Israeli Singer's North African Punk With a Touch of Strawberry Syrup

Riff Cohen's new album doesn't overdo the cuteness and hits hard with Mizrahi indie pop and her traditional childlike fare.

Jonathan Trichter

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes if you give an album a re-listen you gradually shed your prejudices. This is what happened with Riff Cohen’s latest effort.

Her single “Helas” and its video, like the album cover in which Cohen is dressed as an 18th-century ship captain in braids, made that impression: too cute and amusing; sweet words that leave a bitter taste.

Of course, when a new graceful artist breaks out into Israel’s unpleasant music scene, that’s something wonderful. That’s exactly what happened with Cohen’s first album three years ago, “Á Paris.” Alongside its grace and sweetness, there was the vitality of a busy city street.

But with a second album, when we already know the musician and aren’t surprised by her sweet invigorating style, an overdose of cute charm can be a bit fatiguing.

In the shadow of this impression I listened to Cohen’s new album “Á La Menthe,” and I’m delighted to report that my fatigue ebbed. There’s a big difference between an album that’s just cute and nice and an album that’s cute and graceful. “Á La Menthe” is the second kind.

At the beginning, the music sounds small, too small, maybe even thin. But then comes the main pleasure: The music isn’t as limited as it seems at first listen.

This understanding grew as songs like “Je casse de la caillasse,” “Que du Bonheur” and to a certain extent “Marrakech” and “Helas” combined at least three musical worlds. The first was indie pop with the Mizrahi North African sound that stood out in Cohen’s first album (and preceded the flowering of Israel’s indie Mizrahi scene).

The second was the world of children’s songs. The melodies are simple, while Cohen is joyful and repetitive.

The third musical world was punk. There’s only a hint of it, but you feel it in the rough and thunderous bass — the gunpowder of Captain Cohen’s ship. And a dollop of strawberry syrup.

Jonathan Trichter

Cohen does the mix with talent and momentum. She doesn’t approach this combination with the knife of radical freedom between her teeth. She takes a bit from this and a bit from that. And even if there’s a compromise in her approach, she preserves the freshness and dynamics — and sometimes even a bit of ingenuity.

Her album takes other paths, too. Though it’s short, less than a half hour, it doesn’t suffice with just one taste of Maghreb punk, or just one taste of jumpy, happy spirit.

This is the main channel of “Á La Menthe,” but the album also takes a more melancholy path in which the keyboards overtake the bass and percussion. In “Kav Kaf” and “Taazov” there are beautiful and hot flows of synthesizers.

On top of all this, Cohen exposes her emotions and pain honestly and in Hebrew, as opposed to the French of her Maghreb punk songs.