An orthodox Jew who kicks it dancehall style, Matisyahu may seem a gimmick, but he's the real deal. Unfortunately, he's struggling with the sophomore jinx on Youth, an album that expands upon his debut, 2004's Shake Off the Dust... Arise, without capturing its immediacy or excitement, thanks in large part to producer Bill Laswell. No stranger to genre-combining -- he's remixed Bob Marley and Miles Davis and is always up for any world music versus electronica excursion he's offered -- Laswell treats Matisyahu like so many of his previous subjects. He can't resist adding a sound effect swoop and other studio trickery to most tracks, and he often makes Matisyahu's band sound gigantic and polished when they're really tight and free. While the whole affair is great for showing off bass-heavy speakers, the live and exciting Matisyahu that makes the jam band crowd go crazy is hard to find and the tasteful studio touches of his home-brewed debut are absent. His material is also going through some growing pains, but there is growth and for every song that wanders a bit too much, there's a revelation that fleshes out the artist. The spiritual message was always bigger than the man before, but the sparse "What I'm Fighting For" is a surprisingly intimate track while "Dispatch the Troops" flippantly quotes the Police, an unexpected twist from a man who always seemed stately to a fault, even when he was doing the human beatbox thing. At the time of Youth's release, Shake Off the Dust... Arise was out of print and one has to wonder if Matisyahu's new label, Sony, was behind it. Arise's great "King Without a Crown" appears again here and Sony decides to push the single as if this is Matisyahu's grand entrance. That's a total misrepresentation of Youth, which is really more about a talented artist struggling with the pressures of topping his brilliant first album. Even if he didn't, and even if he or the label chose the wrong producer for the undertaking, Youth is meaty enough to suggest this man is no gimmick but an artist with his eye on the long haul.
AllMusic Review by David Jeffries