LIL REV – I Can’t Keep the Past Behind Me
In the past Lil Rev has released two albums of old-time country, folk songs, and Tin Pan Alley songs, all played on the ukulele, earning him Milwaukee-area accolades as Best Folk Singer (WAMI 2004) and Best Four-String Strummer (Milwaukee Magazine 2003). But for his most recent release he took a collection of traditional Jewish and Yiddish songs (plus a few originals) and interpreted them on guitar, banjo and harmonica. The songs occasionally get a boost from Rick Aaron’s flute (especially enchanting on “Un Az Der Rebbe Zingt) and Joseph Ruback’s mandolin.
The centerpiece of the record is the story and song “Something From Nothing,” in which Phoebe Gilman’s version of the old Jewish folk tale is read expressively by rabbi Phillip Nadel and followed by an original song. The story follows Joseph and his wonderfully creative grandfather, who salvages his worn baby blanket by turning it into a coat, and then a vest, a tie, a handkerchief and finally a button. The turning point comes when Joseph loses the button, but sits down with his pen and says, “There’s just enough material here for a wonderful story.” Lil Rev’s song reflects on that story and answers his own question, “How do you make something old last?” with “Takes a lot of love and spirits from the past.” While the story is sweet and affecting, at over seven minutes it becomes a bit tedious to listen to every time.
The rest of the CD features minimal English, with the bulk of the songs either strictly instrumental or sung in Yiddish. An exception is “Egypt Land,” a charming, sing-song-y rhyme that tells the age-old story of Adam and Eve and the temptation in the Garden of Eden. Another is “Green in the Land of Gold,” which is not a meditation on Packer fever, but a sincere tribute to his ancestors who immigrated to America and the challenges they faced. Strangely enough, those sung in Yiddish are the ones you may find yourself humming after a couple of listens; the banjo accompaniment makes “N’ Ra’ N’ Na” infectious. The folk song “Zhankoye” was previously recorded by Pete Seeger, so it is no wonder Rev has earned bothhis support and his quote; “Listen to this! Lil Rev is great!” graces a sticker on the CD.
A couple of the instrumentals take advantage of Rev’s prodigious harmonica playing (“Simi Yadech” and “Wade in the Water”) while others such as “V’Taher Libeinu” feature impressive unaccompanied banjo. “Wandering Jew’s Niggun” and “Haida” (which he claims has haunted him for well over a decade) are both nigguns, or wordless melodies, featuring repeated syllables (the equivalent of “la la la”). The inclusion of such seemingly simple songs, along with “Something For Nothing,” make this a surprisingly good listen for children, and one that their parents can appreciate as well.