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Jordana Talsky

Zahava (2021)


December 17, 2021

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.3
1 Superpower 3.7
2 Oh Yeah 4.0
3 Over The Wall 3.7
4 Trouble Up 4.3
5 City Lights 3.7
6 Honey 3.7

Recorded 2020 – 2021
Total time: 21:03, 6 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
1 Superpower 5
2 Oh Yeah 5
3 Over The Wall 5
4 Trouble Up 5
5 City Lights 5
6 Honey 5

Somewhere between the quirky intensity of Grace McLean and the near mystical, indie wanderings of Julia Easterlin lies the hypnotic, groove-ridden, soul-bearing originality of Canadian live-looper Jordana Talsky. Like those other two live-looping godesses, Talsky is simply not to be missed.

Zahava ("golden" in Hebrew, and also Talsky's middle name) is an all-vocal, all original looping record that feels effortless: free of artifice, free of a cappella's imitative trappings, free of undue studio enhancements. Intimate, narrative, honest and subversively original, Talsky is unrelentingly mesmerizing. Her lead drips with an unexpectedly spicy honey: a smooth, textured lyric belt that whispers as easily as shouts. And Talsky arrives with a resume: a finalist in the 2018 CBC Searchlight Contest; in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition; and in the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. Her singles Neither of Either and Standard Deviation received international airplay. 

A tapestry of sounds from the microscopically small to the soaring, Talsky's arrangements and production are successful at the critical element of providing a unified world in which the lead and her six original songs can thrive. Favoring the sparse, and escewing the bombastic, they may not appeal to those seeking denser jazz harmonies or aca-competition set moments, but they speak to an indie-folk sensibility: patient, subtle, hypnotic. The hi-hats on City Lights might be the most delicate I've ever heard. The percussive breaths on Honey, ghostly.  

Recorded and released in the midst of a global pandemic, Zahava feels closer, almost physically closer, than safety has permitted of our masked and six-foot-distanced lives. On Zahava, Talsky's voice is millimeters away, and it's riveting.

As Talsky tells Celebmix, "I am a person of several voices, and now a choir of one. Zahava … reminds me that the gold in all of us – our beauty, wisdom, and power – will be best harnessed when we learn to feel at home. I hope something in this music may inspire you to find home in yourself."

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Superpower 3
2 Oh Yeah 4
3 Over The Wall 3
4 Trouble Up 4
5 City Lights 3
6 Honey 3

To some extent, live-looping is a performance style or "orchestration" to be best assessed and appreciated in person – "live" is right there in the title after all! – so any evaluation of a recording by a solo artist who chooses to accompany themselves in this fashion is going to be somewhat skewed.

Is it fair to complain, then, that almost without exception, each offering on Jordana Talsky's release, Zahava, builds in nearly identical ways from a basic ostinato rhythm, with additional percussive rhythms or harmonic ornamentations gradually added, then subtracted such that the general outline and structure is very similar from song to song? After all, isn't that the inherent nature of most live-looping on some level?

To my mind, insofar as RARB is concerned, the answer is yes. But to be clear, it also shouldn't detract from an appreciation of the talent or creativity of the artist in question.

If you accept Zahava on its own terms, it's a reasonably enjoyable six-song album to listen to once or twice. Talsky is a gifted lead singer with soul and style to spare, and her solos are really the place where the character and personality of her work shows itself in the best light. If the songwriting styles showcased here were a bit more varied and the arranging a little less formulaic, perhaps the material would soar that much more. Instead, we get variations on R&B/soul grooves that never quite groove as much as I hope they would because the backgrounds are actually more "folk-y" than funky, and because truly grounding vocal percussion is perhaps not Talsky's strongest suit. There are moments – the back end of Oh Yeah and the second verse of Trouble Up, to name two – where the material cries out for some extra rhythmic and harmonic "oomph"; but whether it's an unwillingness to get more adventurous or the concrete, technical limitations of live-looping (or at least, Talsky's version thereof, which is quite strict), we never quite get there.

The reviewing challenge is a bit tougher on RARB terms because, quite honestly, if one were to listen to these identical arrangements and be told they were performed by an ensemble of, say, 5-6 performers, one would be underwhelmed. There is an unavoidable robotic quality to background vocals repeated ad infinitum by a machine that saps energy and vitality. There are compositional/songwriting limitations as well, in terms of how varied the chord structure of a given song can be if one isn't willing to either lay down entirely distinct sections of the same song and/or utilize a fancier Ableton rig (or the like) to manipulate and automate which bits and pieces of rhythm and harmony can be brought back at different moments through the song. 

If we presume that the music memorialized here is nearly identical to what Talsky can offer in performance, there can be no question that her ability to do so is a commendable and impressive achievement. I'm glad I had the opportunity to become aware of this music, and it very much makes me want to see her live. What it doesn't make for, however, is a repeatedly satisfying recorded listening experience that I want to revisit again and again.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Superpower 3
2 Oh Yeah 3
3 Over The Wall 3
4 Trouble Up 4
5 City Lights 3
6 Honey 3

Looping has been a prominent musical technology integration, both in a cappella and not, for decades. Much like the QR code, looping has had a resurgence, given the isolated nature of the pandemic. Looped songs by a soloist may seem like a limited enterprise, but there is a myriad of possibilities, both harmonic and melodic, highlighted by the strategic addition and subtraction of musical parts which alters the texture. On Zahava, Jordana Talsky captures her voice in a way that could clearly be reproduced for a live looping session without pre-recorded parts as a one-person band. The album misses the mark in its monotony and conservativism, not moving in stark enough directions electronically, harmonically or texturally to utilize the full range of Talsky's potential as a versatile solo artist.

With songs that rely on a layering effect, there is great potential to fall into a minimalistic trap. In the case of Zahava, the lines are so bare on many tracks, such as Oh Yeah and Over The Wall, that they provide little support to the whole in terms of dynamic, harmony, or emotional direction. The dearth of dynamic variation within individual phrases or between verse and chorus is also a factor that detracts from the overall arc and repeat listenability. Some timbral and rhythmic choices certainly are made, such as the percussive effect using claps in Superpower. Unfortunately, they don't go far enough in their expression from an intensity (dynamic or otherwise) standpoint to push the needle in any direction past the middle.

Similarly, the genuine, realistic effect of the voices implies that a live looping performance would not be much different from what is captured here. On the other hand, the vocals are not completely without effect, and the neutral tone-like filter imposed on the background vocals is so consistent and persistent among the six tracks that they become homogenous. The only song that stylistically breaks free is Trouble Up, which has a more sultry edge, as buoyed by Talsky's strong solo vocals.

Harmonic, melodic, textural, and even dynamic simplicity are certainly not problems in music. The issue comes in the form of the combo platter serving all four with a side of similar filters and effects on the background vocals. This leaves the listener with so little variation between tracks that it is difficult to remain engaged throughout.

I recognize that, as the sole vocalist on this album, Talsky receives both all of the praise and the criticism. But regardless of my scores and critiques, Zahava is still an impressive project, and hopefully not the last from this multi-talented artist.


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Ordering Information

Zahava is available to stream on Spotify, Deezer, and Bandcamp.

  • Bandcamp