Rita's new album is called "Hasmahot Sheli" ("My Joys" ) and the greatest joy of all, throbbing in it, is "Shah Dumad" ("The Groom King" ) - the fourth track on the CD. This is a glorious song that even taken alone, would unquestioningly have justified the singer's decision to record an album in Persian (there are also other justifications, though none of them brings Rita's Persian stew to such simmering perfection ).
What is it about "The Groom King" that manages to thrill even someone who is usually indifferent to Rita's charms, and even has reservations about some aspects of her artistic persona? A number of things. First of all, the energy and tempo. Rita has many assets as a singer, but groove isn't one of them. In this song, however, she's got groove. It's a song with such a driving beat that it seems to verge on a loss of control. Rita cooperates with this release of the mental brakes, and even enjoys it (this is evident mainly in the parts where she is half-speaking and half-singing, like someone who is being driven mad while falling in love - or is it out of jealousy? )
"The Groom King" is a wedding song with traditional roots, and as such it embodies passion, impetuousness and above all an aura of youth. Rita and youth? When was the last time those two paths crossed? One doesn't ask a woman her age, but Wikipedia reveals that in a few months Rita will turn 50, and in her recent albums she has sounded her age. Yet in this song, Rita suddenly sounds like a young singer.
Another thrilling thing about "The Groom King" is its arrangement by Ami Rice and Ran Elmaliach of Knesiat Hasechel, who produced the entire album. The arrangement combines Persian music with the joyful wind instruments of Balkan music. In the Persian original, judging by YouTube, there is no trace of this Balkan flavor.
What is lovely about the "ingathering of the exiles" that Rice and Elmaliach have concocted here is not only the rhythmic fuel additive the Gypsy music pours onto the original: It also creates a surprising interface between Rita, the queen of the consensus, and all the young Israeli combos that have been playing Balkan music in recent years. Rita, incidentally, was seen not long ago at a performance by the Boom Pam band. Was the idea of "balkanizing" the Persian song actually hers in the first place?
But the most beautiful thing about "The Groom King" - and this is to a large extent true of the album in its entirety - is that Rita isn't the main thing here. She sings in a voice that is unmistakable even when the language isn't Hebrew, and as a certified diva she does of course attract attention, but she herself is not the focus. This is not something to be taken for granted. In the evolution of every pop star there comes the stage when he is transformed from the performer of the songs on his album into the main, if not only, subject of those albums. This usually happens when his new songs become much less good than the songs that made him a star.
For her part, Rita entered this phase quite some time ago. When her last album, "Remazim" ("Clues" ), came out about four years ago, it raised questions like: Will she recover from the commercial failure of "Hamtzan" ("Oxygen" ), its immediate predecessor? How will her separation from her husband Rami Kleinstein be expressed? What is the meaning of the restrained tone that has suddenly slipped into her singing? And what juicy confessions will we hear from her on the television special with the promo promising "Rita tells all"?
Within that maelstrom, the songs of "Remazim" themselves (some of which, especially those for which Kleinstein composed the music, were beautiful ) played only a secondary role: They were the means that made possible a sense of the star's current persona.
On the new album, it seems, it is the songs themselves that are at the center. The star is still a star, but she has taken a step back. She is not the subject. The subject is the songs, the situations they depict, the emotions expressed in them and perhaps also the colors and textures of Persian music - or at least the aspects of it that Rita covers in this album.
If my emphasis on "The Groom King" leads to the impression that the other tracks on this album did not give me goose bumps - that impression is correct. However, this does not mean there aren't a number of other good songs on "My Joys." Rita knew what she was doing when she selected the numbers, and that applies especially to the tracks with a fast beat, where swift and tempestuous movement does not clash with melodic richness. Producers Rice and Elmaliach have highlighted this richness by means of full and complex (but not bombastic ) arrangements, with a meaty sort of presence that is not embarrassed to compete with Rita's vocal presence. Certainly she must have given her approval to the dominant nature of these musical accompaniments, and for this she should be complimented.
One reservation about the arrangements and the production: There are a number of tracks where the musical power is achieved through "rocker" means - like electric guitars and galloping drums. But Rita and rock are like oil and water. This is a combination that never sounds organic, even when the rock is Persian.
A second reservation, regarding both the producers and Rita, has to do with the quieter songs. "Dar In Donya" ("In This World" ), which comes immediately after "The Groom King," is an example: Its beat and melody are heavy and penetrating; at the outset it seems that Rita is about to dive into a deep well of expressiveness and feeling. But this does not happen. Perhaps a certain roughness that does not exist in her voice and personality was needed here.
A third reservation, which is my main one about this album, is connected to the two songs Rita sings in Hebrew, "Et Ktafekh" ("Your Shoulder" ) and "Ein Li" ("I Don't Have" ). Throughout "My Joys," the singer avoids her notorious tendency to confide, to whisper and to indulge herself; she maintains quite a straightforward approach, at least relative to herself. The only excessiveness she allows in the songs she sings in Persian is a kind of charming heavy sigh or wail at the ends of certain words, but when she sings in Hebrew, she is suddenly turbulent and overflowing. In "I Don't Have," this is bearable, but in "Your Shoulder," when she moans while singing, "In a sad body lives a flooded heart / calling to you, listen now" - I just could not help but think of comic Alma Zack imitating Rita on the satirical show "A Wonderful Country." Zack could have made mincemeat out of Rita singing in Persian, but on second thought, it's doubtful there would be justification for that: This album, on which Rita is a singer and not the star of a larger-than-life, personal-musical drama, is not really the stuff of parody.
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