Israeli Viral Sensation Kutiman Releases New Album, and It's Road-trip Worthy

He’s got a terrific ear, rhythmic wisdom and groove, along with his characteristic sound. But Kutiman’s new album shows that his imagination as a composer is less developed than his skills as a producer.

Kutiman.
Ben Palhov

It doesn’t matter where you find yourself when you listen to the new album by Kutiman (driving along a highway is an appropriate and highly recommended option). When the song titled “Dangerous” comes up, you will almost certainly conjure up a split computer screen on which all kinds of anonymous people are making music. In other words, the same integrated image of sound and picture that Kutiman (Ophir Kutiel) designed a few years back in his album “ThruYou,” which gained him worldwide fame and made him the only Israeli musician whose aesthetic is burnt, to some degree, into the global collective consciousness.

The split screen will be evoked at a specific point in the song: when the voice of Adam Scheflan (who sings most of the album’s songs) recedes temporarily into the background as a smoke-shrouded saxophone suddenly bursts into the forefront and proceeds to improvise on an Ethiopian musical scale. Is there any connection between what the saxophone is playing and the song itself, whose spirit actually recalls a French chanson? If there is such a connection, it passed me by, which is perhaps why the visual element insinuated itself into my consciousness and effectively forced itself on it. The aesthetic of “ThruYou” allows and sometimes even encourages abrupt leaps between mutually distant musical worlds. In a regular album, however, like the one Kutiman has just released, the leap between the chanson-like song and the Ethiopian saxophone becomes an unseemly plunge.

“Dangerous,” the song in which all this happens, is the sixth cut on Kutiman’s new album, “6am.” It’s only then, two-thirds of the way into the album (which has eight cuts), that the association with the world of images from “ThruYou” arises. That’s a good sign. If “6am” had a broader and more explicit association with Kutiman’s viral work in the Internet universe, it would lack independent validity. The absence of that association, and even more, the considerable loveliness of the music, accord “6am” that validity and allow Kutiman to say to all the culture commentators who analyzed “ThruYou” something like: You want to call me a net aesthetician or a digital prophet? Great, whatever you like, but now listen up, I am first of all a musician.

Musical conservative

In contrast to the innovative idea that informed the creation of “ThruYou,” as a musician Kutiman is quite conservative. He doesn’t burst boundaries, doesn’t examine them, doesn’t even hang out near them. Which is perfectly fine. His music relies primarily on sound worlds that were brought into being in the 1960s and the 1970s: psychedelic rock, groove and punk, with a dash of spiritual jazz. In the context of local influences, some of his sounds evoke songs of The Churchills band, or productions by Alex Weiss for Shula Chen – the cream of late-1960s tuned-into-the-world Israeli pop.

Kutiman collects these raw materials, tailors them to the fit he likes and sews them together with a master’s hand. He has a terrific ear, rhythm and groove wisdom, a sense of proportion and taste, and a characteristic sound, which might be dubbed “retropsychoactive” in light of the connection between the contemporary activation of past music and a hallucinatory psychedelic element that is very much present in his work. At some point, almost all the cuts on the new album bite into a mushroom that makes them blurry and then returns them to the familiar contour lines. That’s a natural Kutiman reflex, which appeared on his first solo album and was also felt in the “ThruYou” series.

One of the fine aspects of the new album is the encounter between this psychoactive haze and a solid, more focused element that exists in the songs themselves, and particularly in the way they are performed by the two singers: Scheflan and Karolina. This is not surprising news in her case, or, in fact, in his case either (for anyone who heard him sing on “Kutiman Orchestra,” for example). But still: In an era in which Israeli singers are having a hard time in terms of firm, sweeping vocal expression, it’s a pleasure to listen to singers who open their mouths and sing fully from the throat and the soul.

Why then, despite all these virtues, doesn’t “6am” succeed in crossing the bar that separates “impressive, enjoyable and quite good,” from “hey, you have to hear this”? It’s mainly because in regard to composition, melodic thrust and harmony, Kutiman is revealed to be not sufficiently developed, and actually rather limited, as a music maker. There’s a considerable gap between his production and sound-design skills and his imagination as a composer. The sound and groove receptors in the brain get satisfaction in song after song, but their brother receptors – of melody and harmony – remain largely frustrated.

What happens is that the basic harmonic current of the songs simply repeats itself time after time, with shifts of hue and dynamics, of course, but without interesting turning points, without pleasurable diversions and, above all, without a feeling of genuine development. If that happens in one song, or two, or three, it’s understandable, even fun. But when it happens in almost all the songs, disappointment sets in. It’s true that Kutiman comes largely from the world of groove, in which musical development often hinges on the rhythm itself and not in the melodic narrative, but that’s not the field on which he’s playing in this album. He’s playing on the field of songs, and the songs on “6am” sound great, but instead of taking off, they tend to mark time.