Israel's Once Grooviest Rocker Is Still Alive, but Not Kicking

Maor Cohen's new album, 'Summer Vacation,' has songs with an agreeable twist, but little more.

Something strange happens toward the end of the first song on Maor Cohen's new album: modulation. Cohen sings the chorus a scale higher than at the start of the song – a popular trick more common in kitschy pop.

It might be that Cohen was trying to be ironic, especially since the chorus in the song "Hozer al Hahayim" ("Returning to Life") reminds us of the hackneyed Keren Peles song "Im Ele Hahayim" ("If This Is Life").

But no other aspect of the song supports this theory. There's no irony here. Cohen is being completely serious. So why use this stale technique? Has something gone awry with the coolest Israeli singer of the past 20 years?

No. The following songs on Cohen's new album "Hahofesh Hagadol" ("Summer Vacation") – released eight years after his "Pirhei Hara" ("The Flowers of Evil") – show that his usual modus operandi is still intact. There's that modulation and a few other minor issues, but "Hahofesh Hagadol" has plenty of songs that express Cohen's diverse talents and ability to operate in many areas of pop.

"Eretz Kashah" ("Difficult Land") and "Ahava" ("Love") are ballads that in Arik Einstein's hands could have been gold, but they still show promise when performed by Cohen. "Holech al Habatuach" ("Playing it Safe") rides on a winning groove of light and airy synthesizers. "Al Tithatnu, Banot" ("Don't Get Married, Girls") – Cohen's galloping composition set to the breathtaking anti-bourgeois text by Boris Vian – is an explosion of energy that brings out the demon that Cohen has rarely expressed in recent years.

(In one line, Vian says the women he's addressing should hide dollars in the kitchen cupboard so that when they're "Age 50 in the arid season / You can buy the favors of boys / With straw in their heads and lots of curls." When you hear the last line, it's hard not to think of the curly-haired, playing-it-dumb boy Cohen was in the days of Ziknei Tzfat, the grunge-punk band he was in decades ago.)

"Hahofesh Hagadol" provides several more minor pleasures; the songs aren't necessarily good but provide an agreeable twist. "Eli" is basically a children's song, but somehow it works. "Mangina" ("Tune") is frivolous, but it hits the target when you notice it sounds like a song by female singer Ilanit in the early 80s.

But by the time these nuggets arrive – "Mangina" is the ninth song on the album and "Eli" the 10th – "Hahofesh Hagadol" has made clear it's finding it hard to hold together as an album. The problem isn't the songs, it's the glue that's meant to keep them together.

Part of the problem is the editing; the second part of the album flits among styles and moods without a logical progression. The album is missing a quality that's supposed to emerge from Cohen's personality and bridge the diverse sides of his creative experience: his nonchalant charm.

Even though this charm is present in isolated songs, it isn’t there the whole way. Cohen was never a great singer, but his shortcomings were usually offset by a nonchalant, elusive magic that let him perform a Frank Sinatra ballad next to the distortion frenzy of Ziknei Tzfat. But in the new album, too many songs sound heavy and off the mark.

Brilliant musical production may have solved the problem, but most of the songs are produced in a standard way. Another solution would have been to shorten and tighten "Hahofesh Hagadol." But Cohen – perhaps because of the long hiatus since his last album – went for a medium-to-large version at 13 songs and nearly 50 minutes. So we hear the flaws more than the genius.

David Bachar