The Gangsta Rabbi – Quadrophenia – Album Review
The last interaction we had with The Gangsta Rabbi was one that uncovered a lot of truth. Steve Lieberman, the brainchild behind the music, also revealed that he’d been diagnosed with terminal Leukemia…and though that’s certainly tragic – he also revealed the strength he possesses when it comes to his dreams of pursuing music from all angles…and the weaknesses in independent journalism. As it would turn out – one of the only honest opinions he felt he received on his last record came from us here at sleepingbagstudios…it seems as if a little Leukemia stops words from being honest, yet it doesn’t stop the guy making the music one bit. I believed then, and I still believe, that Steve deserves our honesty just as much as anyone else looking for their music to be reviewed…I’m glad he felt the same way and I’m honestly a little sad that many others out there don’t feel like they can be due to his illness. That’s on them and them alone – Steve is more than willing to accept REAL feedback and has more courage than the entire independent-journalism community combined, present company included.
All this being said…of course, I’ll continue to be honest with him on what I hear – and on Quadrophenia, his tribute cover-album to that of the same-name by The Who, I hear quite a lot. So does Steve…much of what I’m about to say would be foregone conclusions he’s already made about his own sound/style…but I’ll see what I can do to get some new information in here for him. I’ll say this to begin with – his own approach is made more sense to me in the thrashing-rock song-writing of The Who then perhaps it did to me through his own music. The Gangsta Rabbi’s version of Quadrophenia wouldn’t exactly be what you’d call any kind of note-for-note cover by any stretch – but it’s an impressive task that I’ve yet to see come out of the independent music-scene. I’ve seen many, many a cover-song…but this is the first time I’ve seen someone go after a full-on record…safe to say he knows it well and loves it.
As many people know…The Who were certainly addicted to volume and noise and instruments much more than most, which really does make this idea make a lot of sense to me when thinking about why The Gangsta Rabbi would cover its entirety. “I Am The Sea” instantly brings out the madness of Steve as the album opens up…instruments wildly flailing away and finding their way into the mix; much like we’ve heard from him on the last time out, he’s ready to put the entire roomful of instruments in there…but on this first-cut, he’s brought them in at different points and built it, rather than jammed every sound in at once. He shows more restraint on “The Real Me,” which…I dunno…you can call me crazy if you want to – but there’s something about this cover that I really enjoy. Whereas “I Am The Sea” came out sounding closer to something King Missile would have created, “The Real Me” lets a little more of Steve’s signature-style out and especially through the vocals. Though it’d be tough to discern each and every word, much isn’t always about that – and I dig the way that his vocals come out sounding with his Sabbath-esque tone combining with The Who’s songwriting on “The Real Me.” Production-wise…there’s even something there in “The Real Me” that stands-out…overall, this is a tighter-track for The Gangsta Rabbi.
If anything…I think what I’m hearing more than anything by the time “Quadrophenia” starts-up, in terms of what I’d most likely want to change…would be the trombone in Steve’s music. Quite often the rest can work…it’d still be a niche-group of select people that would gravitate to the sound of The Gangsta Rabbi…but without the off-notes of the trombone, “The Real Me” would have nailed it pretty much all the way through…same way I’d end up feeling about “Quadrophenia” itself. It’s a groundbreaking song/album that was built on madness…but refined madness…and keeping in mind that Steve is handling every inch of these records on his own – gotta admit that it’s hard to ask anyone to be a complete master of every instrument. I appreciate the intent, but the sound has to be there – and I think that the addition of that trombone often costs him…it will again in “Cut My Hair.” Hearing the rest…the drums, the guitars…they all work and seem to make much more sense…but there’s a duo of instruments that cost songs like “Cut My Hair” and “Quadrophenia” – it’s a trombone…and…like a pan-flute or a melodica or something…hard to say because Steve has quite a penchant to grab anything within arm’s reach to make music with…but that resulting contrast of low-end/high-end sounds often sounds a little or a lot grating in combination. With the multiple-layers of madness being piled on top of each other – it gets a lot tougher to recognize that he’s slaying the guitar on “Quadrophenia” – there’s some awesome stuff happening there that tends to be overshadowed by the rest.
