Sometimes the beat of a drum is more than just the beat of a drum. Every once in a while – about every two years in Israeli music, I’d say – a beat of a drum can be an important event in a song, a brief but thrilling occurrence that speaks volumes about the artistic aims and desires of an entire album.
And such a beat of the drum, followed immediately by a few more drum riffs of equal power, are heard about half a minute into the instrumental track “Julio Herrera y Obes,” the third track on the new self-titled album by cellist Maya Belsitzman and drummer Matan Ephrat. Until the drums make their entrance, the cello dominates, and the atmosphere is quite classical and serious, though only somewhat intense. The two previous tracks, despite having a more extensive exposition than is common in Israeli music, also don’t prepare the ear for the startlingly powerful effect of the entering drums.
On first hearing, it’s truly sensational, and causes the listener to recalibrate his expectations of this music, expectations that are largely fulfilled in the course of the album. For some reason, I thought I was about to hear a fairly standard album by a non-standard ensemble (cellist and drummer is a rather unusual pairing, even with the popularity of various types of duos in recent years), and to my surprise, what I got was an album that doesn’t sound anything like what usually passes for Israeli indie, and all the artistic pretensions that go along with that. You often find that Israeli indie artists fail to back up their artistic pretensions with much real consideration for sound and aesthetics. That is certainly not the case with Belsitzman and Ephrat.
You can actually hear how the cellist, the drummer and their producer, Rea Mochiach, gave full consideration to every tug of the bow and every rustle of the drums. The playing here is not loose and flowing. Every bit of it has been very thoughtfully calculated, so it makes sense that Belsitzman and Ephrat didn’t recruit other musicians, but instead played all the instruments themselves, or to be more precise – expanded the range of their instruments. Belsitzman not only uses every possible mode of expression in her cello, she sometimes turns it into a guitar or a bass or violins. Ephrat plays both ordinary and programmed drums, producing every shade of emotion. In their approach, a song is not the sum of words and melody, but the result of placing the words and melody within a carefully designed aural landscape that is creative and multilayered. This is admirable; not only does it run counter to the usual functional approach found in Israeli music, it makes Belsitzman and Ephrat’s music rich and expressive.
Even the cover photography – a nonmusical and seemingly trivial aspect of the project – reflects the same sort of attitude: No less than seven people, including a lighting designer, are credited here. That’s the kind of production you expect to find with a commercial album aimed at the masses, not on an indie album with a fairly limited potential audience (though I’d be pleased if I’m mistaken about that). But the critical importance that Belsitzman and Ephrat attach to aesthetics carried over to the album’s visual dimension as well. Which isn’t to say I’m that crazy about the cover.
But that’s not important. A much more pertinent question is whether Belsitzman and Ephrat’s songs hold up to the scrupulous musical direction. The answer is yes, with a number of reservations. My main problem with this album has to do with Belsitzman’s singing. It’s not deep enough, stable enough or dynamic enough. It’s a bit too superficial, too hesitant. As a result, there’s a big contrast between the parts of the album that are meticulously orchestrated and tend to have a massive, multilayered texture, to those in which Belsitzman’s singing takes the spotlight and the musical intensity becomes much diluted. This is most striking in the second song, “Someone.” It starts out with a barrage of processed background voices, but when Belsitzman shifts to regular singing, the wind goes out of the song’s sails.
Truly good singing voices have a unifying quality that makes very different songs sounds like part of one whole. Belsitzman’s singing is not good enough to accomplish this, and consequently the album seems to lurch randomly among completely different worlds. Only a few minutes separate the dark and menacing blues of “Free at Last” and the almost ABBA-like sweetness of “Move On,” but Belsitzman’s voice doesn’t provide a strong enough glue.
One solution to this sort of problem is to process the voice, not by “Photoshopping” in someone else’s voice, but by doubling the voice or using some other creative engineering technique to create a voice that isn’t the singer’s “real” voice but is still valid and convincing. Belsitzman, Ephrat and Mochiach do this to some degree, but it’s not enough. On the album’s final song, “Everything I Wanted,” the handling of Belsitzman’s voice, which rises to a rare shout here, is particularly effective. On the duo’s next album, she ought to shout a little more.