Sometimes it’s not good when a singer is also an actress. When Israeli singer Ester Rada sings “Four Women,” one of four songs by American legend Nina Simone on Rada’s new EP "I Wish," she acts the parts of the women in the song. It’s particularly striking in the last two stanzas, when the prostitute Sweet Thing and rebel Peaches appear.
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Rada flirts in her first role and storms through the second. Because she’s a fabulous singer and a good actress, it all works to a certain extent. But on a deeper level — and the song does have the tragic depth of many Simone songs — Rada’s tactic comes across as too simplistic and obvious, leaving a sense of a missed opportunity.
We don’t have to compare Rada’s version to Simone’s original, nor should we. It wouldn’t be fair to the Israeli, who took a risk when she decided to cover one of the greatest singers of the 20th century.
But the new incarnation has to have an interesting substance of its own, and Rada’s version just doesn’t do that. Rada plays the characters in the song but doesn’t really get into their skin. This makes her performance, and to some extent the album as a whole, a bit superficial.
Rada was wise in not falling into the trap of trying to imitate Simone. When it comes to the sound and the groove, she takes “Four Women” and the other three songs on the album to another place entirely. She shifts the rhythm at strategic junctures.
But in her decision to play the characters in the song, and even more so in a predictable way, she clips the wings of her own imagination. An album covering Nina Simone needs every millimeter of those wings and a bit more, sometimes a huge amount more.
If the other three songs — “Feeling Good,” Sinnerman” and “I Wish” — had taken off, there would be no reason to pick on “Four Women.” But they don’t, even if they don’t crash and burn. And this newspaper has only praised Rada’s singing and presence over the past three years — more than any other Israeli vocalist.
In any case, it bears repeating that Rada’s band is very good. Yinon Peretz on trumpet, Gal Dahan on saxophone and Maayan Milo on trombone are outstanding. Dan Mayo on drums and Idan K on percussion are a winning duo. It’s also nice to hear how they and Rada take some of the songs in the direction of the Afrobeat genre, for example.
But less satisfying is the musicians’ role as backing vocalists on “Sinnerman” — they deliver a kind of pseudo-gospel. Here, like the unsatisfying opening with “Four Women” and the album cover with Rada in an Afro wig, there’s the sense we’re experiencing a nice but one-dimensional performance.