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Yael Naim: The Joy of Speaking in Tongues

22 Oct

After winning tickets to see Yael Naim at the Cedar Cultural Center, I confess not being wholly sold or thrilled. “Cute,” I thought to myself, “another international artist getting sales boost from the Mac advertising juggernaut. File under CSS and the Ting Tings.” I have to not be so snarky with myself (although sometimes it works- you just have to know when to admit you’re wrong.)

Naim, who is French-Israeli and speaks with a laughing lilt, came onstage with her backing band (David Donatien on percussion and chief arrangement, Laurent David on bass, and Xavier Tribolet on keys) and announced that they had “done a long road from Paris, where we recorded this album in a very small apartment.” The group then broke into pop-jazz numbers, led by Naim on guitar and accompanied by full synth (and somehow, very French) backing keys. The opening tracks contained a hint of Naim’s vocal range, but as she went over to the the upright piano, the Cedar employee carrying up a mug confirmed that she might have been fighting against the odds. Once at the keyboard though, she announced that she was going play a cover song by an unnamed friend and then began to playfully tap out a melody, singing a husky bar-room chanson that grew in scope and abandon. The song became grander, Naim’s pipes stretched and bent, hung with anticipation and then unlocking its warmth, like being let in on a pop culture joke. The song was “Toxic,” the unnamed friend was Britney Spears.

Language as a means of communication after the jump!

Try not to get swept along with a woman self-deprecating enough to do a full throated cover of “Toxic,” or who will mix up French and English in “Game Is Over,” by declaring that she’s “seen the lumiere” – or unafraid to call her younger self pretentious, as she did while introducing “New Soul,” the track of Mac fame. When she sang “Paris,” a whirl of a love song to the city in French and Hebrew, she laughed that you would hear some “ch-ch-ch” sounds. “Why Do We” asked the question of why do we fall in love, and why do we hurt each other so, complete with accordion reeling into conga breakdowns, Middle-Eastern inflected rhythm, and spacing that gave Donatien, David and Tribolet their chance to shine. Throughout the night she was effusive and ebullient, cajoling singing out of the crowd, who sang with trepidation but applauded with abandon.

Standing in the back of the Cedar watching Naim onstage, a litany of referents flowed from her music. The notepaper I was scribbling on became filled with other musicians and song snippets in my attempt to triangulate her. It is a testament to the Cedar that some of the best comparisons came from shows that I had seen there: Annie Clark of St. Vincent, and Keren Ann – another Parisienne songstress. Still, it was exhausting editing it all down, because the show was so singularly full of light, funny and hopeful, and then the thought struck. There are people who are just themselves because they are so unique they are unclassifiable, and there are those who are so expansive that they seem to come from all directions. These sets are by no means mutually exclusive – especially not when you are talking in three distinct languages but conversing in one universal idiom.

Far Far
Too Long
The Only One
Endless Song of Happiness
Find Us
Why Do We
Man Of
New Soul
Game Is Over

Also: Slideshow with more of Staciaann Photography’s photos at!

Tangentially related: The Cedar hosts Jolie Holland this Saturday, which is spiffy. Even spiffier is opener Herman Dune, a laid back folkie whose funnyman music videos are directed by my friend of a long time past, Toben Seymour. Check out this little gem for “My Home is Nowhere Without You”:

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