1/  Orh                                        (Laswell,Hatula)              5.46
  1/  Jerusalem (Out of Darkness Comes Light)    (Miller,Douglass,Corraliza)   3.09
  2/  Chop 'Em Down                              (Miller,Werner)               3.45
  3/  Warrior                                    (Miller,Werner)               4.41
  4/  Message In a Bottle                        (Sting)                       3.56
  5/  Jerusalem (Swisha House Mix)               (Miller,Douglass,Corraliza)   5.42
  6/  Youth (Small Stars Mix)                    (Miller,Werner)               4.33
  7/  Message In a Bottle (Dub Version)          (Sting)                       4.46

          Original tracks recorded at Orange Music Sound, West Orange, New Jersey 
          Produced by Bill Laswell 
          Tracks 1, 4 and 7 produced by Sly & Robbie 
          Tracks 1 and 5 produced by the Ill Factor 
          Reconstruction and mix translation by Bill Laswell 
          Track 5 mixed by DJ Michael Watts 
          Track 6 mixed by Ad Rock
Matisyahu: vocals; ROOTS TONIC - Aaron Dugan: guitar; Josh Werner: bass; Jonah David: drums; Sly Dunbar (1,5,7): drums; Robbie Shakespeare (1,5,7): bass.

          2006 - Epic/Or/One Haven (USA), 88697 03374 2 (CD+DVD)
Note: The first edition of this release contains a DVD of Matisyahu live in Jerusalem.


An interesting backstory can sell itself. It would be tough to invent a musician with a history as compelling and unlikely as that of Matthew Paul Miller, who grew up a wealthy Reformist Jew in White Plains, N.Y. He followed Phish on tour. He beatboxed. And somewhere along the line, he went through musical and religious awakenings, simultaneously immersing himself in the disparate but complementary worlds in Hasidic Judaism and reggae. He moved to Crown Heights and reinvented himself as Matisyahu, the world's first Hasidic reggae star. It's a powerful story of transformation, of finding oneself in older traditions. Orthodox Judaism connected Miller to a heritage thousands of years old. Reggae gave him a culture of apocalyptic Zionist imagery to draw upon. And the unprecedented combination of the two launched a thousand magazine profiles. With baggage like that, it's easy to overlook the watery, hookless cruise-ship approximation of reggae he's selling.

The big problem is Matisyahu's voice, a flat, weedy simulation of Barrington Levy's honeyed scatter-croon. He floats between singing and chatting without ever mastering either, and there's precious little vigor or conviction in his washed-out tenor. His band, the abysmally named Roots Tonic, pretends that the past 20 years of reggae never happened, anchoring themselves firmly in lite-lover's rock UB40 territory and letting their spit-shined lilt amble on without force or direction.

On the new quickie EP No Place to Be, Matisyahu enlists the legendary Jamaican production duo and rhythm section Sly & Robbie and works again with downtown legend Bill Laswell, and they're good moves; the space and push of their production is exactly what his previous records have lacked. But neither Sly & Robbie nor Laswell are afforded the space to breathe or stretch out; they're always stuck behind Matisyahu's nice-guy singsong and Aaron Dugan's processed guitar noodles. A cover of the Police's "Message in a Bottle" is revelatory; it actually made a more credible reggae song when Sting sang it, if only because he didn't hide the searching desperation in his voice behind layers of Rock Star Supernova guitar-crunches or staple on a nonsensical and churlish toast-rant: "There's no message in your bottle/ Emptiness, it's just hollow/ Think the way to wake up is through sex? That's just shallow." Finally, the humorless scolds of the world have a reggae star to call their own. But at least "Message in a Bottle" has an actual hook, more than I can say of the three rerecorded originals that make up the EP's first half.

Three remixes make up the second half, and all of them at least nod in interesting directions, though none of them quite get there. Laswell's dub version of "Message in a Bottle" has a slow, thick bassline and plenty of echo, but it never does more than pile on generic dub signifiers. The Small Stars remix of "Youth" cannily layers a tooting melodica over a half-decent drum-shuffle rap beat, finally granting Matisyahu some propulsion. It's the Swisha House Mix of "Jerusalem", though, that offers the most intriguing and unexpected hybrid, as Houston rap kingpin DJ Michael Watts slows the track down to a crawl, giving the beats enough space to resonate and giving the track a sense of psychedelic openness. Even at half-speed, though, Matisyahu's voice doesn't sound deep. It'll take more than a personal transformation to turn a jam-band kid into an avenging prophet.

Tom Breihan (courtesy of the Pitchfork website)