For ages I wondered why Soap Kills was called Soap Kills, since there was nothing in the band’s music that seemed to relate to the name, not in the songs that I’d come across, though I hadn’t heard everything the musicians had done. Trip-hoppy, no, that was it, with instruments whooming and looping around the singing in the very first track I heard of theirs, “Tango”, on the Rough Guide to Arabesque, circa 2002, which chopped tango beat with the voice incanting Arabic. So maybe, out there somewhere, was an early, murderous or goofy piece of work that would explain. But then I discovered that it was a reference to Beirut getting cleaned up in ways that made them uneasy, and so there was my answer.
They were Lebanese, and they had their own versions of the problems that ambitious artists have to suffer through when they come from a place where the music they like is a minority interest. The pull from overseas is very strong but what about loyalty to home? The group recorded three albums and drifted into hiatus after Enta Fen in 2005. So far it’s still hiatusing but Yasmine Hamdan, who was one of the founders, went on to do a little work with CocoRosie and then formed a duo with Mirwais Ahmadzaï, releasing one album with him in 2009, Arabology. Now this, Ya Nass, finds Hamdan going solo with some assistance from Marc Collin of Nouvelle Vague.
At first it sounds as if Ya Nass is going to be the simple story of a woman and her guitar. She’s singing about love, says the summary in the booklet. (The lyrics are not in English.) “Through a ritual prayer to the moon, a woman tries to get in contact with the smell of her lover, who is living on another continent.” That’s song number one. In song two a woman has an impulsive boyfriend. Love is going to be the album’s prime topics of discussion. Even the song she wrote for Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie is a song about love (“Hal”). She is wistful, she is plaintive, she is moved. Her narrators miss their lovers, they’re sad about them, they’re filled with longing or regret. The time with CocoRosie hasn’t left much of a trace. There’s no pertness in her swooning. She never breaks character. Three of the tracks are updates of songs recorded by Middle Eastern artists decades ago, the kind of song she might have heard while she was growing up. “Enta Fen, Again” is billed as a “homage to Oum Koulthoum.” “Khayyam” is inspired by the poet. She places herself in a long line of Middle Eastern singers who compose dignified songs about the absent one, who could be God in disguise. The songs are often slow, the singer is immobilized by emotions, and the voice unrolls from a still point.
Usually she pines for a person. In “Beirut” she is preemptively pining for a city. “Beirut a flower out of its season. / What a waste if it withered.” Again she is using the guitar, which gives her a kind of reverberation that she likes. Each twang gets a chance to hum a little before she dismisses it. She likes that lingering sense of aftermath and uses it everywhere, in the voice as well as the instrument, and in the old trip-hoppishness that surges up after the deceptively acoustic singer-songwriter beginning. Soon her voice is a steady innocent little dove over deep echoes in an infinite smooth cave space. The voice is the unwavering thing in this universe of overlapping resonance. Faithfully it goes, risking harm from the larger noises, and seeming guileless and endangered. The squelch in “Nediya” leaves sticky, predatory footprints. I suspect that my attraction to this kind of music is also a kind of supine protectiveness.