But I knew the Shondes' debut would be good from the first time I heard them. Five years of violin lessons didn't make me a musician, but they did leave me with a soft spot for strings, especially in counterpoint to rocking guitars. When I first checked out the Shondes' MySpace page last summer and heard Elijah Oberman's confrontational violin on "I Watched the Temple Fall," I literally jumped off the sofa. It's not so uncommon for me to put down the laptop and dance, but I don't recall the last time I was compelled to rock the air violin.
And while the violin grabbed me first, I was equally entranced by Temim Fruchter's dramatic drums and haunting melody -- adapted from Lamentations -- as well as the overlapping vocals.
Only later did I delve into the lyrics.
As one voice sings the title phrase, another belts out a challenge to the idea of Jewish victimhood: "We live like we're always afflicted, but I'm not/I'm sick from the blood all over our hands/How the land soaks it in so the desert can finally bloom with this colonial hate."
Provocative stuff, and powerful, whether you're a hawk or a dove.
The Shondes will play Philly Saturday night, Jan. 26, as part of the monthly Sugar Town event at Tritone. (Full disclosure: I'll be DJ'ing between acts that night. So if you go, come say hello.)
On record, they may all sing at once, but via e-mail, the Shondes take turns answering questions.
"I Watched the Temple Fall" was one of the first things they wrote together, and they're still especially proud of it. Guitarist Ian Brannigan likens the vocal arrangement to multiple voices and viewpoints in conversation. Which is only appropriate, given the song's origin.
"It started with a conversation we had one Tisha B'Av," explains Oberman. "I had written a poem about the construction of the wall in Palestine that we used for some of the lyrics, and Temim and Louisa used that as a starting point to write the rest. ... It meant a lot to us to write a song that is so personal and so political about valuing our Jewish traditions, while also struggling with the pain and anger we feel about the Israeli occupation of Palestine."
They were activists before they became a band, engaged in both "Jews Against the Occupation" and the transgender community. (Their very first show, nearly two years ago, was at a transgender-health conference in Philadelphia.) When they started making music together, they called themselves the Shondes in recognition of the way a gang of gender outlaws and pro-Palestinian Jews might be perceived in certain quarters.
No Inside Joke
"We chose to use a Yiddish name, but the meaning is far from a 'Jew-y' inside joke," says bassist Louisa Solomon. "Most of our audience can relate to being called 'shameful' or 'disgraceful' for some reason or other."
None of the Shondes is fluent in Yiddish, Fruchter points out, "though some of us did grow up around Yiddish being spoken and sung, and feel a deep connection to it." Their heritage certainly comes through in the chorus of "Let's Go" ("Lomir gayn! Let's go!" they shout) and in the album's Talmud-inspired art, but there's nothing jokey about the music, which draws on the members' disparate musical backgrounds and training.
Oberman picked up the violin in childhood; Fruchter didn't find the beat until recently.
"I actually didn't learn to play drums until a couple years ago," admits Fruchter. "I had always felt rhythm to be extremely powerful but had never trained on anything percussive, and when the Shondes started, I thought, 'What better time than now?' "
You can hear traces of classical music and the '90s riot grrrl movement alongside folk, punk and show tunes, and it's impossible to confine any of the songs to just one genre. The clash of styles in "The Mother and the Colony" gives Solomon a platform to rail against the inconsistent logic used to keep women down, while "Winter" captures the agony of being at the wrong point of a romantic triangle by bouncing between minor-chord romp and rock-opera soliloquy.
"We are trying to make something that will appeal and relate to a wide audience, but at the same time is from the gut in that it's not ironic and is rooted in our personal histories," explains Brannigan.
Despite the Jewish context, Brannigan doesn't feel out of place as the lone non-Jew.
"Since the other members of the band are Jewish, and Jewish themes and musical tropes are what we create, I think to take ownership over that and declare it as something that we are proud of -- even if I'm not Jewish -- is a good thing to do," says Brannigan. "Because, like any other artists, the cultural backgrounds we come from are going to be expressed in our work."
Jump Right In!
Where they came from is fair game for inspiration, because you can't get anywhere until you know where you've been. As artists and activists, the Shondes have no choice but to see where that road leads -- whether it's to the promised land or a dead end.
Solomon doesn't have to reach too far for a fitting metaphor. "One of the great, inspirational moments in the Torah is the moment when Nachshon leads the Israelites into the Red Sea, despite the obvious improbability of crossing it," she says.
"In this story, God didn't intervene until after Nachshon's act of bravery. The lesson here that we're referring to in the album title is the idea that taking risks, against all odds, is essential to bringing about change, struggling toward justice. Sometimes, you just have to jump into the sea!"