Two years ago, reviewing Yair Yona’s first album of Takoma-style finger picking with Middle Eastern elements, Bill Meyer said that he hoped that the young Israeli guitarist would someday “get further past his influences and, like Basho-Junghans, into a sound that is completely his own.” With World Behind Curtains, Yona is still wearing his influences on his sleeve (literally: the sleeve notes reference Bert Jansch, Glenn Jones, Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho and Kelly Joe Phelps), yet he has indeed moved along. His sound on this second album shows a deep affection for, and knowledge of, the American Primitive tradition, yet it is less confined by this tradition — less confined, even, by its instrument. World Without Curtains is, in some ways, like James Blackshaw’s last couple of albums, a document of a skilled guitar player in the process of turning himself into a composer, conductor and arranger.
Only the first track of World Behind Curtains showcases Yona alone. The very Blackshaw-esque “Expatriates” is a stirring exploration of the 12-string, its plaintive melody surrounded by shimmering curtains of overtones. A howl of feedback erupts halfway through the piece, shattering its placidity and injecting an unexpected violence into the exercise. “Bella,” at the album’s end, adds a piano to Yona’s restrained acoustic picking, the two instruments intersecting and answering each other, but most of all leaving space. The quiet between chords and picked melodies speaks in this piece almost as much as the notes themselves.
These two tracks are sparely delivered, but elsewhere Yona heads a veritable chamber orchestra. “It’s Not the Heat (It’s the Humidity)” unspools with an unweighted gracefulness, its piano, acoustic guitar and strings executing complicated points and counterparts without crowding the piece’s delicate melody. “Mad About You” is denser and more dramatic, splicing together American country blues with vibrating, string-section dissonances and flourishes.
There’s very little of what made Yona different last time — that is, the unexpected conjunction of Eastern and American primitive styles. You can hear a little of it in “Mad About You,” a shivering trace of the Middle East in the Leo Kottke tribute, “Kottke and the Orchids.” Yet, for the most part, Yona expands on the folk-blues paradigm set out by Fahey, Basho, Jansch and their followers, enhancing and expanding porch-style picking with lush, unlikely arrangements. A French horn brightens and clarifies the shadowy mesh of picking on “This One’s for You, Glenn,” Yona’s nod to friend and mentor Glenn Jones. “Poetry Nights in Valhalla” wraps the down home certainty of country blues in brass and clarinet. Some of these touches are odd, but none feel extraneous.
The playing is excellent throughout, not just Yona himself, but the dozen or so people he’s recruited to accompany him. Pianist Shira Shaked makes a particularly lithe and playful impact on “It’s Not the Heat (It’s the Humidity),” and multi-instrumentalist Erez Kariel lays down some very fine mandolin and bouzouki on “Kottke and the Orchids.” Yona plays with these people, not over them. This is not a solo record with a few people brought in, but more of an ensemble piece.
World Behind Curtains seems less of a guitar record than Remember and more of an attempt to think melodically in a variety of timbres. Yona may still look to the same guitarists for inspiration, but he’s not limited by them. Basho, Fahey, Kottke and others may have proved that a guitar can be an orchestra by itself, but Yona says, why not a guitar and an orchestra?
By Jennifer Kelly