Knowing that unassuming dirt is a great despoiler of historical artifacts, the original “mudlarkers” were English street urchins who ponced into the low-tide Thames in hopes of emerging with a brace of briny bric-a-brac that could then become their mismatched treasure. Truthfully: aren’t asymmetrical things always vastly more beautiful than anything trimmed straight across? If you know this to be so and wish to hear it proven in near-edible sound waves, Nefesh Mountain brings you a rimbomb blend of bluegrass cut on a bias with their third full-length production, Songs For The Sparrows.
Married songbirds and born muso-spiritual mudlarkers, Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff have turned out a fair Tardis of an album, and it sweetens your day and staggers your step like a cider-laced marshmallow from first frail to last hum. In 2021, no one enlightened enough to tie a shoe should be exclaiming about any person anywhere participating in and contributing to any branch of culture, but for those fossilized few still out there who would raise an eyebrow at a Jewish couple doing bluegrass every bit as relevant as Bill Monroe’s, this next bit is for you. The history of connection between Jewish culture and bluegrass is much longer than some realize, and it is a kindred association born out of an experiential need for palingenesis and triskelia. It exists in the same swimming lane that magnetized genre-defining Jewish guitar players like Saul Kaye and the impassable Michael Bloomfield to the Delta blues: suffering.
The enforced poverty, spiritual and geographic displacement, as well as the ethnic/lifestyle othering innate to bluegrass stories links the Jewish experience to that of many Appalachian southerners from the 1920s forward as industrialization changed the cultural landscape of the American south irrevocably, and forced many already socioeconomically disadvantaged Scots-Irish immigrants in the mountain regions of the south into a new breed of cultural obscurity. It’s not over-egging the pudding to suggest that few ethnic groups in human history can rival the Jewish for having been ostracized and eradicated, but the original arbiters of the provincial life celebrated through bluegrass music stake a not insignificant claim on a much smaller scale. There is less distance between the two groups than today’s tribalist tribunals may like to admit.
Thankfully, Nefesh Mountain has no trouble whatsoever proclaiming and honoring that apposite bond. With their eponymously titled debut album in 2016, this earnest and thoughtful band began to quietly insist that the specialized trauma shared by all Jewish individuals should be viewed more often through the lens of the strength, diversity, and resilience it created than via the repetitious schorl of the dark horrors that cannot be undone. Lindberg and Zasloff attempt to replace the lachrymose with the dulcet and remind everyone – the smaller entities of beauty like we sparrows in particular – that it’s good we are all alive and have even a sun-filled day in which to sing. Therein lies a bit of invaluable moral plunder no one even needs to dig for and that Nefesh Mountain appears eager to find more folks recognizing as the only lasting riches.
Having begun making music initially as a form of service to their daughter’s synagogue preschool, Nefesh Mountain would go on to claim the Simcha Award for “inspiring joy through music” at the 2008 International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam. By the time the band released 2018’s Beneath the Open Sky, they found themselves not just accepted but accompanied by bluegrass immortals the likes of dobro and lap steel legend Jerry Douglas and progressive mandolinist Sam Bush, adding further guest appearances by flatpicking acoustic samurai Bryan Sutton and Irish multi-instrumental master John Doyle on Songs For The Sparrows. With Zasloff’s collegiate undertakings resulting in a musical theater degree and Lindberg’s in a degree for jazz performance from Rutgers, these polyphonic lovebirds are not lollygaggers themselves by any means. The baseline level of musicianship on Songs For The Sparrows will knock you all the way off your bike.
Nefesh is the Hebrew word for soul, and so what Lindberg and Zasloff have set about ultimately doing in this project is quilting Jewish liturgy seamlessly with their Americana roots. The result is an aural arras unlike any before. While “Jewgrass” is a commonly used term for this particular hybrid of music, you’d be forgiven for automatically rejecting it as the correct term for what Nefesh Mountain are accomplishing because there is absolutely zero parody or punchline in any of the utopography they are underscoring in these songs. Their pastoral paradise is one in which incanting the ancient texts that defined the lives of their ancestors serves to showcase the through-line of love that connects that life-giving lineage to their experiences as American Jews working in old-time string music.
Nefesh Mountain may come with a decidedly gentle mission in their music, but Lindberg and Zasloff are not hobby-orchardists in these pomaceous sounds; it is more than evident that they live the simple, honest principles that they are so sweetly singing about. Everyone is welcome at their sonic Seder table, especially the sparrows and other small things – who simultaneously represent the global Jewish diaspora, the actual tiny birds in nature, and any piece within any person that has ever felt stricken or unseen.
“Wanderlust”, the first track off Songs For The Sparrows boldly and loudly presents the band’s idyllic ideology with the clarion lyric: “If these wayward winds against our backs are howling / Let us look within for love.” Though this song sets the precedent for the album, it feels like it’s hurtling home to something. The last time a truly unforgettable album kicked off looking backward with a track called “Wanderlust”, it belonged to Southampton’s own matchless Delays and their sparkle-shod Faded Seaside Glamour. Then, the jangle and the Shangri-La came from the skyborne sequencers and Greg Gilbert’s kestrel-high angel harmonies looking out from the old medieval walls that ring his dreamy city. Now, the black-jeweled confections that take you everywhere only the birds can go are banjo strings, and the Eden your ears get with Nefesh Mountain has been rewritten to neutralize the serpent.
