March 13, 2017
Released On January 12, 2015
Released By Telmavar & Columbia Records
I suck at beach-related fun in more ways than we have time to talk about right now, but one of my main failures is getting in the ocean when the water is even slightly chilly. I typically end up watching the rest of my family from the safety of the sand, knowing full well that a minute after they jumped in, it stopped feeling cold. (There’s also my irrational fear of sharks, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
Listening to Asaf Avidan’s voice for the first time — something many Americans did after the 2015 release of Gold Shadow — is like jumping into the Atlantic in February. The Israeli singer’s timbre is all his own. It’s hard to describe so I hope you’ll listen for yourself, but if I had to put it into words, I’d say there’s a transfixing thinness, like something much bigger being extruded. All descriptors aside, it’s fair to say that when you dive into Avidan’s work, you get a shock.
But as the shock wears off, a bunch of other qualities steal the spotlight. There’s his tremendous soulfulness (opening track “Over My Head” drifts into Otis Redding territory in the best way)… his gift for phrasing (“The Labyrinth Song” has Leonard Cohen’s pacing down pat)… but what really rises to the top for me is his versatility. Avidan can move between accents, moods, and levels of intensity fluidly; one minute he’s issuing the high-register flutter of Bob Marley (“Little Parcels Of An Endless Time“), and the next he’s singing about hungry crocodiles like Shirley Bassey might have for a Bond movie (“My Tunnels Are Long and Dark These Days“).
Avidan’s writing is just as versatile. Genre-wise, he bookends the album with soul (“Over My Head”) and folk (“Fair Haired Traveller“) and touches everything from pop (“The Jail That Sets You Free“) and Bond balladry (“Gold Shadow“) to Broadway bombast at its finest (“A Part Of This“). There are horns, strings, guitars, an accordion… I’d call it the kitchen sink approach, but each song is so tastefully and carefully assembled that it never feels like he’s throwing instrumentation at you. Moments unfold as they should, whether they’re big and full (the chorus of “Let’s Just Call It Fate“) or sparse and surgical (the chorus of “Bang Bang“).
When I first started listening to the album, I wrote a blog post that included a few of the other singers’ names mentioned above, as well as comparisons to Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and Rikki Shay’s Drew Gillihan. I normally avoid throwing around parallels, given how important it is to evaluate artists on their own merits, but Gold Shadow had me darting from one point of reference to the next, trying to contextualize what I was hearing. I guess that’s what happens when you encounter something that’s unique — you try to make it fit into the categories your brain has created over time. But Asaf Avidan is proof of how rare and thrilling it is to hear a voice that truly stands out.
Israeli born, musically forged: Avidan’s music filters Western sounds through Eastern philosophies.
Asaf Avidan is a confusing artist to encounter for the first time. For one thing, his soulful mutant voice has several qualities I tend to read as female, so it was a surprise to realize that he was a man — a man who sounds like Nina Simone channeling Bob Dylan, no doubt, but definitely a man. For another thing, the sound of Gold Shadow changes significantly from song to song, making it hard to get a handle on what Avidan is attempting with his music as a whole. I’m not sure I ever did figure that all out. What I can tell you is that, while the songs here have enough variance that it’s hard to give them a unified rating, I can tell you that they are all intriguing. The funkier tunes that show up at various points on the album — “The Jail That Sets You Free” and “These Words You Want To Hear” are the best examples — got my head nodding and were fun to dance around to. Klezmer influences definitely showed up on these and other songs throughout the album, which only makes sense considering Avidan’s Israeli origins. Some of the more ballad-like tunes (including “Let’s Just Call It Fate“) made me think of psychedelic folk rangers like Devendra Banhart, while others (“My Tunnels Are Long And Dark These Days“) mixed cabaret-ish torch-singer vibes with Eastern-sounding orchestral touches. While I’m sure there are some out there who’d find all of this intimately familiar territory, I can imagine some others having just as much trouble contextualizing Avidan’s sound as I had. That’s OK though — digging into what he’s doing is an enjoyable experience, regardless of how well you understand it at first listen.
