Matisyahu strays too far from genre on new EPby Michael Merline
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Matisyahu’s new EP Shattered is awfully short at only four songs and 18 minutes — but that’s a good thing. The accurately titled Shattered plays like a bad stepping stone between albums and should be treated as such.
It’s not that Matisyahu or his cast of bandmates are inherently bad musicians. In fact, that’s pretty far from the case. Matisyahu’s sometimes hard-to-find first album, Shake of the Dust…Arise, is notable for some truly novel moments and at representing a time in the Hasidic-Jewish reggae artist’s career when his lyrics and unique image didn’t feel tired or gimmicky.
But it’s been a solid live album, a mainstream LP that embraced syrupy production and finally a questionable remix-EP since then, and Shattered doesn’t suggest Matisyahu is going to return to that more hypnotic reggae sound. Instead, he just keeps pumping out the pop and not the well thought-out kind. These four new tracks, namely the likely single candidate “So Hi, So Lo,” are overproduced and feel dubiously canned. And who says “So Lo” and honestly expects success?
The moments of hypnotic dancehall digression that marked Shake and make up much of Matisyahu’s more satisfying live performances barely make appearances here. “Smash Lies” trudges along over a tinny drum-line that sounds like it’s pulled straight from a bad 50 Cent outtake, but at least the song’s refrain does shed a few layers of gloss. The whole track should have had that feel, and it’s a damn shame.
Matisyahu seems to have lost all his reggae charm that — for the same reasons Matisyahu was once more intriguing — got everybody and their cousin to buy Bob Marley’s Legend. Shattered moves away from the grimy authenticity inherent in reggae as a genre and instead embraces a soulless digital touch.
And it doesn’t help that Matisyahu’s moralist religious lectures are getting harpy and uninspired instead of refreshingly spiritual and sophisticated. His fun vocal stylings do come through in varying ways on “Two Child One Drop.” If only he didn’t ruin that satisfying moment with such banal lyrics as “These are the demons that come through my life/ They’ve killed me over 1000 times.” For the third studio release in a row, Matisyahu ends on a whiny note (“I Will Be Light” this time around), again asking an unsympathetic frat-party audience to heed his preaching.
Sure, the religious aspect is supposed to be the point of Matisyahu’s music, but people really just want to hear some quality reggae. His nods to traditional Jewish folk music are admirable but sound so out of place mixed with electronic beats and synths that they’re hard to take seriously.
As for the not-so-serious stuff, the few instances of Matisyahu’s beatboxing abilities present on Shattered are buried beneath suffocating production. They sadly feel like poorly-executed afterthoughts when they could have supplied some much needed organic sound — sonic fresh-air — to these new tracks.
Matisyahu’s style is still interesting, but it’s getting less unique. For this reason, the bearded rocker in the black steeple-hat shines in a live format but lets his work get mangled in the studio. Matisyahu is trying to lighten up, which isn’t a bad thing, but adding more and more polish and straying from slinky reggae song structures is going about it the wrong way.
It’s not that Shattered is totally unlistenable. In fact, it spins to a finish before you know it. But its faults keep it from being something worth returning to, and it doesn’t suggest promise for Matisyahu’s next full-length. Another concert recording is in order for Mr. Miller — maybe in the process of putting that out he can get back to his roots and recall what made him a novelty that lasted in the first place.
Labels: Matisyahu review, Shattered