Too much of a good thing

Is it possible for an album to have too much good music? And is that a bad thing?

The Klezmatics probably didn’t set out to answer those rhetorical questions on its newest album in five years, but on Rise Up!/Shteyt Oyf!, the band comes close to answering both questions with “yes”.

Of course, the members of the Klezmatics come from very high musical pedigrees. The downtown New York sextet has performed with Itzhak Perlman, Chava Albertstein and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. They’ve also collaborated with playwright Tony Kushner.

The muscle behind that versatility doesn’t let up — in the first four tracks alone, the Klezmatics ably demonstrate the manic range of klezmer’s emotional content. “Kats Un Moyz” is as hot as any be-bop jam, while “Tepel”‘s wordless lyrics can get mindnumbingly frantic.

Twixt those two highs, singer Lorin Sklamberg shows how his tender tenor suites klezmer’s more melancholy moments.

By the time the group reaches Holly Near’s eeriely prophetic “I Ain’t Afraid” — a song that rallies against religious fundamentalism, written a year before 9/11 — the album feels like it’s reached its half way mark.

Nope. The half way mark comes two songs later.

And the Klezmatics have barely begun to experiment.

On past albums, the band was content to take old klezmer tunes and play them like jazz improvisers out to shove their Yiddishisms in the world’s face. The music was traditional, but the energy behind the performances was thoroughly modern.

On the latter half of Rise Up!, the Klezmatics take quite a number of liberties with their arrangements.

“Barikdan” starts off with a sample of a field recording, and when Sklamberg comes in with his take on the melody, his bandmates keep their accompaniment sparse but urgent. “Yo Riboyn Olam” foregoes the Western drum kit for a more Eastern European sound.

On other tracks such as “Hevl Iz Havolim” and “Davenen”, the Klezmatics sound more like a compact orchestra, turning traditional songs into grand works.

They even have time to throw in a whimsical novelty (“Makht Oyf”).

Compounding all the dramatic arrangements and exuberent performances are lengthy tracks. Not until the last third of the album do any of the songs finish before four minutes. Most of the 14 tracks on Rise Up! last five minutes.

As a result,

Rise Up! becomes an exhausting experience. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, per se, but such a constant barrage of emotional extremes can wear a pair of ears out.

Still, it’s nice to know the Klezmatics haven’t given up the ghost, and even after a long half decade silence, they’re as uplifting as ever. (Not counting, of course, the myriad of other projects each member runs on their own.)

Rise Up! is a guaranteed to have a lot of wonderful music, but be careful about digesting it all in one go.