Mariachi Trumpets and Marvin Gaye Salutes: Veteran Israeli Singer Gali Atari Pulls It Off Again

The backup musicians in Atari’s new album obviously enjoy what they’re doing and provide a splendid background for Atari’s voice and her affinity with black American music.

Ohad Romano

The new album by Gali Atari (who released her first solo album in 1978), “Long Distance Love,” is enjoyable and estimable, and Atari is of course the first to merit accolades. Still, I feel that this review should open with compliments to Amos Ben David, the album’s arranger and producer, and to its three lead instrumentalists (along with Ben David on keyboard and percussion): guitarist Amit Yitzhak, bassist Benzi Gafni and drummer Alon Hillel.

Arrangers, producers and instrumentalists of Israeli mainstream albums in recent years don’t usually have their work referred to separately – and generally with good reason. The arrangements, production and playing on almost all the recent mainstream albums have been routine and uninspired. You listen and think: These people don’t enjoy what they’re doing, they’re only recycling what they think people want to hear. Which is peculiar, because people usually don’t want to listen to dull, pallid music.

So it’s a pleasure to listen to Atari’s new album and hear a group of musicians who enjoy what they’re doing and are trying to refresh the unabashedly middle-of-the-road dish they’re preparing with the help of spices that go beyond salt and pepper. The producer, Ben David, who is known largely for his involvement in television programs such as “The Next Star” and “Local Noise,” doesn’t have a saliently contemporary touch or an identifiable signature sound. But he does have taste and musicality and a sense of proportion, and he understands what’s feasible and what isn’t.

Almost every song on the album has a pocket or a layer that allows it to cross the bar of banality in a way that most local mainstream music does not. The Brazilian-like chorus in “Bread and Compassion”; the Phil Spector-like drumming and the 1960s-style 12-string guitars on “Little Girl”; the role of the guitar in “Moment of Quiet”; the mariachi trumpet in “Somebody Loves You”; the dialogue between the bass and the saxophone in “Make Way,” which sounds like a direct and surprising salute to the sound of Marvin Gaye in “What’s Going On”; and above all, the two small guitar plucks that are repeated over and over in “There in the Sky,” and undoubtedly quote the beloved guitar chords on Spandau Ballet’s “True.”

Flexible and dynamic

Atari contributed to this joy of playing and arranging, even if she wasn’t directly involved in putting it all together. To begin with, she chose, or at least approved, the people who shared in making the album. Second, and more important, there is something about Atari’s personality, her voice and her affinity for black American music that induce the creation for her of a flexible, dynamic musical environment, at least relatively. In a word, she’s got groove. It was always gentle and implicit, and has become even more so over the years, but it’s there. The arrangements make good use of it, and some of the tunes allow it to be given expression. Atari occasionally externalizes her yen for soul with a hearty “Mmmmm” that’s a delight to the ear.

Not all the songs on the album work; in some cases Atari’s groove disappears and gives way to an auntie-like respectability, accompanied of course by quasi-orchestral arrangements. This is particularly noticeable in the title song, which opens the album, and in “A Whole Life,” which concludes it. To my mind, both songs approach the regions of kitsch too closely and try very hard, and unsuccessfully, to be “The Windmills of Your Mind.” But those who don’t mind getting their “pop music for the elderly” with a large dose of sugar will like these songs, too – and as long as the lighter songs on the album balance their heft, the album as a whole isn’t affected.

Atari achieved the peak of her success in the 1980s with the albums “Middle of September” and “One Step Before the River.” Subsequently, even when her albums did less well, almost every one of them had at least one big hit, which is no small thing. There doesn’t appear to be a hit of this kind on the new album, which is probably just as well artistically speaking, because if the title song had become a big hit, it might have painted the whole album in its overly respectable colors and hidden the clearer, more bemused hues. In any event, when Atari performs at the amphitheater in Caesarea in three months, she’ll be able to draw not only on a rich and marvelous repertoire from the past, but also on a new album of which she can be proud.