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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 2, 2006

My view: 'Youth' by Matisyahu

By Jeremy Castillo
Special to The Advertiser

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THE VERDICT: FOUR

THE RATINGS

5 Outstanding: Add it to your collection now. A must-have.

4 Great: Buy it or rent it definitely listen to it.

3 Good: Worth listening to despite some flaws.

2 Fair: Unless you're a fan of the group or singer, don't bother.

1 Poor: Save your money (and your ears).

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CD: "Youth" by Matisyahu; EMI

Release date: March 2006

Style: Reggae

My take: Late last year, the country was introduced to a new breed of reggae star. In place of beanie and dreadlocks are yarmulke and thick beard. His name is Matisyahu, and he's a Hasidic Jew.

His genre-fusing mix of reggae, rock and rap appeals to all audiences, and his smash hit "King Without a Crown" (the video started airing on MTV in January) has made the 27-year-old an instant star.

After his 2004 debut "Shake Off the Dust ... Arise" and last year's "Live at Stubb's," "Youth" rides Matisyahu's white-hot wave of momentum. Produced by star bassist and producer Bill Laswell, the new CD is fresh, energetic and addictive.

Fans expecting to hear studio versions of the material on "Live at Stubb's" will not find it here, with the exception of a third version of "King Without a Crown." (For that, check out "Shake Off the Dust ... Arise," which fell under the radar.)

High notes on "Youth" include "Dispatch the Troops," about a young woman's daily struggles away from home; "Unique is My Dove," a sweet ballad with a classic approach to songwriting; and two songs about the Jewish homeland: "Jerusalem," a ballad recognizing the strife held within the city's walls, and "Late Night in Zion," about a drive-by shooting.

Musically, there's more emphasis on the band. Great musicians, they get to show off their Rolodex of sounds, from crunchy guitar rock on the title track to ethereal movements on "Dove."

Ironically, the album's two main singles are the most dispensable. Title track "Youth" is too much of a mix and has an awkward flow between the vocals and instruments. Despite catchy guitar work, "King Without a Crown" in a studio is nowhere near as good as the live version. The song highlights the CD's biggest flaw: an unshakable feeling that it could be so much better.

Laswell's production works as a double-edged sword. His experience and talent come through in tracks such as "Zion" and "Dove," where traditional Jamrock stomp and dub were shied away. Having the Laswell name in the credits should have critics taking Matisyahu seriously as an artist, but sometimes veteran chops can stifle creativity. What would the CD sound like if the band did their own thing and Laswell refined and polished the final product?

One of Matisyahu's and his band's biggest strengths is improvisation. Watch any two performances and you won't see the same thing twice. They thrive on stage, where there's feedback to play off. In the studio, the sound is much more contained, much more static and by the book.

Comparisons to Bob Marley may be premature, but Matisyahu is just what music audiences needed: a fresh face with a new sound. With mainstream music filled with homogenous rap and rock, the creativity landscape was barren. Now, fans have an oasis named Matisyahu to gather around.

Jeremy Castillo recently received his associate of arts degree from Windward Community College.