In Brief: Take the question Yoav’s first disc posed: “How many sounds can a man possibly make with an acoustic guitar?” Multiply the answer by at least three. That’s this album.
“I’d like to introduce you to my band”, singer/songwriter Yoav Sadan wisecracks at the beginning of a concert. He motions with his bare foot to the floor, where an array of buttons, switches, and wires make up the looping device that enable this one man to recreate the full sound of his recordings with a mere acoustic guitar. It’s a fascinating recipe – essentially building electronic music from the ground up with acoustic sounds, taking great care to mimic bass, various kinds of drums, and other beat-box effects while also layering two or more melodic lines, and perhaps even a repeating background vocal. Lesser and/or richer performers would probably just hire a band. Really desperate ones would just sing to a backing track. But Yoav has mastered all of the different moving parts of his songs, creating a do-it-yourself spectacle, a trick that doesn’t lose any of its magic even after it’s painstakingly explained.
I first became acquainted with Yoav on his debut album Charmed & Strange, back in 2008. That disc introduced me to the term “folktronica”, which merged two disparate genres that I happen to have a fondness for (go on, guess which two they are!), and which I’ve heard a few other artists dabble in before him, but which he does with perhaps the most commitment to the pure process of tweaking a lone instrument’s sounds. Yoav’s follow-up album, A Foolproof Escape Plan, sort of slipped out into the world without my radar picking it up at first, which might have something to do with this Israeli/Romanian/South African singer’s popularity being more prevalent in Europe than here in the States. I caught up with it in late 2010, and I don’t even think physical copies of the thing became available over here until early 2011. But it quickly became one of my favorites of the year as 2010 closed out, despite my initial confusion at Yoav’s decision to break his own rules and bring real percussion instruments into the fold. Truth be told, it isn’t that much of a shock to the system – you’ll hear a basic drum beat here, a cymbal there, even a timpani at one point. The basic recipe hasn’t changed, as all of the plucking and strumming and slapping sounds still create hypnotic soundscapes that are interesting enough to potentially draw in listeners whose tastes range from Björk to KT Tunstall to Andrew Bird. While it’s a formula that can wear thin as one gets deeper into an album, A Foolproof Escape Plan seems to run afoul of its limitations less frequently than Charmed & Strange did, possibly owing to its brevity at 10 tracks, but more likely owing to stronger songwriting all around. The mindset here is still somewhat skeptical, even suspicious of the world it inhabits, but then, deconstructing the nature and meaning of the world around him is appropriate for a musician who has achieved success by deconstructing his own instrument. All told, Foolproof is an engaging, and sometimes even haunting, listening experience.
I was taken aback at the first seconds of the first song initially, when the crash of a cymbal and a strong drum beat led things off instead of the expected guitar-based rhythm. That’s still there, locking together with the drums to create one of Yoav’s most solid grooves, while a fair amount of plucking higher up on the neck simulates the sound of staccato strings. Throw in a bit of rhythm guitar with a slight dissonance to it, and you get one of Yoav’s trademark wandering melodies. Just as “Adore Adore” opened the previous album with creepy megalomania, this track opens up with a cynical celebration of looking out for number one, sort of winking at the notion of rampant capitalism gone wrong as it flaunts the advice “Embrace yourself!” and “Only greed can save me now.” The actual meaning is probably just the opposite of it, but I sort of like these sorts of cautionary tales being told with irony, rather than straightforwardly and didactically. The track’s a winner on either side of the lyrical/musical equation, making it the album’s most immediate standout track.
“Club Thing” seems to have been the breakout song that put Yoav on the map with his last album. I sort of consider this one to be “Club Thing… IN SPACE!!!” The minimalistic, percussive groove is there, with a bit more syncopation this time around, and Yoav’s singing is a bit closer to falsetto, giving it more of a “far-out” feel. There are bizarre lyrics about being invisible and evading interstellar cops, and just a general feeling of being lost somewhere cold and icy. It’s all a bit detached, but the coolness factor is off the charts, especially when Yoav brings in this weird, metallic sound, which I’m presuming created by running the natural harmonics of his acoustic guitar through some sort of a distortion effect. Whatever it is, it’s freaking awesome.
3. Safety in Numbers
I had a hard time with this track at first – it seemed like Yoav’s usual recipe, but with a flattened melody. Then I slowly started to appreciate some of the funky acoustic licks and especially the percussion – and I mean real percussion, this time in the form of a timpani, which becomes a character all its own that provides a sort of melodic counterpoint to the chorus. Add in an atmospheric bridge with more of that lush, layered, fake-strings effect that Yoav likes to bring to the softer moments in his songs, and you get a pretty interesting piece about the dark atmosphere of a nightclub (or a concert, maybe?) and the way people become slaves to the music.
4. Yellowbrite Smile
This being one of the more fast and furious numbers (comparatively speaking), it’s no wonder that it was chosen as the lead single. Yoav establishes a driving rhythm from the get-go, telling a creepy tale of a man who is promised great wealth and power, if he’ll join some sort of strange cult that requires him to keep a smile plastered upon his face and apparently to never ask questions. There’s a bit of piano banging around here just to add some ominous low notes to an already heavy song. It’s catchy despite being such an obviously cynical downer of a song, and while it doesn’t unfold with quite the same epic scope as a song like “Adore Adore”, it has a similarly chilling effect.
