WATCH: Tel Aviv Songstress Elevates Electronic Indie-pop in English

The new EP buy Rotem Or, who goes by the name of Totemo, contains some of the finest moments in recent Israeli pop music.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Totemo’s new album. Elusive interface between softness and groove.Credit: Michael Topyol
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Last month, Rotem Or, or Totemo, as she calls herself on her new EP, performed at the annual InDnegev festival. The venue of her short set (four or five songs), which was mostly a warmup for Garden City Movement, was the festival’s big stage, with many hundreds of people in the audience. The set didn’t go well, to put it mildly. With a little goodwill, you could imagine that the music had potential, but conditions were obviously not in her favor, depriving her of a presumed inner softness and yanking her into totally inappropriate vocal realms.

In fact, that was actually such a trivial episode that there’s no point in dredging it up again. It’s over and done with, and you move on. Nevertheless, it surfaced again in my thoughts, in a welcome negative way, when I listened to “Whois,” one of the five cuts on Totemo’s new EP, “Heavy as My Dreams” (BLDG5 Records). I have no idea whether the song was one of the numbers in that set, but if it was, there’s no doubt that done live, in front of all those people, it sounded far inferior to the recorded version. A delightfully ironic touch overlies the song’s loveliness, revealed in home listening, when Totemo sings, “Sometimes all I really need is a smaller crowd.” (All the songs are in English.)

To be part of that small crowd, you need a basic fondness for the genre in which Or works. It can be called – excuse the gender labeling – feminine electronic indie-pop. I’d been largely indifferent to the genre, but a marvelous album, “Cut 4 Me,” by the American singer Kelela, who, to be precise, does electronic soul, opened the chakras for me last year. Since then, the material has been doing it for me, including local artists, more and more of which are, happily, emerging (Flora, KerenDun & Echo, Adi Ulmansky).

To generalize, what I hear in the music of these singers – a group with which Rotem Or reinforces her affiliation in the new EP (released two years after her debut album) – is greater vitality, creativity, pleasure and feeling, than in the female indie singers of the guitar-strumming or keyboard-playing type. It might be the blurring of the boundaries between a song in its pop sense and an electronic track with a freer structure that makes the songs of the female practitioners of computerized pop more attractive – allowing them to capture and express elusive feelings and find the equally elusive point of interface between softness and groove. A case in point: Totemo’s new EP.

Some aspects of the album are less successful (Or’s voice is too small, there are moments when the English-language writing and singing don’t sound natural, and there is one cut, “Opposite of Charm,” in which the influence of Garden City Movement – one of whose members, Roy Avital, co-produced the EP with Or – is excessive). But those shortcomings are outweighed by the moments of beauty that shine through in “Heavy as My Dreams” and “Host,” and are positively luminous in “Whois,” which to my mind is one of the loveliest Israeli pop cuts of the recent past. Its clean, limpid sound overlies a developing, relatively ramified structure, which gradually reveals all the layers of the song, and the transition to the floating chorus is pure joy. Or, more precisely, three pure joys: the first time in a continuous, round flow; the second time in a sharp, staccato burst; and the third time in a fusion of the two. People who are turned on by things like this, like me, will love it.

In the last cut, “Time to Shine,” the soft, dreamlike sound gives way to a more direct and earthy approach, even if the affinity for 1980s pop remains intact. If Kate Bush is the meta-inspiration for “Whois,” “Time to Shine” is more in the direction of The Bangles, which is also fine. The song’s punch line – “This is everybody’s time to shine” – is composed and sung in the tone of a unifying stadium anthem, or as close as an artist like Or can get to that. If it unites her “smaller crowd” in a live performance, it will be a shining scene, well worth watching.