Song You Need: Eli Winter’s transcendent take on a Jewish tradition

Song You Need: Eli Winter’s transcendent take on a Jewish tradition

Julia Dratel

The FADER’s “Songs You Need” are the tracks we can’t stop playing. Check back every day for new music and follow along on our Spotify playlist.

Eli Winter’s new self-titled LP is a gorgeous piece of art from front to back, but its final two tracks (“Dayenu” and “Unbecoming”) push it into truly rarified air. The latter song, a string saga that explodes into ecstatic epiphanies of bowing and strumming every 30 seconds or so, captures eight and a half of the most beautiful minutes of music recorded in recent memory. But it’s the former cut that best encapsulates the album as a whole.

“Dayenu (דינו)” shares a name with one of Judaism’s most recognizable sonic standards, dating back over 1,000 years. It’s traditionally sung during the Passover seder after the telling of the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt as a tribute to the many miracles God performed to help them along their way, according to the Torah. It roughly translates to “It would have been enough” (“If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them, it would have been enough. If he had carried out judgment against them, and not against their idols, it would have been enough.” Et cetera.)

Winter’s rendition, however, is wordless. Like “Davening in Threes” from earlier in the album, it processes an ancient Jewish tradition — in that case, the liturgical recitation of prayer — through the American primitivist tradition of acoustic guitar playing (Winter’s preferred mode of expression). But “Dayenu” is a more expansive, complex document of the uniquely Jewish mix of gratitude and guilt its title implies.

Its first half finds Winter’s virtuosic fingerpicking applied to an electric guitar, accompanied by backing strings from another electric axe (Cameron Knowler) and a pedal steel (Sam Wagster). Tyler Damon, who drums on every track of the record other than its percussionless closer, arrives later, providing spirited rhythmic support to the harmonic maelstrom. Its second half, however, is where things get really interesting.

After a brief moment of silence, Winter and Co. resume their country-tinged lament, but the rhythm is more methodical and contains a trace of swing. These undercurrents come to a head in the seven-minute song’s final 90 seconds, when beloved jazz trumpeter jaimie branch joins the fray on flugelhorn, soaring above the mix to provide the song with a breathy and breathtaking finale. branch died Monday night at only 39 years old, and “Dayenu” was the last recording of her incomparable playing released before her passing. It’s a fine testament to her unmatched energy, a bright-burning flame she harbored within her heart and lungs until her final breath.