Review: Yael Naim’s “Yael Naim”

Mar 18, 2008 4:35pm

You’ve heard her song “New Soul” in the new MacBook Air ad, but you probably didn’t know exactly who she was.  Introducing Yael Naim, a Parisian-born, Tel Aviv-based singer who is ready to storm the coffee-houses with her sweet voice.  The twist is that the majority of the album is actually sung in Hebrew.  One look at the lyric sheet and that will be immediately apparent.  This twist just makes things interesting.  It seems strange that her album is self-titled because according to the cover the disc is co-credited to her collaborator, David Donatien.  (His name is written in very small font…) Why credit him at all on the cover if all the press only names her?  It’s an odd and unusual move.     The first few lines of the opening track “Paris,” are in French before switching to Hebrew.  It has a mellow easiness to it, with a classically French vibe.  Indeed, it is subtle as it softly flutters along. Next is “Too Long,” the disc’s first song in English. It sounds like a dramatic movie theme.  The guitar plucking, rhythm and minor-key scale equally combine both the French and Israeli influences in her music.  If you have a television, no doubt you have heard “New Soul.”  One listen summons visions of someone sticking a full, thin laptop into a legal-sized envelope.  All at once, Naim recalls everyone from Regina Spektor to Corinne Bailey Rae to another singer with ties to Paris and Israel, Keren Ann.  The track is such a collision of styles that one could probably write a whole dissertation on its musical influences.  Most obviously, it has elements of tin-pan-alley and Dixieland (a soft oompa-oompa horn-section) filtered through a retro brand of “Free to Be You and Me” optimism.  Perhaps all of these reasons are why this track has grown from the little-track-that-could into a hip marketing centerpiece.  Add in Naim’s infectious “la la” chorus and the angelic-sounding choir at the end of the track, and you have 3:45 of undeniably dense pop dynamite.  It’s going to be a hard single to follow up.  The next song “Levater (Give Up)” would indeed work as a second single, since its melody is haunting and catchy.  It burns and twists and softly creeps along.  But in order for it to be a hit, radio has to open its ears to a song completely sung in Hebrew.  They should.  A beautiful song is a beautiful song whether you understand the lyrics or not. “Shelcha (Young)” is next.  It’s another soft and effective melody with Naim at a high, near whisper, backed by a sweeping string-section.   While it isn’t quite as strong as the two songs before it, it nevertheless hits gold midway.  “Lonely” is a sad lullaby-style ballad. As Naim allows her protagonist to wallow in sadness, she offers comfort. “Far Far” may more likely be the follow-up to “New Soul,” though, it is a much slower song about “a little girl.. praying for something big to happen to her.” It comes off as a little heavy and self-important, but it’ll find its audience.  “Yashanti (I Was Sleeping)” follows, and as it comes on, you wonder if the album will ever pick up again quite like it did on “New Soul.”  Still, this is another well-done, beautiful soft ballad. It is however time for some oomph! But no oomph is around on “7 Baboker (7 in the Morning.)”  It’s just more delicate, softly sung coffeehouse singer-songwriter output.  It’s great,, but if you are looking for a pick-me-up, you won’t find it here or in the next track, “Lachlom (Dream).” Though, that song has some really nice string-work and atmospheric elements. All of a sudden, the disc takes a truly unexpected turn with an equally soft but sultry cover of the Britney Spears hit “Toxic.”  If you’ve been paying attention to music as of late, you may recall last year that Mark Ronson delivered a cover of the song on his album “Version.”  Why is this a song so many want to cover?  It is hard to say, but both covers best the original twenty times over.  Naim slows the song down considerably and cuts it down to a skeleton.  Without all the flash and bounce of the Spears version it shines on its own as a song rather than a studio concoction.  “Pachad (Fear)” begins the kind of brief piano solo you’d expect from a Dave Brubeck album and it morphs into one of the more beautifully mellow tracks on here.  It has one of the strongest melodies, and as she sings, her watery piano lines punctuate her phrasing.  A buried beat and some other sonic elements enter the mix.  This too, would make a good single, but again because it is in Hebrew, it faces potential roadblocks to radio.  No doubt, though, it is definitely a highlight! Similarly, the album’s closer, “The Endless Song of Happiness (Shir Haosher Hanitschi)” is flowing and dynamic as it blossoms into a waltz. Yael Naim is a find, indeed.  Her musical style may recall others, but her linguistic twist may be a way to stick out from the pack.  “New Soul” is most definitely the best song on the album, but it is all worth a listen.  It’s an album full of soft-spoken whimsy.

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