It’s that consistent approach that works both for and against him. On the one hand – you’ll always know it’s The Gangsta Rabbi when you hear him…on the other hand, the full-on, full-sound, full-mix approach tends to make songs as different as “Cut My Hair” and “The Punk Meets The Godfather” nearly sound the same…or at least they will to many out there. “Cut My Hair” is much more melodically-driven…but Steve keeps most of these layers hidden far underneath the rest, making that melody dense and hard to get to. On “The Punk Meets The Godfather” – that trombone is even giving him trouble as he searches and roams looking for the melody-line…and as a result, with the music as jammed as it is…it also leaves Steve little choice as to where he can take the sound of the vocals he puts into the songs of The Gangsta Rabbi. And while I can get that vocals might not be, or have even been the main-focus for Steve in his music…he’s still gotta sound like he wants to be there; and on “The Punk Meets The Godfather” the dude nearly sounds bored at points…it makes for a tougher listen.
The Gangsta Rabbi’s Quadrophenia has much more in common with King Missile than it does with The Who in a lot of ways. I mean…you could look at this album as the way that King Missile would have approached recording it, I bet it would have ended up sounding much the same. It’s because of that background I’ve got spent listening to countless bands making college-rock that I can find a way to dig tracks like “I’m One (At Least)” – but to many people out there, I can hear that this track in particular might sound like a whole bunch of sounds thrown together with no real plan on where they’re heading to. “The Dirty Jobs” nearly runs that same risk, though the melody comes through every once in a while…the frantic/scattered nature of it all sounds a little too-loose to be something that the people can wrap their mind around. At seven-songs in to an eighteen-song album…I’m also feeling at this point that a slight variation in The Gangsta Rabbi’s vocals would pay-off well for him too. I’m missing the slightly different approach I feel like he took to “The Real Me” on the rest of these songs, to be truthful.
Due to The Rabbi’s tendency to go after a complete wall of sound…songs that are more stripped-back to the root of the idea like on “Helpless Dancer (Roger’s Theme)” tend to standout a little more from the rest. He’s got some great ideas on the vocal-mix of this one; though his tone and sound remain the same, the use of stereo-effects on the vocals pays off well in the madness of “Helpless Dancer (Roger’s Theme)” – he fit this one much better than most. And it’s not just me right…he added-in this clip of “The Kids Are Alright” didn’t he? I’d have to listen to the original album again…but I’m thinking this is the point on the original record where you’d flip it on over to side-two…
Overall…I actually quite enjoy the sound of Steve’s guitar. I like the tone, I like the fuzziness…I kind of often wish I was hearing it drive the music a little more than it does. The Gangsta Rabbi tends to use it like you’d use a base for a soup…it holds the rest of the track together and allows him to add the rest of the ingredients. As a result though…it’s rarely allowed to shine on its own…and I think there could be some moments where you’d really hear that it does were it not for the rest of the insanity happening around it. Less is more, as they say…but Steve’s always been in the studio headphones…he’s never actually heard them say that…
But in the case of “Is It In My Head?” and “I’ve Had Enough” – they both have points where a stripping-back and peeling of layers might have benefitted the overall ideas. At times, in particular “I’ve Had Enough,” it’s like each instrument is going after the lead vocal-melody as opposed to what could be their own individual-parts; the result is that the similarities to the original song remain, but the space gets filled and the idea becomes extremely jammed. Steve hears a lot of sound in music…ALL the time…much the same as an EDM artist hears the average pop-song when they go to remix it into oblivion with a million glitches, beeps and clicks…there’s a tendency to overfill the sound. In comparison to the average solo-artist…this is like, nearly never the problem; more than 50% of the time, any given solo-artist at times suffers from not sounding enough like a full-band. Steve has never had that problem…he can quite often sound like five-bands…in a jam space…and you’re standing out in the hallway listening to them all blend together…
“5.15” needs that variation in the vocals to bring out the melody…the same approach taken so far doesn’t quite fit the mold on this one. Where did the BASS come from though? I mean…take a moment to realize that Steve is quite purposely doing a lot of what he does…there’s a much, much easier road he clearly COULD be taking…but he’s chosen to go a much more difficult path and create his own sound. Songs like “5.15” that reveal quite the player and musician in behind it all through subtle parts like that bass-line all of a sudden being more pronounced in the mix…that’s where you hear that The Gangsta Rabbi could make it all become clear if he WANTED to – that’s just not the way that he hears his music/style/sound…and you gotta respect the man’s commitment to sticking to his idea. About the most spread out is “The Sea And Sand” – which allows a little of the instrumentation to shine a bit more because of the increased-space…but also reveals a few slight timing-issues as a result. In contrast to that though…again, I’d offer that the guitar on the following-cut, “Drowned” also shows a highlight for The Gangsta Rabbi and reveals that there is indeed, quite a player in the background of this M.C. Escher-esque music of his – there’s some wicked guitar ideas/execution here.