As a producer, so much of my personal enjoyment from any given album is directly tied to the amount of “sample-able” material on said album. Suffice it to say that Gold Shadow is a goldmine. There’s an obvious effort to maintain the purity of the analog era on this project, which I appreciate so much. I cracked a smile upon hearing the Doors-like organs of “Ode To My Thalamus.” Perhaps my favorite track is “Over My Head,” which sounds like The Black Keys playing a waltz from the early ’60s. I’ll definitely play around with the opening strings of “My Tunnels Are Long And Dark These Days;” you can’t tell me that this track hasn’t been submitted for the next James Bond soundtrack. The dramatic arrangement and slick vocals are tailor made for a 007 romp throughout the Balkans. The hair on my neck stood up when I first heard the piano stabs of “Little Parcels Of An Endless Time,” and I couldn’t help but think that a left-field leaning group like The Beatnuts would have an awfully good time flipping the accordions and sha-la-la’s of “These Words You Want To Hear.” I’m so glad to hear music of this caliber by artists and producers unafraid to carry on the traditions and techniques of a near-forgotten era.
The adventures of headstrong Bonnie and bystander Clyde it seems.
Without reading anything about Asaf Avidan, I knew two seconds into Gold Shadow that he wasn’t American. The retro soul/folk sound, complete with electric organ, never was revived here, save for one-off hits and songs from advertisements. I’m not surprised his popularity in America stems from his placement on an EDM track — like Aloe Blacc before him, the entrants to commercial success in the U.S. are sometimes limited. Avidan brings all kinds of music together, in a way I haven’t heard in contemporary pop since Devotchka and Beirut. There’s a bit of retro soul, some psychedelia (the organ is particularly fantastic), as well as folk (the title track reminds me of Martha Wainwright), indie rock, and the sounds of all the places worldwide that influence Avidan. Shadow‘s backing vocals are particularly ace, especially on “Let’s Just Call It Free” and “These Words You Want To Hear.” I could almost use some more, especially the spooky, Game of Thrones-esque “sha la la’s” on the latter track. Like lots of pop music, the lyrics aren’t particularly enlightening, but the rhythm of the words suits the music underneath perfectly. If there is one flaw in the record, it’s that it drags in the second half, where there are fewer upbeat jams. But Avidan’s passion never lessens, and he adopts a pleasant, Dylan-esque folkiness. I am embarrassed to admit, I have very little knowledge of new music outside of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. — there is so much to discover. I really enjoyed this interview with Avidan, where he called his home country of Israel “borderless” when it comes to musical influence. Thanks, Davy, for giving me more musical homework.
Gold Shadow is a beautifully crafted album with a perfect song sequence that leads you through the ups and downs, while still leaving you wanting more. At times Asaf Avidan sounded like Dan Bejar doing a Nina Simone impression, in the best way. Do you like ear candy? Gold Shadow offers loads of sweet production accents that pull in the retro vibe without it feeling like a novelty. I lost track but heard everything from accordion, French horn, strings, vibes, and various keyboard and piano sounds. A few of these songs could easily be the featured song in a big summer blockbuster, if given just the right amount of cinematic mixing. None of this would be possible without the foundation of great songwriting.
