[7 April 2008]
What is a sellout? For many, it’s simply endorsing a corporation (blasphemy!) for money. These folks would likely point to Yael Naim as an example. Ever since Apple introduced the country to the burgeoning Israeli songstress from Paris through their Macbook Air commercials beginning in January, the term “ad-rock” has been tossed around, relentless comparisons have been made to other Apple advertisement success stories (e.g. Feist, Cansei de Ser Sexy a.k.a. CSS), and the industry is abuzz debating the ostensible costs and benefits for both Apple and the independent artists’ careers it’s helped propel. All this chatter is not without merit. By early February, Naim’s single “New Soul”—the one Apple ordained—became the number-one-selling song on iTunes, and reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. All of this happened within a matter of weeks—and all largely thanks to Apple.
Naim’s label, Atlantic, was so thrilled by the response that it moved the release of her self-titled debut album ahead by two months. That the song’s music video has millions of views on YouTube (over 5.3 million at the time of writing, if you’re keeping track) goes without saying at this point. (Interestingly enough, the debatable YouTube viewing record is held by CSS for their Apple-endorsing track).
When I received Naim’s album, I was fully aware of the surrounding fanfare. But I was a little intimidated when I opened the CD booklet and found mostly Hebrew lyrics and songs. Full disclosure: It was all Greek to me. A Jewish friend of mine once joked that speaking Hebrew was really just structured coughing and sneezing. He didn’t bother elaborating on how one sings in Hebrew, but, to be clear, Naim’s voice exudes neither bodily function. In fact, it possesses a vulnerable purity that, like a falling leaf, is agile, light, and can be dramatically redirected by the subtlest of influences.
I think the underlying success of “New Soul”, aside from its Apple ubiquity, resonates in the droll trombone and baritone accompaniments that shape the song’s frame, creating a lighthearted and easily recognizable melody. Plus, its chords are familiar, making it sound really affable and inviting. The lyrics are also an especially earnest admission and self-reflection. In general, Naim’s English songs are existential, about proving oneself and self-determination.
Sung in Hebrew, the chorus of “Levater” follows nearly the same melody as “New Soul”, but in a minor key. It’s déjà vu, at first, but then Naim’s voice extrapolates the innocent lines of “New Soul”, adding a new dimension. In reality, though, the tone is drastically different, and no one would ever confuse the two. However, the similarities, especially when juxtaposed, are revealing.
One consistent quality in Naim’s music is that her melodies, particularly her choruses, tend to follow a sort of boogie-woogie structure, if not style: skipping intervals while descending or ascending the scale, so that when they resolve harmonically, the lyrics resolve syntactically and beg for a breath. At the end of each phrase or verse, this congruence creates a beautiful, evanescent ethereality. “Too Long” is a great example of this in action—as well as the resulting melancholy mood.
Naim’s cover du jour is “Toxic”. Why is it that every time I hear a cover version of “Toxic”, I’m embarrassingly excited to hear all the rich melodies and harmonies that eluded Britney? More telling, though, is the unique lens with which Naim examines and then varies Spears’s last great hit. Her rendition is everything Spears’s was not: transparent, lucid, tranquil, and emotive (unless one sympathizes with skanky). Also, like Mr. Rogers’s trolley, the glockenspiel-like synthesizer sounds take the listener to a tender and endearing place, not the raunchy club Spears directed us to.
Naim’s voice reaches its apex on “Lonely”, a solicitous lullaby, which perfectly compliments the track’s loose structure. But she is also a competent pianist, namely on the extended introduction of “Pachad”, in which she loosely improvises over the chord structure, mimicking a Chopin nocturne, before receding into the ballad’s structure. David Donatien’s contributions are equally important, as his production and drumming shaped much of the album’s sonorousness.
The album’s style and tone follow no distinct arc, but include percussively embellished folk songs, stripped-down, blithe rock a la Regina Spektor, Michelle Branch-like ballads, and the morose-yet-illuminating writing that is Naim’s calling.
That each Apple-approved track is infectiously catchy, fresh, and seemingly out of nowhere is obvious. But is each artist’s success a one-ad-wonder, or is the digital music behemoth actually onto something with each ad cycle and, in essence, beating the sleeping industry giants at their own endangered game? With each clairvoyant selection, Apple extends the line on legal digital music domination and lures more independent artists to their marketing doorstep, thus legitimizing their music taste-making abilities. Naim’s recent rise is simply affirmation of this, and each additional example will help erode Apple’s reputation as sell-out proliferators.