At the end of “Osher Express” (Happiness Express), Shlomo Artzi’s new CD, there’s a quiet little song called “Shelo Ye’almu Hadvarim Hayafim” (which means, roughly, “Don’t let the nice things disappear”). “I couldn’t decide whether to leave this song in the album,” writes Artzi in the booklet that accompanies the disc. “It beat out several other “rhythm songs,” but only because what I’m saying here I consider to be the height of naivete − something I would like to say to you when I come to sing.”
Artzi is totally right, but also totally wrong. He is right in saying that the song had to stay in the CD − but he’s wrong, in my opinion, about his reason: The song is an important addition to “Happiness Express” not because its lyrics are so naive − they’re actually quite a lot of such texts in this album − but because it has a beautiful melody.
Melodic beauty has not been one of the outstanding qualities of Artzi’s recent albums, nor is there much of it in the new one. Therefore, when he finally comes up with such beauty, the kind that is an exception to his unexciting pattern of the past decade and a half, he has to grab it by the collar and lead it respectfully into whatever album he’s working on. But his reason for leaving this track in the CD (“because what I’m saying here I consider to be the height of naivete”) can be seen as proof that actually the veteran singer doesn’t attribute so much importance to the beauty of the melodies. Is that surprising? Not really. His previous CDs also seemed to show that although he is capable of composing good melodies, that quality no longer interests him very much.
A song like “Shelo Ye’almu” makes it clear that a good melody is in fact vital. Like a few other tracks on this CD, this song is a kind of prayer. It may not be a coincidence that words incorporating the Hebrew root lamed-het-shin (to whisper) are heard repeatedly throughout those songs. There is mention in them of God here and there, but for the most part these songs constitute a sort of secular “Tefilat Haderekh” (Traveler’s Prayer), which Artzi seems to murmur or whisper to himself and his loved ones. For example, he sings “I hope that you won’t experience bad things, that you won’t have a sad day, that you’ll be moved ...” (“Ma Lehagid Lakh” − “What Can I Tell You”); “I hope we have another successful day, which will make our life here soar ... and courage, again courage / When nothing resembles anything any more” (“Ometz” − “Courage”); “And don’t let the nice things disappear / from our eyes every day / Let us know how to internalize, let us know how to distinguish / between good and bad” (“Shelo Ye’almu”)
As you can see from these examples, Artzi’s so-called traveler’s prayers do not in themselves have much power as written texts. When they are borne on a delicate and beautiful melody, which turns the moment they are uttered into a unique and one-time event − then there’s hope for them. That’s what happens in “Shelo Ye’almu” and in “Ometz.” On the other hand, when Artzi’s prayers come in a musical wrapper that is not beautiful, not delicate, not special, they not only lose whatever power they might have had, but the banality of the text is compounded by the banality of the music, with the result being songs that sound recycled.
In the final analysis, the attempt to understand what the successful prayers in “Happiness Express” have in common, and what differentiates them from the banal ones, can be summed up in one word: drums. Or to be more precise, their absence. In my opinion, the more beautiful songs in Artzi’s CD are those in which the drummer went out on a cigarette break. There are three such songs: We’ve already mentioned “Ometz” (which features an accordion and a piano) and “Shelo Ye’almu” (prominent strings in the forefront). They are joined by the title track, which features a small but negligible role for drums (which enter only toward the end, and even then pale in comparison to the banjo’s very original and marvelous contribution).
But when Artzi’s drummer returns from his cigarette break, it marks resumption of a tiresome routine, and that’s what happens in almost all the other nine tracks on the album. Suddenly the music sounds heavy, formulaic, a little awkward, not breathing, lacking groove. Artzi − who produced the album together with Patrick Sabag; with arrangements by Ben Artzi, his son − calls these “rhythm songs,” but if rhythm is supposed to be a dynamic and exciting element, these are not rhythm songs but simply songs with drums.
“Pay attention, the good comes with a thin silence,” sings Artzi in his uninspired duet with Arik Einstein.
In the case of the beautiful, quiet songs on the new album, the ones without drums, he is absolutely right. The not-good, on the other hand, comes along with a tired bass drum, a dull snare and a yawningly boring structured bass guitar, which remove the intimate and sensitive aspects of the music − and perhaps the melodic potential as well − from most of Artzi’s traveler’s prayers, and despite its good moments, turn “Happiness Express” into a mediocre album.
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