The members of Balkan Beat Box made an amusing tactical mistake on one of the songs on their new album. The song is called “Hard Worker” and in the opening moments, Tomer Yosef rhymes drama, trauma, Dalai Lama, pajama, Osama, and ties it all up with – “And if you want I can also be Obama.” In normal times, dropping the American president’s name would be a brilliant move, but these are not normal times. Balkan Beat Box’s new album came out just a few days after the election of Donald Trump. “Obama,” hitherto a signifier of equality and style, had suddenly become irrelevant. Balkan Beat Box is a band with its finger on the pulse. The Obama mention turned out to be a rare, brief lapse in that regard.
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It certainly doesn’t mean that Balkan Beat Box is stuck in some bygone reality or has any illusions that the world is a just and enlightened place. On the contrary. In fact, BBB’s latest album is really quite relevant for the start of the Trump era; there are moments that seem to have been written about the possibility that all the liberals’ worst nightmares could come true.
One of the best songs on the album is called “Mad Dog.” Against a menacing-sounding beat that conjures an apocalyptic scene of devastated streets, Yosef sings: “I’m a good boy when I’m by myself / and I’m a mad dog when I’m with my friends.” It’s a song about a guy who only finds his place in the world when he’s part of the mob. “Fuck all the ‘be good’ and ‘do what you can,’” Yosef cries, “I have a low self-esteem / I need to be in a team,’” giving voice to someone who yearns to wreck the system. “Mad Dog” appears about 15 minutes after the song “Chin Chin,” whose protagonist chases obsessively after big money and its perks. A song about mob rule and a song about the ugly lust for money – What an apt combination for the present moment. The members of BBB – Tomer Yosef, Tamir Muskat and Ori Kaplan – could be added to the short list of people who foresaw Trump’s rise.
“Mad Dog” is interesting for two other – musical – reasons that demonstrate BBB’s innovations on their new album, and its beauty and relevance. The first is the chaser – what BBB calls the instrumental tails they’ve attached to two songs on the album – “Mad Dog” and “This Town.” These are short additions, just a minute or so in both cases, but allow them to play with the original piece and paint it in a different shade. With “Mad Dog,” the chaser works especially well for those who like repetitive hip-hop beats. It recalls the ghostly sound of Wu-Tang Clan producer RZA, and sounds like a march that isn’t going anywhere. Amazing wind instruments suddenly appear, and abruptly come to an end. A sea of music in one minute and seventeen seconds. A wonderful concept, this chaser thing.
Thrilling to hear
The other interesting thing about “Mad Dog” is its structure. It has the DNA of a more-or-less standard song, which is not the norm for BBB. Most of the band’s tracks are based on the aesthetics of the beat, not on the song format, and BBB really knows how to work with this aesthetic. It’s their bread and butter. But when they add a good song on top of that beat, it’s cause for even more joy. The best example of this welcome deviation on the new album is “I Trusted You.” The next time someone complains to you that no one’s writing great songs here anymore, play them this terrific one. The moment when it comes to the chorus and explodes with the line – “Who got shot, who’s the one standing still” – is sonic euphoria.
One of the things that makes “I Trusted You” such a great song is Tomer Yosef. The album shows excellent progress on this front too. Yosef is not a natural singer. He started as an actor, and for years has been known as a superb performer who burns up the stage, and who can also grab a microphone and sing. BBB’s show at the last InDnegev Festival shook up this image. What came out of Yosef’s throat there had the force of true singing. It was kind of thrilling to hear, and seemed to contain a kind of message that many of our indie singers would do well to take in. Singing that has real power isn’t necessarily a matter of the right vocal cords, but more a product of personality, of attitude. This new album only reinforces that impression of Yosef’s singing.
The album does have some weak points. The opening track, “Give It A Tone,” comes across as a bit of a trifle. “Hard Worker” loses momentum just when it needs it most, and closing track “This Town” could have used a more exciting punch line. “Just the Same,” about the joys of mid-life couplehood doesn’t really take off – In general, when BBB sings about their actual lives, their pencil seems a little less sharp. But these are minor quibbles. “Shout It Out” is a rousing, relevant and very good album that further boosts Balkan Beat Box’s (already solid) standing as the best Israeli band of the past decade.
Balkan Beat Box – “Shout It Out” (Digital Monkey)