Sonic (Israeli) Youth: Don't Trash Local Bands That Sing in English

At first it seems that their sound is inspired primarily by American indie folk, but 'Exit Inside,’ theAngelcy’s debut album, reveals a band with its finger on the pulse of Israeliness.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
The band theAngelcy. Not out to fire up a crowd by force.
The band theAngelcy. Not out to fire up a crowd by force.
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

One of the allegations most frequently made – sometimes in rebuke, sometimes less judgmentally – about Israeli indie bands that sing in English is that they sound disconnected from the Israeli experience, that their work lacks a local hue. But those who voice this criticism about theAngelcy will be saying more about themselves and their superficial listening than about the band.

On the face of it, theAngelcy fits this description. They sing in English; there is no saliently Israeli coloring to their music; and their range of instruments – which include a contrabass, a ukulele and a lot of clacking percussion – gives the impression that these young musicians have fallen in love with the American indie folk sound and are trying to create their own version of it.

But listen attentively and you discover that the band has its hand firmly on the local pulse. Almost all the songs on “Exit Inside,” their recently released debut album, are about death in one form or another, particularly the death of young people, in some cases children, in other cases soldiers. The first words heard on the album are “My baby boy is in the army,” and a few lines later, “My baby boy’s already dead.” The second song begins, “Freedom fighters killed my only child.” The dominant image in the next two songs is of an angel – the central figure of the album – and toward the end, in the theme song, the soloist, Rotem Bar Or, sings, “Exit inside when life itself is a dying moment.”

The preoccupation of young people with death is overwhelmingly pervasive. So much so that it’s impossible to escape the thought that this album could only have been created amid an atmosphere of bereavement, even though there is no explicit statement to attest to this, and no defining Israeli signpost, either in the lyrics or the music. This apparent lacuna, this absent presence of the Israeli experience, charges “Exit Inside” with tension. Nor is this the only high-voltage line that traverses the album. It’s not by chance that the title is “Exit Inside.” The album’s overall character, in texts and music alike, rejects simplistic statements and feelings in favor of complex, sometimes contradictory scenes dappled with a play of light and shadow. There are tears, but they are dry; there is dancing, too, but it’s mostly the corpses that dance.

What is the sound of an angel’s dry tear? If theAngelcy had been able to reveal the answer to that question, their album would have been a masterpiece. It’s not. But theAngelcy looks for the answer with talent, sensitivity and delicacy, which is lovely in itself. They understand, to begin with, that the sound cannot be strong and dramatic. Last month, when they appeared in the 
Menashe Forest Festival, the restraint and moderation of their performance were surprising and welcome. Bands that appear at open-air festivals usually try to project driving energy, certainly if their debut album has just been released. But theAngelcy preserved a degree of dryness. It wasn’t a remote dryness, certainly not alienated, but it was clear that they were not out to fire up the crowd by force and transport them to a resonating, perspiring drama.

The album anchors and heightens this non-populist preference, and it’s encouraging to find that despite the restraint and the absence of immediate drama, “Exit Inside” is being well received. The band’s launch concert at Tel Aviv’s Barby club was sold out, and the album is ensconced high on the sales chart of iTunes Israel and in several of the independent music stores. Maybe it’s the below-the-surface Israeliness that’s doing it, though it’s more likely that the warm reception is due to the expressive voice of Rotem Bar Or, the anthem-like thrust of some of the songs and the fact that the band has been able to create a distinctly identifiable sound in which elements of well-liked musical worlds can be heard at the same time: folk and reggae, Jewish music and Spaghetti Westerns, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.

Not all the songs on “Exit Inside” are good, and in the less successful ones the album’s lean, dry sound becomes a drawback rather than an advantage. Instead of being an original musical statement, it just sounds too dry. At these moments, which are marked by a dearth of imagination and of musicality, some of the well-known problems of Israeli indie surface. But these cavils, though they clip the wings of “Exit Inside” to some extent, do not prevent it from being one of the best and most impressive albums released here recently.



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