Sexy Silence Among the Screams

In her new CD, Ninet Tayeb has opted for rock - theatrical rock. One might almost say 'glam rock.'

The day after Ninet Tayeb appeared at the Arad Rock Festival in October, a researcher for one of the television news shows called me. They were doing an item on her atrocious performance and wanted to interview a music critic on the subject. For those of you who don't remember, Tayeb performed songs from her new album, "Communicative," and many of the teenage listeners - constituting the exact audience demographic for someone who is supposedly the biggest pop star in Israel - walked out in the middle. The clip from the performance that later aired on the news show was totally unimpressive, to say the least. Tayeb screamed, the audience stared at her, and a whiff of fiasco was in the air.

"So can I interview you?" the researcher asked. "But I wasn't in Arad," I replied. "I understand," the researcher persisted. "But can I interview you anyway?" This time there was a whiff of schadenfreude in the air.

Journalists who attended pre-release performances featuring songs from her second album rushed to report - albeit in good faith and without malice - that Ninet, as she is known professionally, screams and is pretentious, and this whole rock thing of hers is a sad case of showing off. Now, after the album is actually out, it's time to speak plainly: "Communicative" has its weak spots, but they do not alter the fact that Ninet has produced a successful album, worthy of esteem: full of energy, full of soul and, yes, also full of rock 'n' roll. It's not Led Zeppelin and not PJ Harvey and not Berry Sakharof. But if the question is: "Ninet's new CD - yes or no?" then the answer is "yes," if not, "definitely yes."

Ever since that night in 2003 at Nitzanim, when Ninet won first place on the reality television show "Kochav Nolad" ("A Star Is Born"), it is doubtful whether anyone has ever been the target of more invasive collective scrutiny or incessant questions concerning her authenticity. During her previous tour, in the run-up to her debut album of 2006, this attention was focused on her body. Her weight loss aroused discomfort, and even concern: It was perceived to be a physical manifestation of Ninet's transformation into a mass-market commodity. You may not accept that patronizing theory (it's okay to think that a diet is just a diet), but her first CD actually did nothing to disprove it. Indeed, it may even have bolstered it: The album was hollow, soulless, joyless, lifeless - thanks to Aviv Geffen, who produced and wrote most of the songs for it.

"The fear of inauthenticity, which constantly threatens to invade the beloved 'islands' of authenticity, is a fear inherent to rock," writes literary critic Nissim Calderon, in his new book "Yom Sheni" ("The Second Day"). "Suspicion has particularly awaited those who came to Israeli rock from below, from car-repair shops in Ramle," he goes on, "and other suspicions await those who come to Israeli rock from above, from Yona Wallach and Leah Goldberg."

Even more profound suspicion awaits those who reach rock heaven from hell - that is, from the TV studio of "A Star Is Born." In the eyes of those who find the rock aesthetic alien, Ninet's new screaming is ugly because any scream is ugly. However, the strongest suspicion is held by real rockers. To them her screaming is ugly because it is not genuine, ostensibly. But if they had to spend 24 hours in Ninet's skin and absorb the amount of camera flashes that she does (of course, there's no need to feel sorry for her; she makes a nice living doing it) - they would understand that her screaming is genuine. So much toxicity is projected onto this singer's person that she has to purge it, and doing so by singing silky ballads is both ridiculous and ineffective, from a psychological point of view.

The question is whether she and those who helped her produce the album, Baruch Ben Yitzhak and Marc Lazare of the band Rockfour, were able to translate Ninet's need to scream into music with emotional and aesthetic content.

On first listen, there is something off-putting about her delivery on the new CD: not just the screams, but also the giggles and the cabaret-like style. Even on subsequent listenings, certain reservations remain unchanged, but their context becomes clearer. Assuming a distinction can be made between what is rock and what is not (in any event, it is very blurred), Ninet has indeed opted for rock, but for theatrical rock. One might almost say "glam rock" - i.e., a style that comes with a license to go over the top, to scream, to giggle, to be artificial.

Still, "Communicative" is not really glam rock. Not in terms of its music, and certainly not in terms of its texts; Ninet did not follow her instincts all the way. But the new CD does belong in the glam neighborhood, which is a neighborhood local rock fans do not like. Israeli rock does not like artifice and excess; it sees them as phony. Israeli rock likes its truth clad in jeans and a T-shirt.

Had Ninet and Rockfour managed to fill "Communicative" with sweeping anthems, they would have silenced all the detractors; excellent songs are a great way to overcome prejudice. But "Communicative" has no anthems, nor does it have many outstanding songs. It has one wonderful track, "Basheket Hazeh" ("In This Silence," composed by Marina Maximilian Blumin), plus a few very good songs and a couple that we could have done without.

If the album were to last 38 minutes instead of 53 - and if songs such as "Kelev" ("Dog") and "Kach Haya Tamid" ("It's Always Been This Way") had been left on the cutting-room floor - it would have improved matters. Moreover, if Ninet wanted anthems, she should not have worked with Ben Yitzhak and Lazare, who co-wrote most of the music on the album with her. Rockfour had a few anthems in its previous incarnation, with soloist Eli Lulai. In its present incarnation, however, it is not a band whose strength lies in the composition of extroverted songs. But it has other major advantages, particularly in the area of performance and sound, and it brings these to "Communicative." Just don't expect the thick and murky psychedelics of Rockfour's albums.

"Communicative" is nonetheless a record whose creators hope will sell a great many copies (it will be interesting to see if it does; this is far from certain). In any case, it benefits from a musical palate of a caliber hitherto unknown to Ninet - smart guitars rich in nuance, deep bass, terrific percussion by Issar Tennenbaum. And just as important: Cellist Maya Belzitzman accompanies most of the songs, and not only brings wonderful musicality to them, but also diverts them from the clear-cut rock arena into a slightly different, more colorful realm.

Ninet was never a great singer. If that was the impression created that night at Nitzanim, it was because of a one-time combination of several factors: the power and freshness of "A Star Is Born" in its first season, the tremendous emotional forcefulness of the song Ninet chose, and, of course, the fact that she is a decent singer. Even though her voice is powerful, she never belonged to what film producer/TV personality Gal Uchovsky calls "the world of belters" - in other words, the sect of bombastic female singers with steel lungs, like Miri Mesika and Shiri Maimon. In "Communicative," Ninet further highlights her difference from those belters, who pull out all the stops in order to move people. She sounds flat at times, because there really is something flat about her voice (and also about the texts, the CD's least successful component). And sometimes she sounds cold, because that is how she wants to sound when she is singing about alienation and emotional paralysis. Yet sometimes she does not sound flat or cold in the least - for example on the final song, "Shnei Ma'avarim" ("Two Passages"), which demonstrates Ninet's ability to sound vulnerable, lost and moving.

"Two Passages" is a fitting end to Ninet Tayeb's new album, but it is a tad hard to give the track the attention it deserves when it begins. The listener is still busy picking his jaw up off the floor, where it dropped during the preceding song, "In This Silence" - the jewel in the album's crown, a minor masterpiece. Ninet wrote a love song here, set in the darkness and quiet of night, and Blumin managed to touch the entire spectrum of silence with her melody. The singers' duet is sensuous and magnificent. It is not only one of the most beautiful songs heard around here recently, it is also one of the sexiest in the not-very-sexy history of Israeli music.