ALBUM REVIEW: Tamar Aphek – ‘All Bets Are Off’: superb opening salvo from Tel Aviv power trio



SHE HAS a smokey caress of a voice, she has clear sight, passion and direction, and she can wield six strings with the best of them; ladies and gentlemen, get ready to make some room in your heart for Tamar Aphek.

She’s a face in her native Israel, being called “Israel’s guitar goddess” by the magazine Timeout Tel-Aviv. She runs the Besides That festival and wrote the soundtrack to the 2016 comedy-drama One Week And A Day, an award winner at Cannes.

It’s to all our benefit that Kill Rock Stars, that seminal imprint that’s hosted the like of Elliott Smith, The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney and more, have tempted her through their doors, the better that we should swoon for her. And her debut album, All Bets Are Off, due out this Friday, January 29th, may prove hard to resist.

For someone who seems, when you hear her, to have the rock actually coursing through her veins, she came to rock music relatively late; she sang in a prestigious choir and took piano lessons for a decade. That all changed at 18.

“It wasn’t until I first heard bands like Fugazi, Shellac, Sonic Youth, Jesus Lizard, Blonde Redhead, Unwound, Slint; Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, that I started diving into history,” she says.

“I was fascinated by the minimalist sound based on asymmetric time signatures these bands had.”

Thus was a course set. Next stop? A guitar of her own. “I remember when I bought my first really cheap, small amplifier, and my first shitty guitar.”

“I will never feel so happy about a guitar and amplifier again. Even if I play the most expensive Fender, nothing will compare to that excitement.”

Another great thing about Tamar Aphek: she fronts a power trio. She sings and plays guitar, with bassist Uri Kutner and Yuval Garin on drums behind her in the rhythmic pocket.

She wanted her debut to be bold, brash, cool, drawing on the tradition she’d come to in her teens while looking to bring her own take – and its all of these things.

Whilst fashioning the album she became fascinated at the idea of combining sounds and stylings she felt were being overlooked. “I wanted to infuse rhythms into rock and roll that I wasn’t hearing elsewhere,” she explains.

“I wanted to write a Johnny Cash-style song, but then dress it up in crazy Max Roach-style drumming or Ethiopian rhythms.

“I was getting a kick out of hearing something that could sound like a catchy indie song, but with a strange reggae kind of feeling.”

Just take a listen to the second single from the beginning of December, “Drive”; we’ve embedded it down the end there. It mixes the smokey blues poise and vocal delivery of a Polly Jean or a Nadine Shah, with a deep psych meander, as if Khruangbin had partaken of one of Owsley’s sugarcubes and were freeing up at a happening in Golden Gate Park, San Fran, summer ’68. It has depth and smoulder and bags of atmosphere – all the great rock things. Choon, frankly, and it wrapped its rhythmic shepherd’s crook around me.

It’s an exploration to which she’s deeply wedded, with especial pertinence, I think, to “Drive” Tamar adds: “During rehearsals before tour I wouldn’t even play guitar; I picked up the guitar only on tour and I started improvising all my parts.

“A lot of the improvisational freedom we hear in jazz records is missing for me in more current rock bands … I think that’s why we listened to a lot of bebop albums, and a lot of weird instrumental stuff: to open spiritual and artistic freedom and not be too calculated.

“I wanted it to be really scary when it’s scary, and really sad when it’s sad. I didn’t want the album to sound like the same song for ten songs. I wanted it to sound more like life, and in life you’re not stuck in one state of mind.”

Tamar Aphek and her band, Uri Kutner (left) and Yuval Garin (right), photographed by Rotem Lebel

We’re straight in at the business end with “Russian Winter”, which sees Tamar, detached, elegant, like Nico but with more immersion in sultry, honeyed rock poise, singing over the crispest hip-hop break: “I know I’m gonna lose the war, in the sea / I know how big the risk is taking you and me / I’ll fight the Russian winter straight into your heart”; and when that bass kicks the door down it’s frankly dangerous, so abrasively fuzzy is it; it must be on several most-wanted lists. And then the amps howl and the guitar roars and she proves she can wave aside any cool detachment the moment she wishes. It’s guitar bloodied and oh-so-delicious and quite the opener.

