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Album Review: Noga Erez - Off The Radar

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For an album that has, according to its artist, been developed across her whole life, Off The Radar also has a somewhat uncomfortable presience.

The entirety of Off The Radar rides the thin line between lyrical anger directed at oblique subjects, and far flimsier attitudes towards frustratingly unclear subjects, with less bite behind Erez’s mocking bark. More often than not, we land on the former’s side, a testament to her frequently surprising production.

The multi-tracked screams which open the album on ‘Balkada’ are a fake-out of choral elements on more conventional pop tracks. Here, what begins harmonically, drops in and out of tune, pitch skewing while the song’s layers build – the heavy bass of the synths and the sparse percussion create something ever darker and more unnerving than Erez’s humble, straightforward vocals do alone. This combination though, with the knowing lyrics of “It makes you horny, their widely open throats/Waiting to be fed with whatever you may serve”, is designed to confront, to box you in, and show you what you look like when you’re dancing.

This is often Erez’ pursuit across the record – turning her own perspective back onto us: ‘Dance While You Shoot’ may be nominally about how Israel’s government mistreats and neglects its people, seemingly without a care, but it could equally be about asking Erez’s competition if they can make a point whilst provoking the more joyous limb-flailing required of pop-songs. All the rage builds in the bridge, with the clanging percussion reaching fever pitch, as if the song was recorded during a disruptive protest. It’s exhilarating, and thoughtful – the same can be said of the lean and uncannily eerie ‘Toy’, which seems to take the POV of a nameless leader, whose power was gained through nepotism and corruption.

Meanwhile in the title track, the percussion comes to the forefront in the pre-chorus, the militaristic tattoo of its simple snare beat amplified with claps and enough gaps to play at surprising you, before the synth-addled horns of the chorus overtake them. It’s certainly less unnerving or aggressive than earlier tracks, but you still get the sense of Erez taking part in an album-long self-interrogation, as much as she wants you to sway and pulsate with pleasure.

More than posing anger towards unjust systems – which tracks like ‘Toy’ and ‘Dance While You Shoot’ for certain do – Erez’s chief concern with her pointed music is herself. She interrogates her own existence in this world, asking how she could live in a society that allows extremes of poverty, corruption, violence, and war.  Sometimes that means confronting those extremes. But she confronts it for herself and no-one else, which is why so many of the tracks bury the subjects in pronouns. At times this is maddening: the interludes of warped vocals, spouting “You want me to just hit you/What do you want me to do?” on ‘Hit U’ or “Read the instructions carefully” on ‘Instruction’ come across as pointless efforts to make the album broader, whilst maintaining the goals of ‘alternative’ genre credentials.

On ‘Pity’ however, that lack of personification is a key tool in giving the song its sinister power. The drumbeats have all the ominous intent of a firing squad when they roll, and deep, round, seductive synths which cover the opposite end of the spectrum to the superiority in Erez’ voice, backed by a chanting sycophantic chorus. This is a sexy and sour song.

And then you read that the “Skinny cat in a dog’s land” refers to the victim of a highly publicised rape in Israel. ‘Pity’s POV is of the violator, and the viewers: during the nightclub incident, a crowd formed and filmed it on phones – so that’s where both the ominous pre-chorus of “Everybody wants it now/Everybody stands in line/All of them want one thing/They’re here to get it/They keep saying” comes from. Erez’s anger is turned on both the society that encourages such behaviour, and on the listener who doesn’t question such disturbingly predatory lyrics.

Off The Radar falls down when it leans too far away from confrontations like this. Where Anohni was obvious to a clanging degree when she made her points on ‘Drone Bomb Me’, ‘4 Degrees’, or ‘Obama’, that clarity made the often dreamy, always moving dance-pop impossible to ignore. It was always confrontational. By no means do good songs, or good protest songs, need to spell things out to such a degree, yet if the lyrics aren’t making you uncomfortable enough, then the melody should.

Yet in Off The Radar’s back half especially, the sparse arrangements and aggressive percussion that make the first half so danceable and unexpected have been replaced with arrangements favouring smoother synths, simpler rhythms, and fewer surprises – such as on closing track ‘Junior’, the climactic ‘Noisy’, or the title track itself. The refrains are more repetitive, and drone ever so slightly flatly on-and-on. It makes for a quieter ending to one of the most promising and distinctive debuts of the year, which can only be a disappointment considering the noisy and electrifying tracks which dominate it.

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