Idan Raichel is one of the most responsible musicians Israeli music has ever known. And when he issues an album under his name – rather than under The Idan Raichel Project, the most successful ensemble in Israeli music over the past 15 years – you can be certain that this decision will be based on something in the music itself. It’s not just a caprice.
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Although the minimalist and quiet nature of “Hayad Hahama” (The Warm Hand) does not differ drastically from the usual nature of the Project, it is different enough to separate this album from those of the Project. Raichel’s devoted fans will receive the familiar and known, though folded differently. It’s a safe bet that many of them will like the soft touch of “The Warm Hand.”
And what about someone who finds that Raichel’s music is not their cup of tea? Will the warm hand be able to thaw his cold heart? Will the soft touch strum on an emotional string that remains indifferent to the Project’s music? To judge by my own experience, the answer is “no.” My cold heart did not thaw, the soft touch did not strum on a string.
“There’s something blinding about our gentleness together,” sings Raichel in “Ma’agalim” (Circles), but there is something superficial and boring about the gentleness of his new album. Raichel wanted the quiet waters of “The Warm Hand” to run deep. To my ears this album is mainly foam on the surface of the water.
Why is there no real depth and beauty in the soft touch of “The Warm Hand”? One reason is Raichel’s singing. This is his first album in which he sings by himself, and his wishy-washy voice and presentation endow most of the songs with a neutral, pasteurized quality. Another problem is the melodies – some are pleasant, some are mediocre. It doesn’t sound as though a blast of nighttime melodic inspiration banged against the windows in Raichel’s studio.
And there is also the new-parent syndrome, which has been overly present recently in albums by Israeli singers and unfortunately enjoys pride of place in Raichel’s new album. One symptom of the new-parent syndrome is that the male singer who has become a father, or the female singer who has become a mother, feel a need to share their new experience of parenthood with us without any artistic processing.
A more problematic symptom of the new-parent syndrome, which is related to the superficial gentleness of “The Warm Hand,” is that the singers who have become fathers are flooded with a cautious and protective instinct. Instead of being inspired by the free spirit of their child dashing forth in the playground, they prefer to line the sliding pond area with cotton wool. That’s how their music sounds, and that’s especially problematic of course in singers who even when they were single were cotton-wool people, like Raichel.
Fatherhood has turned Raichel into a fearful person. The births have caused him to think about death. The word itself is mentioned quite often in the new album, but with the exception of one strong phrase (“If you die, at least it’s next to the sound of babies crying,” from “Desert Island”), Raichel doesn’t take these thoughts to interesting places.
In musical terms as well, there are brilliant ideas that are desert islands of originality in a standard sea. “Delet Mistovevet” (Revolving Door) is perhaps the best song on the album, and it contains one lovely moment when the chorus ends with an open jazzy-punk chord, as opposed to the closed and overly square nature of most of Raichel’s melodies. Even a guest appearance by the sintir, a Moroccan bass instrument, in the song “Behamesh Shniyot” (In Five Seconds) provides an unusual flicker of refreshing groove.
But the groovy moment loses some of its good taste because it appears on the last lap of the album, in which Raichel’s texts assume a didactic, kitschy and annoying change in direction. The last two songs, and especially “Lifnei Sh’yegamer” (Before It’s Over), which concludes the album, are written as a type of inferior guide to a meaningful Israeli life. Raichel wanted to write a contemporary prayer, but what emerged is something whose depth is reminiscent of a commercial break on TV.
Idan Raichel “The Warm Hand.” Helicon Records.