SoCalled The SoCalled Seder

[JDub; 2006]

Styles: Jewish hip-hop, found sound, cratedigging pastiche
Others: Matisyahu, MC Paul Barman, The Books, The Avalanches

I was worried after my first glance at this record and its press release. Jewish hip-hop? A record cover with matzo bread on a turntable? These are early warning signs of a niche-carver with a probably too loopy sense of humor (cf. MC Paul Barman). "Hey, look what I downloaded! It's the house version of 'Hava Nagila'! With fart samples!"

Despite my skepticism, SoCalled — nom de disque of Canadian MC Josh Dolgen — actually demonstrates respectable talent on this disc, a concept album that follows the liturgical structure of the Seder, a traditional Passover ceremony. His tight mixing of traditional Yiddish music and thumping hip-hop rhythms actually works most of the time by honestly achieving one of many possible ends of a hip-hop song: boasting about one's background over catchy loops, scratching, and danceable bassbeats. Irreverence and slapstick are easy; telling a very old story in a fresh and convincing way is not. For the most part, SoCalled makes a determined attempt at the second. However, he rarely rhymes, instead relying on his skills as a mixer to assemble skeletal narratives connecting biblical history with the contemporary experience of Jewish family celebration. This reticence is a good thing: the lyrics he does proffer are reminiscent of high school history project horseplay: "Sick steak; mad cows too sick for Kosher killin'/ Moo moo mad cow disease, yo, your cattle is illin'." The sound collages open up like sonic scrapbooks, combining recordings of Jewish families discussing Passover, traditional accordion music, and his own beats and instrumentation. These pieces recall the eccentric, catchy decoupage of both The Avalanches and The Books, in the way their silliness is cleverly arranged and supported with danceable beatwork. Think "Frontier Psychiatrist" in a yarmulke.

I admire SoCalled's chutzpah, but I regret that the disc stretches to 12 tracks — this is a case where, in spite of the structural concept, I think new musical ideas are exhausted around the fourth track, and the novel minutiae that surface elsewhere could be incorporated into another song or two to make a pretty solid EP. Worth a peek, if you're into squirrelly hip-hop.

1. Pesach Zeit
2. 1st Cup
3. Four Questions
4. L.M.P.G.
5. The 10 Plagues
6. Dayenu
7. 2nd Cup: Bless the Wine
8. Who Knows One?
9. 3rd Cup: Yahu
10. To the Red Sea Interlude
11. The Miriam Drum Song
12. Passout for Passover