Amir Benayoun's New Album Meanders From Quiet Splendor to Enervating Blandness

An musician who is searching and not treading water deserves praise. But does Benayoun’s new approach measure up?

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Amir Benayoun.
Amir Benayoun. Credit: Ohad Romano
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

This is a call to managers of chamber ensembles, especially those who aren’t afraid to rub elbows with material that lies outside the classical repertoire: Listen to “Od Rega” (“Another Minute”), the second cut on “Mila Baruah” (“A Word in the Wind”), the new album by Amir Benayoun. Benayoun is identified as a saliently Mizrahi singer; his artistic identity is based on his use of trills (and on his Arabesque melodies); he is influenced deeply by North African music; and his natural artistic collaborations are with Mizrahi ensembles such as the Andalusian Orchestra, with which he has in fact recorded and appeared in recent years.

Benayoun could certainly perform “Od Rega” with a Mizrahi orchestra. It would sound good. But the impression is that this lovely song would be best accompanied by a Western classical ensemble that specializes in art songs. “Od Rega” contains a long melodic line that’s set forth, develops and ascends with unusual patience. And not by chance: the song is about someone who’s on the way, but dallies and delays, ruminates and reflects, and in the end arrives. “So wait for me just a little / I’m already here / Getting to know your milieu / Looking in the mirror again / Doing a last round in your neighborhood / Dropping another small doubt I have / And then I’ll arrive.”

There’s no shortage of pop songs with long, slowly extended melodies, but the fact that “Od Rega” barely has a rhythm (other than the inbuilt rhythm of Benayoun’s singing) removes it from the pop arena and takes it into the classical region, with an operatic twist. That’s not to say it should be performed alongside Schubert or Mahler lieder; but in the appropriate circumstances, perhaps in a slightly less staid program, “Od Rega,” adapted and performed by a Western chamber group – with the vocal by Benayoun himself, of course – could be spectacular. Anyone out there ready to pick up the gauntlet?

Gentle and tremulous

The gravity and bold beauty of “Od Rega” make the song an exception in Benayoun’s new album. His previous CD, “Sufa” (“Storm”), was close to the ground in terms of the feeling it created. The rhythm was direct and metronomic, the melodies were winding but less so than usual with Benayoun, and the general tone was straightforward and relatively businesslike. “A Word in the Wind” is a title that’s close to “Storm” but also its opposite. A storm is something powerful, a word that’s swept in the wind is something that’s gentle and tremulous. The music on the new album is not straightforward and businesslike. It takes the floating-abstract element that exists in Benayoun and turns it into the be-all and end-all (except in certain songs). The melodies are particularly curly, the rhythms are more in the nature of suggestions than a binding foundation, and the production tends to colors, sounds and the buzzing of electronic music.

If this makes the new album sound experimental and inaccessible, that’s not the case. But Benayoun has taken greater liberty than usual. He may have allowed himself this departure because he’s aware of the power of his audience’s love for and belief in him, and is convinced that they will listen patiently to somewhat less accessible material, too. Whatever the case, an artist who is searching and not treading water deserves praise. The question is how Benayoun’s new approach plays out in the songs themselves, whether it passes the test of the ear.

The answer to that is divided. “Od Rega” passes with flying colors. A marvelous song. But as soon as it ends and gives way to the third cut on the album, “B’emet” (“Truly”), cracks suddenly appear in the conception of the floating art song. You wait for the song to grow on you and assume the form of unusual beauty, as in “Od Rega,” but nothing happens. It sounds like a collection of middling clichés. Wearying in the extreme.

Those are the two poles of the new CD. The other songs cruise between them: between the quiet splendor of “Od Rega” and the enervating banality of “B’emet.” A more skillful production might have accorded the lesser songs validity. In this case, however, the production, which is a vital element in an album that is embarking on a clear-cut nonconventional line, lacks the required creativity and imagination. The basic approach – minimalist accompaniment to Benayoun’s steely voice, like a painting that has more white background than daubs of color – is right. The problem is that I liked the white background a lot more than the daubs of color.

In some of the album’s better songs, notably “Mila Baruah” and “Eich Eida” (“How Will I Know”), the sound and the musical coloration evoke the rock singer Berry Sakharof. Double blade guitars of rock and Mizrahi, electronic zapping, a raggedy song structure – that’s the Sakharof sound in recent years. But in his case it goes far deeper than on Benayoun’s new album. The “what would happen if” effect (if Sakharof were to be Benayoun’s producer) is unleashed. Maybe someone can pick up that gauntlet, too.

Amir Benayoun's 'Mila Baruah' (album cover).

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