“A Sparrow’s Song” launches as an outcast’s shanty sung directly and sincerely to the bitsy bird, lightning-bugs its way through a flash forest of Loreena McKennitt and Enya-like chants, delivers a power-verse in Hebrew, and then shifts to the sparrow singing back. What a story! What a flight! “Somewhere On This Mountain” takes a coordinately primaveral one, aback the wings of a philotherian love wherein to, “Hear the canyons in your voice / All my scattered pieces are rejoined.” This song, like most of Songs For The Sparrows, builds a credencive nookery for your spirit – whether you believe yours still has flight feathers or not.
Rare and special are the instrumental compositions that contain more verbal phrasing, syllables, and call-response than a piece with lyrics. However, “Big Mountain (feat. Sam Bush & Jerry Douglas)” tells the listener a close and wordless tale, and all with a fairytale flourish for an ending too. “Piece of the Sun (for Anne Frank)” adoringly steals its title and overriding message from a wise phrase uttered by Zasloff and Lindberg’s young daughter, and it seems to have butterfly-captured a little piece of her own clairvoyant sunshine in the process.
Though “Piece of the Sun” is dedicated to the indomitable Anne Frank, and deservedly, it also hearkens to another famous and strong-willed Anne: the undousable fire that is Anne Shirley Cuthbert of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and most recently rebirthed in the television series Anne With an E. Interestingly, if The Tragically Hip had used banjos and fiddles to express the same sentiments in “Ahead By a Century”, that show’s perfectly placed intro music, Anne With an E might well have had a theme song linked in more than spiritual symbolism to Nefesh Mountain’s Anne Frank ode here. “Piece of the Sun” carries the kind of venerable insight one can only get from brave little girls.
“Where Oh Where” is a pastoral reverse-elegy encouraging you to realize that innocence, forgiveness, and compassion are not expired; they have been in the flower beds, fields, and meadows all this while that you perceived them to be grievously absent from modern life. The Garden is not gone if you know where to look for it. Nefesh Mountain unashamedly points the way. “Suite For a Golden Butterfly” lands amid something very Celtic, Renaissance-inspired, and somehow of The Last Unicorn. It feels as though it had been written by Molly on the last afternoon of her lost looks and then arranged by a band of smitten klezmer chimney-sweep princes who regret only her lack of ability to see her own permanent beauty. A more hypnotic and necessary nine minutes of music you’ll not spend this year, I’ll wager.
“Tree of Life” was written in rapid response to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, an anti-Semitic nightmare that claimed eleven Jewish lives and rang with a poignant and palpable pain for Zasloff and Lindberg, who had just returned from a family trip to the origin cities of their European ancestors. In that sickening act of heartrending violence, the living specter of the Holocaust had followed them home. It tells you everything you need to know about this band that they then wrote this precious poem of metamorphic healing – it meanders hopefully on legs made wobbly by woe, like a new-toddling child with a crabapple circlet around its forehead.
Songs For The Sparrows is unapologetically and beautifully prayerful in the way of the West African Ifá religion, all omnific and guileless. Anyone who has ever been transformed by a song knows that real music, heartfelt music of any kind, is prayer – and even an atheist can understand and relate to that. Every listener of this album should make a concerted effort not to miss the way the wedded symbolism of mountains in both Jewish and bluegrass history crop up again and again throughout, or the way that motherly motifeme motorizes the whole record.
The mountain is where messages from above reliably come down and also where we traditionally go up to declare ourselves to the generative universe. “Mountain music” brings forth everything from Gaia to Mount Sinai to the Smokies. Songs for the Sparrows seeks to consolidate all of the above in the interest of harmonic heart-balm. Nefesh Mountain has made a record to rejoin all your scattered pieces.
This country has endured a great many heartless, roughshod conversations about “identity” over the course of the last few years. No matter the venue, there always seems to be some brass-necked frampler of one side or another squawking at others about what they do and do not have the “right” to claim as their own – and then the gross internet does what it was built for and sends everyone slavering over their insufferable bully pulpits until the next piece of formatted outrage is fermented.
If you were fortunate enough to be around the first time Beastie Boys hit up everybody’s boombox with those bowed-out Brooklyn vowels of theirs that seemed to billow down the spine – perhaps at times even faster than their bilious jokes – you knew right away that Jewish people were a kind of cool that had a very unique and pronounced identity to it – something that had a weight and a timbre all its own. You knew this instantaneously and recognized it as a fact, even if you were too young to know what “Jewish” meant. You also got to witness in the most inspiring act of pop culture defiance yet that being Jewish meant having the courage and versatility to take part of anything that moved your soul, and that just as no one was going to tell MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D they couldn’t write some of the most pure and influential hip-hop ever recorded because they weren’t Black, no one had the market cornered on any other art forms either. As such, go into Songs For The Sparrows knowing ahead of time that the conodonts and paludal primroses Nefesh Mountain pry from the ever-settling sediment of the many rich, mixed identities they inhabit are never about self-minded ideas of “mud-honey” or any sort of material gain, faux nostalgia, or historiaster hype. This is a record about a return to the Garden. Yes, it can be done. Yes, there will be Jewish people singing old holy songs to new-familiar melodies in Hebrew there – because, like the Garden, bluegrass and Americana music belongs to anyone who believes in it. In point of fact, it happens to often be best rendered by the seemingly unlikely characters – much like all versions of heaven. Even the ones you find down here in our communal, all-inclusive human soul-dirt.