“Show Me Your Pretty Side” was her debut single, almost four months ago now; in which Tamar drapes her smokey tones over twangy guitar which always sounds like its looking for a new avenue to explore; there’s curls of sax. My betting is you’ll be getting little elements of Polly Jean, of The Gun Club, even a little Khruangbin, in that smokey blues. (If you fancy giving that a squizz, we covered it here and you can have a listen.)

“Most of my songs reflect a quest to find an equilibrium between contrasts: either love vs hate in relationships, justice and injustice within society, war and peace between nations and so on, ” she says of the song.

“My song is an inner dialogue between what I call the ‘good cop bad cop’ which I believe exists in every person, so one person is asking his or her partner to take off the cover which conceals the pretty side.”

“All I Know” is Sixties psych, guitar biting in reverb and mysterious, cooltempo organ, as it The United States of America‘s Dorothy Moskowitz had swapped in for Jim Morrison on a session. It’s timeless and has grandeur. Even on a review mp3 stream Tamar’s charisma drips through. Imagine this live, is all I can think.

The excellent “Drive” – and it gets better with every listen, needs a dusk field for the full experience, I’m confidently wagering; Garden Stage at next year’s End of the Road, anyone? – leads us to “Too Much Information” begins as a coolly exploratory, bluesy sketch – I tells ya, Yuval is one helluva sticksman – over which Tamar caresses a lead line; the chorus again carries this United States of America thing; I think it’s the cool, detached nature of her vocals against that organ. This is, of course, a great thing, as The United States of America (and their second incarnation, Joe Byrd & The Field Hippies) opened doors towards musical directions which have been only partially explored, and that more from the electronic side by bands such as Broadcast. “I was wondering when I’d see you again,” smoulders Tamar over the heady psych-rock brew; “Look at you, acting like a madman,” the elegant ex, arms folded, the to-die-for lover you never deserved. It’s lovely when the music begins to decay and fall apart and drop semitonally, Yuval a man possessed.

“Crossbow” is perspiringly intense: with the snare tuned right up high it’s a Ginger Baker-meets-Fugazi dread-shaker, a crowd-surfer of a rock monster. You better be brave in the pit when you hear this one begin, because it’s gonna get hectic. Passages of dubby ricochet bring extra depth and seduction while Tamar coos of there being nowhere left to run; of there being no place under the sun. Her solo is pitch-perfect impro, all feeling, no flash, plenty noisy.

A little calm after the delectable thunder of the past couple of tracks comes in the slow and processive “Beautiful Confusion”, Tamar in full chanteuse fatale mode, cool, calm, keeping a lid on the musical fire; cymbals hiss, the bass is muscular. Somewhere just before the three-minute mark she thinks: fuck it, and lets rip waves of six-stringed psych-fuzz that could defoliate a forest at fifty yards.

“Nothing Can Surprise Me” has all the complexity and looseness of Hendrix, intricate rhythmical space for Tamar to bleed her voice and guitar into. The mind boggles at the busyness and yet the spaces opening; all part of the plan, as she explains: “I wanted to create a shifting between bass, guitar and drum parts that were rhythmically syncing to parts in which the bass and the guitar plays against the kick drum. This shifting was meant to create a sense of tension and release throughout the album.” (*doffs hat to an infinitely finer musicological mind than mine.)

The album ends with a lovely, off-the-cuff and lo-fi run at “As Time Goes By”, the old standard from Casablanca; to which Tamar’s mellifluous, romantic timbre is like a glove. It’s slightly for kicks, a peek behind the curtain, and whatever, because it’s got chutzpah and brilliance and leaves you smiling.

She says: “I still have a strong belief in the basic ideas of love and friendship, and this is the reason my album ends up with the theme song of the eternal film Casablanca, which embodies these simple ideas.”

It’s a cracking debut. Tamar takes the power trio thing and moves it forward into new psych-blues-rock territories with elegance and so much fire. She also might just be the best new noisy guitar stylist since Joey Santiago and John Dwyer. You can tell, the guitar and her: it’s a love affair for life, like Richard Burton ‘n’ Liz Taylor. She’s potent and has a voice of real elegance, and sonic firepower, and tunes, and the future is very, very bloody bright indeed.

Tamar Aphek’s All Bets Are Off will be released by Kill Rock Stars on digital, CD, trad black and limited violet vinyl on January 29th, 2021, and may be pre-ordered from the label’s shop, here.

Follow Tamar Aphek on Facebook and Instagram.

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