I spent a lot more time with Asaf Avidan this time around — when I heard him on NPR back in 2014, I just turned it off. Vocals are often the deal breaker for me and Avidan’s cracked “90 year-old Billie Holiday” mannerisms were an instant turn off. But this time around, while I’m not personally sold, I am very impressed with his phrasing, control, and emotional depth, not to mention his songwriting. You might wonder why someone who is a devoted fan of such envelope pushers as Bob Dylan, David Thomas (Pere Ubu), and even Jimmy Durante wouldn’t cotton to Avidan. Put it down to the mystery of taste, which the ancient Romans told us is beyond dispute. In any case, Gold Shadow gives us an artist fully formed (not surprising — he had several prior releases in Europe) and one whom I think many followers of Amy Winehouse and other quirky neo-soul artists will fall for, if they haven’t already. The production is rich and dynamic, with some “modern” touches, like the scratching on “Bang Bang,” but the real stunners may be the stripped down cuts that end the album. I’m a sucker for Ariadne references (I played King Minos in the school play) so “The Labyrinth Song” is probably my favorite. Avidan takes a post-Freudian view of the Greek legend, cleverly turning the Minotaur into a metaphor for his own dark side: “Oh Ariadne, I am coming, I just need to work this maze inside my head / I came here like you asked, I killed the beast, that part of me is dead.” His finger-picked guitar is virtuosic and mesmerizing on these last two songs, revealing yet another dimension, and he also sings with fewer mannerisms. So, thanks to the influence of Davy Jones, I am now someone who respects Asaf Avidan and who won’t rule out giving a listen to what he does in the future.
The dynamic range of Asaf’s music is simply staggering, with the style of music trying its best to keep up with his pliable voice.
Asaf Avidan’s voice might be the most unique voice I’ve ever heard. I listened to this album twice through before I looked into who this musician was and I’m glad I did because everything about his voice, as I heard it the first two times, said “powerful, soulful, Black woman” and certainly not “Israeli, male folk singer.” His sex and race don’t lessen any of his power or soulfulness, of course. It’s just that, if he was auditioning on The Voice, and I was one of the famous celebrity judges hitting my button and turning my chair around, it would have been important to focus the camera on my face and the series of surprised and delighted faces that would flash across upon seeing him. So, as I gather my hypothetical celebrity jaw off the floor, let’s try to think about the music supporting this incredible voice. It’s also very impressive, simultaneously retro and futuristic. “My Tunnels Are Long And Dark These Days” would have been totally at home on the soundtrack to a James Bond movie (probably one involving tunnels, but that’s just a guess). Actually, I could say the same for Gold Shadow (at least the beginning of, if not the entirety of). Then you have “Bang Bang,” “The Jail That Sets You Free,” and “Little Parcels Of An Endless Time” that sound like music that is still being released and assessed as fresh and cutting edge. This album is an incredibly enjoyable, emotionally dynamic ride.
There are a ton of thoughts you’ll have once you listen to Gold Shadow, but I’d bet the first one that pops into your head lands somewhere around “just what kind of voice is that?” Truly, there are not many ways to discuss Asaf Avidan’s music without honing in on that versatile, transmorphic sound that implausibly comes from his vocal cords. It’s hypnotic almost, dominating the area Gold Shadow lays out that would otherwise be considered a laudable collection of songs. The dusk pop on the record, one that’s clearly pulled together by an old soul with modern tools, is instantly engaging as it travels from cinematic (“My Tunnels Are Long and Dark These Days“) to carnival (“These Words You Want To Hear“) corners. The words that color these songs are more understated, but brilliant at times with “The Labyrinth Song” in particular being a shining example of Avidan’s lyrical prowess. The production choices are especially inspired here, again clearly made with an ear for yesteryear, but also with added emphasis on more overlooked aspects of songwriting like the introductory melody. Yep, everything works well here and is pretty memorable, but again, it all comes back to that voice. You’ll spend each song tracking just who you think Asaf’s emulating here, something that seems right in the moment but foolish once the next song begins and he’s running away with a new inflection, timbre, or modulation. Numerous comparisons can be made from the more obvious Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday to the more understated Carole King and Tom Waits, and as each comparison piles on, it pushes Asaf further away from a competent imitator and closer to a refined scion. Before you know it, you’ll be convinced there’s no one on Earth quite like Asaf Avidan… rendering the music he’s created all the more special thanks to that inextirpable voice.
Hard Again by Muddy Waters
Chosen By PJ Sykes