powerful and personal message. The tune’s lyrics illuminate a path from “confusion” and “spiritual emptiness” to power, reminiscent of Matisyahu’s own journey from Phish-follower to religious rocker. When he says, “Young man, control in your hands,” he’s not just stoking the flames of youth, but leading by example.

While his artistic recipe may be novel, Matisyahu is no novelty act. When he sings “I give myself to you from the essence of my being” in “King Without a Crown,” it’s clear he isn’t just talking about God.

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