Josh Dolgin’s new record, “Sleepover,” is considerably less Jewish than his four previous ones. Thematically, that is. It seems to be for the best, as though Dolgin has truly grown into himself.
Living in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood, Dolgin, 34, who performs as Socalled, has mixed and sampled some seemingly disparate music into his songs: klezmer, hip-hop, funk, Hasidic melodies, calypso, Celtic. It’s not all seamless, the overlaying of styles, but that seems to be the point. If it were, he might not have anything to say.
In “The Socalled Movie,” a documentary released last year about Dolgin, directed by Montreal-based filmmaker Garry Beitel, Dolgin explains a contradiction: He hates ghettoized communities, but he loves culture. The problem, he goes on, is that culture is born in those ghettoized communities. So can you resolve that?
Thankfully, he’s not going to try. But he’ll point out the absurdity of it. On his last record, “Ghettoblaster,” released in 2007, the song “You Are Never Alone” begins with a declaration, in a gritty, light-hearted, John Wayne-like voice: “And frankly, there’s nothin’ so unusual about bein’ a Jewish cowboy.”
That declaration might serve as a defense, a justification of his work, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of artist who needs to do that. In “Sleepover,” the only reference, in words, to Jewish culture that I could find occurs in the song “Kid Again.” Dolgin, with a geeky, nasal voice, raps about achieving peace and harmony: “So many trees fallin’ and no one’s in the forest / hamotzi lechem min haaretz”.
He goes on, praising the breaking of bread. Any bread, he reminds you: English muffin, baguette, rye, pita, bagel, challah. It’s a little trite, but he’s couching sanctimony in camp. They cancel each other out. That’s why it works.
Dolgin has a knack for finding great musicians and singers. Socalled, in addition to Dolgin, consists of singer Katie Moore, rapper C-Rayz Walz, Allen Watsky on guitar, Dwayne Dolphin on bass and P.S. Bova on drums.
On “Sleepover,” in addition to the core band, Dolgin also took on 34 guest artists, among them: the 95-year-old lounge pianist Irving Fields, who recorded his most famous record, “Bagels and Bongos,” in 1959; the funk trombonist, Fred Wesley, who worked with James Brown in the 60s and 70s (and who is one of Dolgin’s heroes); the underground DJ from Chicago, Derrick Carter; the Canadian singer and pianist, Gonzales.
Which is to say “Sleepover” is not really about Dolgin. The whole Jewish-ghettoized communities-culture paradox is not really a concept on this record. He’s proved he can blend traditional Jewish music and hip-hop very well. But, refreshingly, he doesn’t seem so concerned about that here.
This is an un-self-conscious record. It knows what it is, and Dolgin seems to be letting himself breathe a bit. Enough that Peggy Seeger’s “Springhill Mine Disaster,” a plaintive, Celtic-tuned folk song, doesn’t seem out of place.
The songs on “Sleepover” stand as songs alone, most of them very soulful, as in “Work With What You Got,” on which the hip hop singer Roxanne Shanté makes a guest appearance; or “Beautiful,” a soul anthem about the beauty of beauty: “Let me love you for being beautiful.”
Dolgin’s previous records have been very funny (“The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah” comes to mind). But sometimes it’s hard to know when to laugh, if his humor is serious, or not, or if that even matters. It’s an inherent—and in some ways, confining—tension that you won’t find on “Sleepover.” This new record is a light-hearted one, but it’s serious in its light-heartedness. Listening to it, you might laugh, but most of the time, you’ll probably just want to sit back and smile.
Sleepover launches in Montreal this Thursday, May 12 at 8PM at Le Cabaret du Mile End (5240, Avenue du parc).
Matthew Kassel just graduated from McGill University. He often writes about music, but also likes to write about himself. Find his jazz blog at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/