The slowest and erriest track on the album has a sort of Middle Eastern bent to it, as Yoav bends his guitar strings to wring an otherworldly sort of twang out of them. The percussion is sparse, but rings out with a loud bang! just to accentuate the beat every few measures, and the overall mood is one of a long, sun-drenched trek through the desert in search of water. “I would keep you frozen forever, in a spider’s song” Yoav croons, and it’s easy to imagine him slowly but methodically building this web of sound, this alluring, sparkling thing designed to draw you in and keep you captive. It’s deliciously creepy.
6. Little Black Box
The theme of holding someone captive is expanded upon in this song, whose beat sounds like an electronically scratched-up palm muting effect. The “little black box” is some sort of secret device that can be used to control or manipulate someone, apparently – it’s a box of secrets, with no one but its owner knowing the contents. He’s got a pretty good approximation of techno going on here (albeit a dark one), with the higher notes imitating the floating keyboard sounds you’d expect in a dance track, and some backmasked sound effects just for ambiance. But it completely switches genres for the bridge, which drops the rhythm entirely in favor of a lone, pounding piano, before bringing the beat back in as it builds to the final chorus. I’d be hard-pressed to put a single genre label on such a song.
7. Easy Chair
Another strong rhythm gets pushed right up in your face here – this time approximating more of an urban beat. The mood’s a bit more relaxed (again, comparatively speaking) as Yoav seems to describe hours being whiled away, daydreaming about lost memories from childhood – old toys and letters he found while digging around in a rarely-visited attic or basement, perhaps. There’s a feeling of time slipping by, as going over these old objects and sitting in that comfortable chair he used to love bring back feelings about events that are no longer quite tangible in his mind. For me, the track seems to drag on for slightly longer than it needs to, with lots of great shimmering, echoing guitar effects, but perhaps not remembering to change up the melody as often as it should, which gives it a trance-like feel but doesn’t quite remain as compelling as it should for its five-minute length.
This is another one that I had a little trouble getting into at first, partially due to a stop/start rhythm that felt slightly tedious to me, and partially to what seemed like a defeatist attitude: “What the hell am I supposed to do with all of this time? What have you done to me? Used to be just fine.” I guess it’s more of a typical “rant against the man” sort of a song, and its refrain in which Yoav dreams of escape gives it a good thematic connection to the previous song, so it’s logically placed within the album, if not one of the more immediate musical standouts. Perhaps it’s just a tad long – either it needs less repetition or a slight kick in the pants bpm-wise. But it’s not a bad track – it’s still decently enjoyable to listen to, and that’s the worst thing I can say about anything on this album. (Just don’t mis-hear the lyrics here – given that it’s a song about escaping oppression, this can lead to some unintended implications when he sings “I know just how the black cat feels”, and it sounds to me an awful lot like he’s saying “I know just how the black guy feels.” Two very different connotations there.)
9. 6/8 Dream
The title’s a pretty apt description of the music here, at least if you know enough about time signatures to know what “6/8” means. It’s significant insofar as Yoav has stuck exclusively to 4/4 up until this point, and it’s interesting to hear the kind of swirly soundscape he creates when not locked into a pattern of emphasizing 2 and 4. This one has a bit of a “soundtrack” quality to it, partially due to the finger-picked rhythm, duplicated a few times, that makes it feel like plucked strings are driving the entire song, and this slowly builds up into a dreamy haze of acoustic sounds and melodies weaving in and out. In keeping with the theme of the past few songs, it’s quite obviously about a dream, though in this case, getting lost in the dream is discouraged, because you could zone out to the point where entire years of your life might just fly by you. Much like the music itself, the momentum of it sneaks up on you, to the point where you’re washed away in the full sound of it before you fully realize how overhwlemingly big it’s gotten. I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more minutes with this one – it feels like it flies by quickly and I never tire of it despite the two simple, repeating minor chords at its core.
10. We All Are Dancing
The closing track, aside from some very light rhythmic work, is almost pure guitar melodies, the sort of thing that would have felt at home on Charmed & Strange. It’s one of my favorites due to the light bounce of it and all of the criss-crossing melodic lines, which feel like lonely reflections of what could have been a furious dance number in another life. In the end, Yoav seems to resolve to stay lost within the dream, figuring it’s better to get swept up in the pull of the music and enjoy the ride. This could be an admission of denial, or else a stubborn refusal to accept a dull life as is, but there’s enough of a positive “lift” to this one that it feels less cynical than the tracks which came before it. This too seems to fade out sooner than I want it to – a trick employed by a lot of the tracks on this album, as if to make you feel like they’re fragments that remain in the memory from longer experiences that were somehow suppressed. But this one is a brief memory of the tide turning, of some sort of small victory starting to crowd out the darkness and malaise.
Yoav kept it lean & mean on this album, which sometimes makes it feel less like a coherent artistic statement and more like ten pretty darn good songs all pieced together individually in their own interesting, unorthodox fashion. It means that the experience can run a little short overall, with individual songs standing out more than the body of work. On future albums I’d love to hear Yoav take an instrumental snippet wherever it needs to go, maybe turn the looping into a full-on jam session or bridging tracks with beautiful little interludes. Something to give it more than an “album-like” quality. But failing that, I still have to give the guy a lot of credit for using only a tiny bit of window dressing from outside the self-contained world of a lone man and his guitar, to create some incredibly catchy and engrossing songs. I’m on board for the ride as long as Yoav continues to take it down these interesting side roads.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Safety in Numbers $1.50
Yellowbrite Smile $1.50
Little Black Box $1.50
Easy Chair $1
6/8 Dream $1.50
We All Are Dancing $1.50
Originally published on Epinions.com.