Matisyahu: Youth

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Matisyahu

Album: Youth
Label: JDub/EMI

There aren't a lot of Hasidic Jews taking the stage to bust out spiritual reggae anthems. But while what Matisyahu does might be unique, there's nothing shticky about it, as anyone who's picked up his electric 2005 live album Live At Stubbs can attest. A word-of-mouth sensation, Stubbs captured the former Matthew Miller—a jam-band fan turned Hasidic convert—using roots reggae, dancehall toasting, and old-school beatboxing to express his most deeply held spiritual beliefs as if they had been invented for the purpose. It only sounds like an incompatible pairing. Hasidism and Rastafarianism both ask for exuberant expression, and they rely on much of the same imagery. Each have different interpretations of Jerusalem and Zion, but some of their core principles overlap.

But even if they didn't, Matisyahu sounds like he could bring them together through sheer force of will. An exuberant vocalist whether toasting or singing, Matisyahu's Youth—his second studio album, and his first on a major label—seems designed to prove he isn't a kosher flavor of the month. "Fire Of Heaven/Altar Of Earth" kicks off the album by layering a contemporary sheen on a classic reggae sound (courtesy of producer Bill Laswell) and hitting the accelerator with some tongue-twisting rhymes about misplaced priorities. The album keeps raising the temperature until it hits "What I'm Fighting For," a quiet acoustic number that relies on little more than Matisyahu's voice, a guitar, and an understated keyboard.

From there, the message remains the same but the music keeps changing. Anyone allergic to jam-band tendencies should probably avoid "Ancient Lullaby," and who knows why one track pauses to quote Matthew Wilder's "Break My Stride." But Matisyahu's willingness to draw influences from outside his comfort zone bodes well for his future, as does the unshakable sense that he's created everything here out of joyous obligation. In any genre, God only rarely gets grooves this good.