New Under the Sun

Amazing. There is no other word to describe the encounter with the voice, talent, sensitivity, emotion and spirit of Ruth Dolores Weiss. But since the word has long lost all meaning due to overuse, let's say it another way: There are quite a few moments on Weiss' new album, "Be'ivrit" ("In Hebrew"), that cause the mouth to gape open and make the eyes see the world a little differently, and sometimes even cloud over with tears.

Musician and music critic David Peretz, one of the first to hear Weiss' songs, said it was like discovering Billie Holiday or Bjork in Ashkelon - her hometown. Her new album shows that Peretz was not exaggerating. Not by much, anyway.

Weiss has for years inhabited the soft margins of the local music industry and even cut a lovely mini-album four years ago. Her strange voice, the fact that she has so far sung in English, the eccentricity of her persona, her allusion to such sources of inspiration as jazz, blues and Tom Waits - all these have so far limited her audience to a small circle of alternative music buffs. If there is any justice in the world, her new album will change all that - also, but not only, because Weiss is now singing in Hebrew for the first time.

"Mishirey eretz ahavati" ("Songs of My Beloved Country") was released as a single six months ago, with no dramatic results. It was not played much on the radio, understandably enough: Something about her delivery of the song is almost frightening. Weiss revealed in an interview that it took 30 or 40 tries before she could sing it without bursting into tears, but even in the "restrained" performance, she sounds on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I, too, was startled by it at first, although her performance immediately showed that this was an artist to reckon with. What can you do with all that raw emotion charging at you? And why do the words emerge from Weiss' mouth so twisted and mangled? But that is precisely the point. The combination of shouting and stuttering, of the desire to get it all out, on top of the difficulty of speaking at all - this is one of the qualities that makes "In Hebrew" such a fine, special album.

The landscape of Israeli female vocalists is divided between the grandiose divas (Rita, Miri Mesika) and the classic, restrained singers (Chava Alberstein, Rona Kenan). If you like Rita, you don't like Rona, and vice versa. Weiss appears in this landscape as a beautiful UFO: an anti-Rita, but also an anti-Rona. An artist who understands the power of restraint, but also the power of crying out.

The album cover shows Weiss in a field of wheat - an idyllic scene disrupted by the singer's unnatural position and the hair covering her eyes. Nature, in all its beauty and cruelty, is sharply present in Weiss' world. Her songs suggest a blurring of the boundary that separates the soul from everything around it, an immersion in the world and an opening-up to it - 100 times more beautiful and profound than all the slogans about connecting to the earth that the "laid-back" proponents of Israeli pop like to recite.

Weiss' heart-rending vocals and beautiful texts are complemented by good melodies (hers) and wonderful arrangements (also hers, along with Yehu Yaron and Ofir Vander). On the one hand, the music reflects the stormy intensity of the singing and lyrics; on the other hand, it often has an airy, floating quality that keeps the songs from becoming too heavy and desperate.

Weiss and her collaborators wisely chose to open the album with "Giliti shemesh" ("I Discovered the Sun"), a smoothly gliding (and sublime) soul piece that seems to give Weiss permission to light her vocal fire in the songs that follow. By the time "Songs of My Beloved Country" arrives, at track No. 7, her unique language and the album's musical depth are so clear that the initial frightening quality of the performance disappears, and only the beauty remains. When she continues with the same burning grief into the next song, "Heye na tov elay" ("Be Good to Me"), it becomes too much. "Ashkelon" pulls the album back on track, and "Shir nechama" ("Song of Comfort"), with Sefi Tsizling's wonderful flugelhorn, evokes not only the spirit of Tom Waits, but that of Robert Wyatt.

The album ends with a surprise: a chapter from Ecclesiastes. "And there is nothing new under the sun," Weiss reads/sings. But under the sun of Israeli music, there is indeed something new.

Weiss will launch this wonderful album in two performances at the Levontin 7 Club in Tel Aviv, on September 17 and 18. A must-see.