Even the instrument-breaks in “Bell Boy (Keith’s Theme)” allow for something different to happen, which works in favor of The Gangsta Rabbi…breaking up the massive-wall of sound will always standout to the listen when it goes away for a moment or two and this song has that. Surrounded by a solid wall of punk-induced rock-mayhem…”Bell Boy (Keith’s Theme)” has the trombones added further-back into the mix…that’s letting the vocals come up to the front a little more, and overall it’s a mix that’s working much better for The Gangsta Rabbi here in the late-stages of the record. “Dr. Jimmy (Including John’s Theme Is It Me?)” still has that Ozzy-esque sound through the vocals that has dominated the album and made you wonder why he didn’t take on a Sabbath record…I maintain that Steve could stand to experiment more in that department. With all the vocals and tones tending to sound the same, he runs a real risk of making it ALL sound the same to a random passerby…and with his tendency to want to include every instrument in the entire studio…you’d almost assume he’d naturally have grabbed a vocal effects-pedal and played around with a million different settings and sounds so far – but there’s no evidence of that yet here. There’s a fine-line that exists between defining our sounds and relying on them…we can still branch out and still be ourselves, but that’s the tough part of the craft when it comes to making things cohesive. I just hear that Steve is a lot braver, more experimental and more courageous in his musical-pursuits than most are – I’m honestly just kind of surprised I haven’t heard more variation when it comes to the vocals; that’s all. Incidentally – I absolutely loved the way he ended “Dr. Jimmy (Including John’s Theme Is It Me?)” – the loose-feel and collapse of the breakdown-style ending worked out perfectly.
Trombone…still not my favorite exactly…it slightly sours the end of Quadrophenia for me on both “The Rock” and “Love Reign O’er Me (Pete’s Theme). Thankfully, the guitars stood-out once again on “The Rock” and I latched onto those as Steve takes this one off mainly through the microphone and lets the music do the talking. Drumbeats have increased dramatically and rumble throughout this second to last cut while Steve recreates some rad guitar moments in the distance. “Love Reign O’er Me (Pete’s Theme)” was a tougher one for me in the sense that I became really attached to this song with Pearl Jam’s cover. I liked The Who’s original for sure…but I thought Eddie brought a ferocious power to the vocals that could never be duplicated in their cover-version…and it’s tough to hear that track for me in any form now without the throat-ripping, tortured-screams of Vedder driving the intensity. But I can’t hold THAT against Steve…that’s not his style…nor is he here to cover a Pearl Jam-cover of The Who. My main issue with The Gangsta Rabbi’s version here would just be that the separation between that verse and chorus didn’t quite exist enough for me…they seemed to just carry the same amount of sound as each other and that blocked this powerful chorus from truly standing out.
And I’m not crazy right? Steve? This song like…cuts right off? I feel like I’m missing another minute or another ten-seconds at least? After working so hard at covering an entire album – you leave out the final moments? HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO US MAN?
In all honesty…most musicians couldn’t hold themselves to being able to recognizably cover a quarter of any other band’s record…so you really DO have to give Steve credit for making Quadrophenia still a recognizable album from beginning to end. What he’s accomplished here…is truly mountain-sized as far as ideas go for a ONE MAN band…and he never, at any point, sounds like the music isn’t full-enough when compared to what you know from the originals. If anything…he’s put a little too much in, as is his tendency…but still, when you think about the idea he’s gone after…seventeen songs + 1 extra clip…this guy has really put a ton of work in here. It retains his signature-sound, it allows for the songs to still be recognizable but unarguably, he’s made them his own here on The Gangsta Rabbi’s Quadrophenia.
Have a listen to the music of The Gangsta Rabbi at Soundcloud here: https://soundcloud.com/gangstarabbi
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