Fans of Idan Raichel, particularly people who go to his concerts, surely noticed his subtle little habit a long time ago. I just discovered it now with the release of "Habayita, Haloch Hazor" ("Traveling Home" ) - the triple CD concert album by the most successful "projector" in the history of Israeli pop.
Raichel, as fans will admit, is not a superb vocalist; indeed, "bland" would be a good way to describe his voice. The new album by the Idan Raichel Project does not suddenly reveal him to be a brilliant singer - far from it. It is impossible to ignore the minor yet significant vocal "gesture" that recurs practically every time Raichel lets his four accompanying singers rest and he takes the microphone.
This gesture involves interjecting the word "ken" ("yes "), sometimes emphatically, at certain strategic points in the songs. Sometimes it's at the end of a phrase, as if he is saying to himself, "Yes, I did it"; at other times, it's before a dramatic turning point in the music and sounds like a form of self-encouragement ("Yes, you can do it" ). Either way, it is a little habit that is evident only in concerts (as far as I recall, no "yes" appears in songs on Raichel's studio-recorded albums ), where it is systematically repeated.
The first time, in the song, "She'eriot Shel Hahaim" ("Scraps of Life" ), it is a slightly shy "yes." The second time, in "Hinach Yafah" ("Thou Art Beautiful" ), it is a little less inhibited. And the third time, in "Halomot Shel Aherim" ("Other People's Dreams" ), it winds up the song with what sounds like a victory cry (and rightly so: It is one of the best tracks on the album, if not the best ); there is also a fourth time, in "Minee Kolekh Mibekhi" ("Refrain Thy Voice from Weeping" ). This collection of spontaneous cries reflects the added value that live performances sometimes have over studio albums.
This relative spontaneity, at least for Raichel, who is generally very restrained, is just one reason why "Traveling Home" is a very successful album. The pieces recorded here, from the band's recent tour, are carefully organized and feature performances by select groups of woodwinds and stringed instruments that benefit from fine arrangements. Also, along with Raichel's regular contingent of singers are the Colombian vocalist Marta Gomez and a Rwandan singer named Sumi. This is also the first time that Raichel has collected his big hits into a single album and after a nine-year, meteoric career, he has earned the right to do so. There is no reason why his fans will not be pleased with this triple album.
For my part, I am not a natural consumer of these CDs. For every five Israelis who enjoy Raichel's music, there is one who is bored by it, and I am among them. I can marvel at Raichel's skill as a pop "engineer" who knows how to aim at the very heart of local taste; I can occasionally be impressed by his melodies - but in general, his music does not move me in any particular way, to put it mildly.
In my view, there is something watered down about Raichel's work. Extremely watered down, in fact. The first and obvious "pillar" of his work is the production of music with an easy-to-digest pop coating. That's the first thing that is watered down.
The second and less obvious pillar is Raichel's connection to old-time Hebrew music, which wields a significant influence on him (you can hear echoes of Naomi Shemer in his work, for example ). His greatness as a popular artist lies in his ability to translate this influence into a contemporary and original musical language. But the fact that this language may be contemporary and original does not contradict the fact that Raichel dilutes the power of the old Hebrew music by not adhering to its very high melodic and textual standards. That is the second example of watering things down. Raichel is a talented composer, but he is too one-dimensional for my taste. You will not find in his work the flowing complexity of the old-time songs, nor will you find any of their humor. His music is very serious, very naive and nice, but it lacks punch.
Furthermore, his music also lacks a strong beat, which is to me perhaps his biggest shortcoming. True, the new album has a few rhythmic sections, but they are the exception. Most Idan Raichel Project songs move at a cautious pace: They are "square," disciplined, with no energy or dynamic - and the fact that the percussionist, Roni Ivrin, is an excellent musician does not save the day. It is therefore rather amazing that the Israeli performer most associated with African music - which is virtually a Garden of Eden of beats - is one of the more rhythmically challenged musicians on the local music scene, which is fairly rhythmically challenged anyway. And when you think about it, it is pretty amazing that Israeli music is so rhythmically challenged, given that our reality changes at such a hectic pace.
Raichel is undoubtedly the most notable performer to emerge during the past decade, the decade whose defining moment was the second intifada.
Assuming that the social justice protest is the defining moment of the coming years, it will be interesting to see what the most dominant musician of this decade will sound like. There is a pretty good chance that he will be the anti-Raichel.