Charming Hostess / The Bowls Project

Album cover: usual stark Tzadik cover w/cool amulet image

Charming Hostess
The Bowls Project, 2010
Tzadik Records, TZ 8152

CD and MP3s available from Tzadik Records

The Bowls Project is a prime example of why I recommend Charming Hostess and it's always-inventive leader Jewlia Eisenberg each year to our local Boston Jewish Music Festival. On one CD we get to listen to Eisenberg's incredible voice (and the delightful harmonies of Marika Hughes and Cynthia Taylor, alongside), and an incredible mix of her settings of ancient Babylonian amulets and traditional folk songs, all relating to the concept of the "apocalyptic intimate," described by Eisenberg as "a spirit-rich environment where the vast supernatural realm intersects the tiny domestic sphere."

The project was inspired by a book sitting in the office of Cal professor Daniel Boyarin which contained pictures of ancient Jewish Babylonian amulets, along with their translations. Musically this means that we hear forceful, often scary vocal settings of the amulet texts mixed with straight-ahead rock 'n' rolling versions of traditional songs such as "Dying Bed." The recording was one artifact of an amazing installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2010. Along with recordings from the CD that remains, there were places for individuals to create their own amulets and to record their own secrets/secret fears.

The amulets are sung in both English and Aramaic, often in tones of entreaty, even approaching nusakh, as in "Yedidi," with harmonies and often driving beats. The urgency is pronounced—"on the top of her head/he sealed his name" whispered and prayed in "O Barren One." In some cases, as on "Hangman Devil Man" (a song people of my generation often first encountered on Led Zeppelin's third CD as "Gallows Pole"), the song begins quietly, just voice and guitar, and then, as someone once wrote about the Kinks, inevitably ends in wonderful rock and roll. Then, there are gentle harmonic confections such as "Handu bat Makhlapta." Few artists cover more ground, exploring not just text, but vocal possibilities, "Amen, amen/selah hallelujah."

I think part of what makes this recording special is that weaving of familiar and unfamiliar; that creation of a space in which we look at familiar songs with new ears, hearing the attempts to avert that aforementioned personal apocalyptic event. There is also prayer, Charming Hostess' own, "Peace without peace," preaching:

"We shall be free/when the good lord sets us free
We shall be free/when we set our own selves free."

as well as the traditional chant, "Yavo ha-Goel" (the redeemer will come).

As has happened so often before, Charming Hostess open minds while entertaining us with beautiful harmonies, subversive thoughts, and even more subversive context. The CD ends with the seductive, "Too Bad:" "It's too bad that I can't come to your house…" but, of course, you can take care of that by ordering your own copy of this recording. The sooner you do so, the sooner the texts will become part of your own personal protection against the "apocalyptic intimate."

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 30 July 2013

Personnel this recording:
Jewlia Eisenberg: voice, dulcimer, harmonium
Marika Hughes: voice, cello
Cynthia Taylor: voice
Jason Ditzian: clarinets
Shazad Ismaily: bass, percussion, guitar
Ches Smith: drums, electronics

Honored Guests Marc Ribot: guitar
Jenny Scheinman: violin
Megan Gould: violin
Jessica Troy: viola
Nils Frykdahl: voice
Dawn McCarthy: voice
Ganda Suthivarakom: voice
Boris Martzinovsky: accordion
Aaron Kierbel: tar
Nir Waxman: beatbox

Song Titles

  1. The Bird of Rivers 2:15
  2. Bound and turned aside 3:20
  3. Dying bed 3:31
  4. Malakha 2:57
  5. Hangman devil man 4:29
  6. Seven spirits 2:18
  7. Yedidi 3:27
  8. Oh barren one 4:27
  9. Peace without peace 4:15
  10. Yavo ha-goel 3:13
  11. Early in the morning 3:38
  12. Smamit 3:35
  13. Demon lover 4:23
  14. Merduk bat Banai 2:56
  15. Da'ima 2:49
  16. Handu bat Makhlapta 1:36
  17. Too bad 2:26

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