The Shondes: Shameless in NYC
BY NEAL KARLEN | Updated 10/18/2013
Brooklyn’s Shondes offer musical alchemy and Yiddish radicalism.
In Yiddish, “shonde” technically means a “disgrace.” In private patois, however, a shonde (“shon-duh”) denotes an egregiously scandalous Jew whose behavior radiates shame upon all of his or her co-religionists. Think Ponzi-schemer Bernard Madoff, or steroid scofflaw Ryan Braun.
Then there are the Shondes, the Brooklyn-based indie band who will perform at Cause in Uptown on Sunday night. These Shondes’ recent release of “The Garden” hasn’t generated ethnic shame, but the kind of national plaudits that wouldn’t elicit a complaint even from Portnoy.
Rolling Stone has led the encomiums by declaring “The Garden” a delicious goulash of an album, “whose mix of riot-grrrl furor, arena bombast and klezmer stomp has earned them a worldwide cult.” Entertainment Weekly described the record as “giddy garage melodics with a Sleater-Kinney twist,” while the Washington Post’s critic simply opined that “The Garden” was “exactly what I need in my ears.” Indeed, “The Garden” represents an adventure in musical alchemy that powerfully resonates amid beats ranging on a spectrum from Rachmaninoff to the Ramones.
There is a reason for the Shondes’ hybrid sound and lyrics, says Louisa Rachel Solomon, the band’s lead singer, songwriter and bassist. When the four-person ensemble originally coalesced in 2006, she says, they were all best friends, who “all liked completely different kinds of music that were seemingly irreconcilable.”
Like an announcer ticking off a football team’s starting roster, Solomon runs down the musical oeuvres favored by the band, which includes violinist Elijah Oberman, guitarist Fureigh and drummer Temim Fruchter. Together, on “The Garden,” Solomon continues, they managed to meld “folk, punk, classical, Jewish liturgy, pop, soul, classic rock, loud raucous material, as well as whiny ,depressing stuff.”
The disparities in musical influences oftentimes reveal themselves even in each musician’s own personal preferences. “My two biggest heroes are Bruce Springsteen and Otis Redding,” Solomon says.
Ultimately, the Shondes’ ability to mold their divergent tastes into a convergent sound, she continues, was “because we had a lot of emotional common ground.” That made it possible, says Oberman, to come up with a successful, almost schizoid way of collaborating.
“The other day Louisa and I were working on a new song,” the fiddler says, “and I told her I didn’t like something [she’d] done. So she changed it, even though she disagreed, and she yelled in simultaneous exasperation and affection, ‘You make me crazy, and I still don’t think you’re right, but you made me write something better! It’s so annoying!’ ”
The band is as dedicated to left-wing activism as they are to their music — drummer Fruchter met the group when they were all protesting at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Among several other homages to the tradition of Yiddish radical political culture, Solomon has twice gone to the Middle East to work with Palestinians attempting to combat Israeli policies in the contested West Bank. She was spat on by ultra-right-wing Jewish settlers who viewed her — laboring side by side with Palestinian activists — as a disgraceful shonde, old-school.
“The music has given us an opportunity to talk politics and show pride in the Jewish radical tradition,” Solomon says, “while criticizing some small pockets of the community for racism, homophobia and our unfair designation as ‘shondes.’ We’re reclaiming the word.”