New Midlife Crisis
Kohane of Newark
Joodayah Records, 2008
The jacket cover of “New Midlife Crisis,” the debut CD by Kohane of Newark, scheduled for release in October, features an image of a larger-than-life bird’s eye view of a rumpled and stained velvet skullcap, doubtless donned at some Jewish function that took place around the time that Fonzie and Vinnie Barbarino dominated the boob tube.
Yet the pizza-pie-like CD beneath this ratty yarmulke features a dazzling smorgasbord of tunes, ranging from the forlorn and inane to the hilarious and horrifying. Kohane, led by its lead singer/songwriter, Ricky Orbach, and powered by an accomplished ensemble, has produced a collection that is at once rocking, soulful and eclectic. “New Midlife Crisis” is in fact a Jewishly exotic update of that classic 1970s specimen: the concept rock album.
As such, the disc is encased in an artfully appointed and inscribed jacket and sleeve. After all, what’s a Kohane without his priestly accoutrements? This lavish presentation underscores the ambition and intensely autobiographical nature of the work. Envisioning his art as a holistic sensory experience, Orbach seems to be insisting that as the music is listened to, the lyrics must be read and the accompanying visual images carefully inspected.
And what are these images? Beyond the aforementioned yarmulke and pizza-pie CD, one encounters a shimmering solar disc balanced precariously upon the baldhead of an enigmatic, Robocop-ish figure (Orbach, presumably) trapped in a glass chamber. The Egyptian sun god Ra comes to mind. Then there is an in-your-face basketball, complemented by an unusual round Purim megilla of Oriental provenance.
Yarmulke, pizza pie, sun disc, basketball, round megillah — all Orbach’s slice-of-life allusions to cosmic circularity encompassing the mysteries and absurdities of existence: Seasons come and ex-wives go, religion goes around, clean apartments become dirty and the Phoenix-like Jews emerge from the flames of catastrophe, only to face down some new enemy seeking their destruction.
And what’s with the basketball? Rumors of Orbach as a one-time yeshiva superstar hoopster allow us to place into perspective the ironically titled and brooding opening track, “Cheers” — which, the singer croons, “I haven’t heard… in years.”
The morose “Cheers” gives way to the charged riffs of “Festival,” a colorful suburban childhood tale of a precocious teenage older sister who disappears for the eight days of Hanukkah with a guy “my daddy called trouble.”
The meditative guitar strains of “I Don’t Mind” descend into the pitch darkness of “Pizza.” This disturbing effort to come to terms with a suicide bombing in Jerusalem evokes echoes of Tom Waits and also of Leonard Cohen, whose spirit also may be sensed in “Shoshana.”
“Clean” is a hilariously deadpan commentary on the minutiae of daily drudgery. Orbach triumphantly completes the cycle with the exultant and gorgeously arranged title track, “New Midlife Crisis.”
What this all adds up to is nothing less than a full-fledged, lovingly crafted alternative rock operetta, infused with spicy Oriental musical flavors as vibrant as traditional Bukharan robes. This cholent of angst and wisdom has been a half-century in the brewing, and is refracted through the eyes of a child of the Holocaust, first yeshiva boy-turned-hipster and finally a wizened but true artist.
“New Midlife Crisis” successfully blends Orbach’s two inner Easts: the Jewish suburban Northeast and the crazy-quilt Middle East. This son, brother, lover, husband and father is a lifelong straddler: American and Jew, 21st century but traditional and, like many baby boomers, New Jersey child and adult.
And yet it’s more than all that. The vivid dramas of ordinary life related by this raconteur are Orbach’s inspired scriptures. And just as the Torah and megillah chanted while the congregation reads along, so are we invited to absorb the words and pictures as we listen to Orbach wail and weave his dense, world-weary yet playful poem-stories through his intriguing melodies.
It’s a glum observation that such 1970s-era stars such as Lou Reed, Elton John, David Bowie and Pete Townsend achieved their creative peaks under the spell of drugs and alcohol and that when they eventually went dry, their creative juices followed suit.
Given such a history, it’s deeply gratifying to encounter a new artist such as Orbach, for whom the process of emergence took a bit longer to finally ripen. This is one new midlife crisis whose arrival is most welcome.
Uzi Silber is a writer and artist living on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He is at work on a graphic novel about the neighborhood.