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Chava Alberstein

Rounder

Ben Mink, the producer who polished the boots of cowgirl k.d. lang (Ingenue, Absolute Torch and Twang)—and who plays that most luxe of instruments, the viola—imbues his work with soigne grace to match his surname. Couple him with the smoky-honey alto of Israeli singer Chava Alberstein and you’ve got the stuff of high romance. Mink worked with Alberstein and the Klezmatics on 1998’s The Well, a collection of Yiddish poems set to music by Alberstein. Now, on Foreign Letters, Alberstein takes the experiment one step further, adding words in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English to emotional and sometimes plangent melodies. As the title suggests, the lyrics are about crossing borders of language, geography, and mortality; the music takes the same polyglot approach. Mink’s viola and Teddy Borowiecki’s accordion and piano throb with Middle Eastern passion; Alberstein’s delivery suggests French chansons. Though she can dredge up a Weltschmerz worthy of Dietrich, she never sounds jaded: You hear in the upswing of her voice a determination to keep reaching across the barriers, whatever the cost. The vivid and humorous “Passport Control” (“He looks at me suspiciously/He keeps turning my passport/From side to side/I want to say: ‘You read from right to left’/Why did I take the picture without glasses/And why did I have to cut my hair before the trip”) evokes a pre-2001 kind of airport panic. Even more strikingly, “The Secret Garden” employs metaphoric language that is positively, though not exclusively, Islamic: “One day/When we discover the hidden gate/We’ll rejoice and then escape/To the secret garden/Dangerous, tamed beasts/Will eat from the palm of my hand/And in your hand you’ll hide/A key to my heart.” —Pamela Murray Winters