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World Music CD Reviews Europe

Yael Naïm & David Donatien

By Bill Murphy
Published June 19, 2008

Yael Naïm & David Donatien
Tôt Ou Tard/Atlantic

Now that cross-promotion—an offshoot of that white whale once referred to by smarmy ad execs as “synergy”—has become the de facto savior of the ailing music industry, the end result is that commercials have morphed into the new MTV, and Apple is suddenly the voice of a new generation. It started with the trendy iPod spots, which have broken all kinds of hit songs (remember the Caesars shuffle “Jerk It Out”?), with one of the latest being Feist’s ubiquitous “1234” for the iPod Nano. All great stuff, but the question always lingers: is the rest of the album any good?

In the case of Paris-born singer and songwriter Yael Naïm, whose catchy “New Soul” was adopted as the theme song for Apple’s new MacBook Air, the answer is a resounding yes, but it’s not just because the song’s winning piano-riff-and-nursery-rhyme formula spills over into the rest of her major label debut. Recorded over the course of two years in her Paris flat with West Indian drummer David Donatien and a small corps of backing players, the album is a vivid refl ection of her Tunisian roots, her classical training on piano, and perhaps most significantly, the fact that she spent most of her life in a small town outside of Tel Aviv listening to the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin, among others.

Opening with “Paris,” a dreamy ode sung in Hebrew that brims with the wistful homesickness of a traveler far from home, Naïm sets the tone for the shiny nuggets to come. She rarely belts out a song, but instead seems to inhabit its melodic core with a voice that can channel by turns Beth Gibbons of Portishead (on the trippy “Too Long,” sung in English) and even, at times, Jeff Buckley’s gooseflesh-raising falsetto excursions (on the string-heavy “Shelcha,” sung in Hebrew). She’s at her best when she gets a chance to stretch out and inject a little irony into her delivery her music-box-like cover of Britney Spears’ aggressive come-hither anthem “Toxic” is a tiny triumph—voiced in exactly the same key as the original, and rendered with all the subtle vulnerability of a coiled cobra (complete with snake-charmer’s flutes over the song’s fadeout).

“Endless Song Of Happiness,” the album’s closer, also reminds us that this is music made in Paris, and as such it contains a fl avor of the café or the late-night boîte experience: over a drink and a little conversation, there’s nothing quite like a lilting sing-along to keep everyone in the mood. It’s the same kind of positive energy that Naïm generates when she performs live, and although her quiet, introspective music isn’t exactly what you might slap on the sound system to rev up a party, it certainly goes a long way toward making the