Since the early zeros, Sharon Goldman has made a name for herself as one of the world’s great tunesmiths. Although she sometimes gets pigeonholed as a folksinger, and she plays that circuit, her music has always had more of a classic pop sensibility. The Brill Building and the 80s – think, Elvis Costello – are frequent reference points. Until now. Goldman’s new album Kol Isha – A Woman’s Voice (streaming at Spotify) finds her going deeper into art-rock, as well as the musical roots of her Jewish heritage. As a lyricist, Goldman says a lot in very few words, crystallizing her imagery just as she does her anthemic verses and catchy choruses. The new album is a song cycle, and it’s as dark as anything she’s ever written. While the suite explores Goldman’s conflicted roots as a secular – and fearlessly individualistic – Jewish artist raised in the Modern Orthodox tradition, her tale of gentle resistance, and angst, and ultimately transcendence will resonate with anyone raised in any strict, traditional culture.
The core of the band is Goldman on acoustic guitar and piano, Stephen Murphy on guitars, Craig Akin on bass, Cheryl Prashker on percussion and Dan Hickey on drums. Goldman has never sung more strongly or dynamically: this album contains both her sultriest song ever – the lush piano ballad Rose of Sharon – and also one of her most hushed. That number, Three Stars, concludes the album, an uneasy recollection of a childhood Saturday night waiting impatiently for nightfall and the end of the Sabbath.
Is that an oud on Pillar of Salt, the witchy Lot’s Wife ballad that with electric instrumentation would make a killer heavy metal anthem? Yesssss! Brian Prunka adds ominous touches with that instrument there, as he does on the album’s title track
Red Molly’s Abbie Gardner adds a surreal but strikingly effective Americana touch on Lilith (Goldman has a thing for Talmudic hussies), just as Murphy does with his purist, bluesy slide work on Song of Songs, Goldman’s take on innuendo-fueled Old Testament erotica. She and Murphy do the same with their bluesy twin-acoustic work on The Sabbath Queen, a rather grim account of an Orthodox matriarch who’s about to pass out on her feet just at the moment that the celebratory weekly Shabbos meal begins. Middle Eastern blues, who would have thought?
Goldman returns to more straight-up bluesy terrain – through the gauzy prism of Mazzy Star, maybe – with In My Bones, pensively weighing the richness and joys of Jewish culture against emotional and historical baggage. Similarly, The Bride awaits her impending nuptials not as the first day of a lifelong journey but “the beginning of the end,” awash in Laura Wolfe’s brooding violin and Goldman’s intricate fingerpicking.
She sings in both Engish and Hebrew in the enigmatic piano ballad Land of Milk and Honey:
The taste of blood and berries on my tongue as I wander ancient streets…
War overlooks fields of wildflowers, pieces buried in dreams…
There’s a soldier sleeping next to me with a gun on his shoulder
As we pass olive trees and barbed wire
Prunka’s opening taqsim on the album’s insistently anthemic title track might be the single most delicious musical moment, among many, here. “A woman’s voice is naked, forbidden, don’t raise that sweet sound in front of men,” Goldman sings with more than a hint of seduction. “It might arouse attention!”
Lest we forget, there are places in the world where a klezmer band with women in it wouldn’t be allowed to perform. Which seems to sum up the dichotomy Goldman is dealing with here: Biblical heroines defy the restrictions on them to do wonderful things, and thousands of years later, the theme repeats itself. While it helps to be a member of “The Tribe,” as Goldman reminds, to appreciate this, her narrative and anthems will resonate across cultures. And maybe generate some controversy, and maybe shift the cultural paradigm as much as she does the musical one, in the process. Goldman’s next New York show is Oct 13 at 6 PM at the Christopher Street Coffeehouse, in the basement of the church at 81 Christopher St. between 7th Ave. South and Bleecker.