Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, goes the famous saying. But sometimes writing about music is like listening to architecture. The old, neglected tenement building on the cover of the new – though not entirely new – album of the rock duo Avodot Afar (literally, “earthwork”) looked at me for a few months from the CD shelf and seemed to say, “Give me a chance. Maybe you flipped through me too fast, didn’t listen closely enough. Free yourself from the story you put me into. Remember the start of that story, listen properly to the new album, and you’ll see that the ending you told yourself is wrong.”
“Anglit Shevura” (Broken English), the third album of Avodot Afar (Yonatan Turgeman and Asaf Hazan) did in fact fit immediately – too immediately – into a three-act story of doleful listening. The first act played out three years ago, with the release of the duo’s debut album. Turgeman and Hazan came out of nowhere, complete unknowns, and their album was, to my ears, one of the best debuts in Israeli music in recent years. The terrific intimate pop exploited well the unjustly abandoned duo format: less than a band but more than one singer. There’s considerable potential in that range, and Avodot Afar realized it with much sensitivity, thought and talent.
The second act took place a year after the debut album, but that second album was one of the big disappointments of 2013. Turgeman and Hazan thickened their sound, shed the intimate airiness of the first album and totally lost their singularity. Second-album crisis, big-time.
The first time I listened to “Broken English,” which was released last January, it struck me as a direct continuation of the second album. The sound was different, less full than the previous album, but again it seemed to lack distinctiveness. Nor did the songs seem very impressive, aside from sporadic creative sparks. And what’s with the title? Aren’t Turgeman and Hazan familiar with Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English”? Instant conclusion: Avodot Afar had it, then lost it, and it looks as if they won’t get it back. Next.
But hang on a minute. Rewind. A more serious, more patient listening to “Broken English” turns the story upside down. It’s not a continuation of the second-album crisis, it’s the third-album recovery. Before explaining how and why the change occurred, I have to say that this is not only an “objective” assessment but also attachment on the emotional level. In fact, it’s more of an attachment than an assessment. I think this is a good album, but I like it as though it were a very good album.
In part, the transformation of the heart wrought by re-listening to “Broken English” is related to my better understanding of the stylistic choice made by Turgeman and Hazan (together with their two main instrumentalist partners, Adam Shaflan on bass and Barak Kram on drums). The only name for it is soft rock, a loaded term that some music lovers object to. But the term “soft” in a rock-music context is amenable to two different interpretations, bad and good. Bad rock softness simply attests to inability – like Tony Soprano saying to someone mockingly, “You’re too soft.”
Whereas good softness consciously forgoes rock’s power and momentum and diverts all its resources to other, more gentle channels of expression, which nevertheless are related to rock in sound and content. Probably the Israeli musician whom Avodot Afar brings to mind most is Micha Shitrit.
What anchors and justifies Avodot Afar’s choice of soft rock is the fascinating disparity between the character of the music and the spirit that emanates from the lyrics. The texts are highly dynamic. They’re in constant, restless motion. Nor is that surprising, given the fact that many of the album’s songs are about adolescence. In fact, the youth experience is so ingrained in “Broken English” that even songs that don’t deal with it are textually carried along on its dynamic fuel and hurtle it into the present of Turgeman and Hazan, who look like they’re in their late twenties or early thirties. A few samples: “Run like the wind blows, from a thousand miles take a first step,” “Close the door, go out into the day blind Keep moving even if you’re not sure, you don’t know all in a given situation,” “Let’s go play music in the south / Take some Coca-Cola on the trip / Get drunk on brown sugar / White dope has long since lost its zip.” Even though the “brown sugar” reference evokes the Rolling Stones, the song from which those last lines come, “Andy,” contains one of the most joyous musical salutes by Israeli musicians to Bruce Springsteen. Someone needs to play it urgently for Shlomo Artzi.
The gap between the textual freneticism and the more moderate gait of the music is the gap between adolescence and the place from which Turgeman and Hazan remember it. That’s a fine justification for soft rock. And because every soft-rock album has to have one marvelous piano ballad, this is the place to praise the lovely “Song that Comes from a Different Time.” It sounds like a song from the duo’s first album (and in that sense really does come from a different time), and is a serious candidate for the title of the year’s best Hebrew piano ballad.