Danny Sanderson once fired a musician – Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – who played the deathless solo guitar piece on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Sanderson was recording in the United States and someone suggested he hire Baxter’s hot fret. The guitarist reported for work in the studio but was so high or maybe drunk as a skunk that Sanderson had to let him go.
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What brought that story to mind is “Emek Hamistor” (Hidden Valley), the third song on Sanderson’s new album and one of the best on the CD. It has a piano that lets loose with a rapid volley of exhilarating cords, and there’s a delightful ironic contradiction between the potent musical heft and Western-movie atmosphere and the fact that the song is actually about something very small-scale: a person who closets himself alone in his house. The vocal and instrumental richness of the song echoes (with obligatory Israeli modesty) the California rock of the early to mid-1970s, as in Steely Dan. That’s another reason to like the cut. Only one thing bothers me a little: The guitar solo wasn’t a bullseye. On a good day, Skunk Baxter could have fretted it into the dead center.
Sanderson’s new album, “Mikan Haderech” (The Way from Here), released by NMC, also doesn’t hit the center of the innermost circle of the target. There are songs that make it into the very respectable second circle, and some that hit the third circle, which is also fine. Others land in the fourth circle. The impression is that this album is slightly less successful than his previous very good one, “Lo Yafrid Davar” (Nothing Will Separate Us), which was released around seven years ago. Maybe it’s the band on the new album, which does very decent work, but seems to lack something of the sting and the exuberance of the musicians on the last album. Or possibly it’s Sanderson’s voice, which was never his doomsday weapon, still less now.
But even if the new album isn’t a bullseye, it’s close to the target. In contrast to many of his generational peers in the aristocracy of elderly rock, Sanderson has remained fresh and fleet of foot, and even if some of the songs contain old and familiar musical riffs, they’re served up in fine contemporary versions. In addition, and most important of all, the new album has two elements that pack it with relevance, maybe not in the overall context of Israeli music, but certainly for us Sanderson fans.
Compassion for the weak
The first element is a warm feeling that runs through the texts. Sanderson has always had an empathy for losers, and this is very much present in the new album, albeit with slightly less humor than in the past – and that’s not said positively or negatively, it’s just different, and therefore good. He looks around, sees mainly the weak and the marginalized, and has compassion for them. There’s no trenchant social criticism here, but there is true feeling, which is of course related to the fact that Sanderson knows what it’s like to feel small and weak, and never mind that his list of achievements is worth two Israel Prizes.
The second terrific element consists of the bridges, the musical additions to the regular format of the chorus. Very few Israeli pop composers are meticulous about building bridges in their songs. Sanderson is an inveterate bridge-builder – he’s old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. In most cases the bridge is a solo guitar, which instead of relying on the basic harmony, takes the song to a new harmonic place. An example is “Mekaneh Batziporim” (Envious of the Birds).
Without the solo, it’s a very nice song; with it, an unadulterated pleasure: precise, dynamic, speaks its mind and leaves the room elegantly. Sounds like something Skunk Baxter might play.