Even those Hanukkah scrooges who find nothing miraculous about a dollop of oil lasting for eight days will have a hard time not discerning the hand of the Divine in “Hanukkah Rocks” (JDub/Reprise), a lighthearted look at the Festival of Lights by the LeeVees, aka power-pop artists Adam Gardner and Dave Schneider. Filled with rocking original songs that manage simultaneously to celebrate and gently send up American Jewish “observance” of the holiday, “Hanukkah Rocks” is nothing less than a miracle of collaborative ingenuity.
The album’s birth was itself the product of circumstances so unlikely that they only can be called meant to be. Back in April, in Peoria, Ill., Gardner’s band, the popular indie-pop outfit Guster, was on the same bill as Schneider’s band, The Zambonis, an ensemble dedicated entirely to writing and performing songs about hockey. During a break, the two guitarists repaired to their tour bus where, instead of, say, comparing notes on Peoria’s groupies, they got to talking about their shared Jewish heritage.
“The conversation led us to Hanukkah music,” Gardner said, “and I told Dave that it bothered me that I couldn’t name any great Hanukkah songs in English. He couldn’t either, and I suddenly said, ‘We should do it — make an album of Hanukkah songs.’ At first he thought I was kidding, but then we grabbed our acoustic guitars and moved to the back of the bus. Within an hour we’d written ‘Latke Clan’ and ‘Applesauce vs. Sour Cream,’ which became the first two songs of the album.”
With only a week left on Guster and The Zambonis’ tour, Gardner and Schneider had to work fast to come up with an album’s worth of material. “We did it,” Schneider said significantly, “in eight days. Just as amazing was the fact that though we wrote all the songs on acoustic guitar, we envisioned all the arrangements as we went along. Like when we wrote ‘Gelt Melts’” — a song that warns of the dangers of carrying chocolate Hanukkah coins in a hot pocket — “one of us said, ‘That should have a punky, Ramones vibe.’ And so it does.”
“One thing we wanted to avoid musically was schmaltz,” Gardner said. “There’s no pseudo-klezmer on the record. The album was about fun, so we had fun referencing a lot of the musical styles we love — everything from Phil Spector to the Kinks to The Zombies to Elvis Costello.”
The product of two suburban-raised (Gardner is from New Vernon, N.J.; Schneider, from Trumbull, Conn.), self-described “cultural Jews” in their 30s, the album is entirely without religious content; no mention of the Hasmoneans, Hellenizers — to say nothing of Hashem. Instead, Schneider said, “it’s about fun, family and food” — the things they remember best about Hanukkah. “Kugel,” for example, is a sweetly mournful reminiscence of the noodle puddings that Schneider enjoyed as a child — that is, until his mother discovered “healthy” cooking. “But Kugel/You’re not like you used to be…/Now you’re low fat,” he sings.
Other songs on the album — like “Goyim Friends,” which favorably contrasts American Hanukkah “traditions” with those of Christmas, and “Applesauce vs. Sour Cream,” about the “huge, enormous decision” every Jew must make when confronted with a latke — are similarly amusing and incisive.
The LeeVees, who are currently on tour, have yet to decide about collaborating on any other Jewish-holiday-oriented albums. But they certainly are supremely confident of the impact that “Hanukkah Rocks” will have on listeners. “Friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been calling us nonstop about it,” Schneider said. “I think it’ll bring back some Jews to the fold, even inspire a few conversions.”
Harold Steinblatt is editor of Guitar World Acoustic magazine.