Sotones Records – Out Now
A little bit of history: as a child in Jerusalem, Avital Raz trained as a classical singer. Degrees in composition and vocal performance followed before she relocated to India for six years to study singing in the Dhrupad style, an ancient Hindustani musical form that can be traced back at least as far as the thirteenth century. She is well-versed in the theory and practice of the musical systems of the Middle East and has recorded in styles as wide-ranging as Indian raga, English folk music and cabaret. She has also recorded an album of James Joyce’s poetry set to music (and in doing so incurred the wrath of the Joyce estate, whose judgement of Raz’s settings as ‘inappropriate’ still seems overly conservative and shortsighted).
Those are the facts, and it could be argued that they point to an artist whose output values academia and historical accuracy over human feeling and aesthetic consideration. But the bare facts rarely tell the full story, and in Raz’s case, they couldn’t be more misleading. If you listen to The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent expecting an emotionally dry exercise in modern composition, you will be in for a very pleasant surprise. It turns out that Raz is, first and foremost, a songwriter. And she is a songwriter with an agenda that is both modern and searingly relevant, combining political and social concerns with surprisingly loose, poppy aesthetic.
Album opener TV begins with the burnt-out swing of classic country and western filtered through the imperfect gauze of anti-folk. At first just Raz’s guitar and voice, TV details the familiar concerns of loneliness and lost love in increasingly more imaginative ways. Strings and percussion kick in, the narrator’s predicament worsens, the tempo shifts up and down, and Raz sings a wordless refrain of ‘do-do-do’s’ like a slacker Vashti Bunyan, or a Buffy Sainte-Marie for the box set generation. But the layered, almost baroque vocal delivery that reaches its clearest moment at the very end of the song reveals a tantalising glimpse of the depths of Raz’s influences, the historical weight that lies behind the comparative lightness of this song. Vocally if not lyrically, it resembles Josephine Foster.
Leonard Cohen once wrote that ‘deprivation is the mother of poetry’, and when that deprivation is brought about by estrangement from loved ones, the poetry that emerges can be particularly personal and raw. The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent is an album about this particular kind of loss. Its songs, though often varied in style, each tackle aspects of the same thing, and do so in ways that are always inventive and often steeped in the rich language of Raz’s personal feminism. The darkly bluesy Bored Lord squares up to the ennui of the end of a relationship, then turns around and takes a swipe at religion: the song’s narrator might be bored, but she is bored on her own terms. When she begins Male Order Bride with the line ‘I’m working for the man’, the ‘man’ in question is instantly understood – because of patriarchal history of popular music – to be a generalisation, a cypher for a crushing authority figure or an entire authoritarian state. But Raz quickly and cleverly shoots down that idea, instead presenting the ‘man’ in more literal terms, as someone individually responsible for the desolate place the narrator currently finds herself in. In doing so, she implicates all such individuals. It is a damning, powerful and blackly funny song.
Raz never lets the listener get comfortable, though. If we have laughed while listening to the previous songs, The Damn Flood makes us question why, and throws into doubt the nature and role of humour in interpersonal relationships (and in songwriting). It’s all delivered against the unlikely but effective backdrop of flighty duduk and jazzy bass and drums. Isabel St. Revisited brings Middle Eastern musical textures to an exploration of sexual predation submissiveness. It is something like a more candid Joni Mitchell or a more musically exploratory Ani DiFranco. Jukebox asks more questions about the nature of unequal relationships and the link between patriarchy and music, to a background that seemingly borrows from the more sentimental side of Jewish folk music, much as Leonard Cohen did in the late 70s on Recent Songs.
The choral swell that begins Regarding Angels at first appears to be a literal representation of the song’s title. It acts as an introduction to a meditation on an alternative Judeo-Christian mythos and a personal exploration of love, mortality and music. The title track’s allure comes partly from the way that the melody unravels, mirroring the lyrics, as Raz performs vocal gymnastics, somehow keeping the unspooling words within the boundaries of the song. My Lover Is Cold is one of the simplest, darkest and strangest songs on the album, once again using black humour to ask what you can and can’t laugh at. Here the subject matter, which includes suicide, is all the more disconcerting thanks to the deadpan, almost plain way in which it is delivered.
It is difficult to identify a high point on an album as varied and consistently accomplished as this, but Yossi’s Song is a sure contender. It showcases the breadth of Raz’s influences – a tang of raga, the range of a Sandy Denny ballad, an austere but expressive cello – and it is perhaps here that the immense personality of the album shines brightest. Or perhaps the accolade should go to Sorry About The Pills, where humour and melancholy go hand in hand, and modern lyrical concerns are served uncannily well by timeworn songwriting tropes. Either way, these two songs serve as a potent one-two punch, a bittersweet finishing combination that perfectly rounds off this most idiosyncratic of albums. There is no-one quite like Avital Raz in the world of music right now, and she should be applauded for the intelligence and singularity of her artistic vision. The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent is a genuinely original musical statement, full of wise, exotic and gleefully mordant songs that manage to be simultaneously challenging and melodic.
The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent is Out Now on Sotones Records
Order it via Bandcamp
Upcoming Dates: May 19 Regather Works Sheffield – Tickets