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Taking in Tanakh, and an Acoustical Zukerman

June 8, 2006 By:
M.J. Fine, JE Feature
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Natalia Zukerman adds a new note to her famous family's musical profile.
When done right, instrumental rock can be as majestic as any human-made sound. The right electric guitar can say things that a confessional singer-songwriter can''t. The right combination of sonic explorers will go places that a team of tunesmiths won''t.

Tanakh''s not an instrumental band, per se. Jesse Poe''s voice is steady and tender, but what elevates him from decent singer to savvy frontman is that he knows when not to use his instrument. Long wordless stretches of organic interplay ignite "Ardent Fevers," Tanakh''s fourth album, and Poe''s smart enough to say what he needs to and then get out of the way. Even if he never opened his mouth, the bandleader and his compatriots would carry on a beautiful conversation.

As interns at a Richmond, Va., recording studio in the late 1990s, Poe recently told "Terrascope Online," he and Phil Murphy learned their way around the soundboard by building songs around a multitude of exotic instruments that Joan Osborne had left behind.

That the two didn''t know how to play their new toys was a boon for inspiration, but Poe and Murphy fleshed out the tracks with guitar and banjo to give them a more familiar feel. The improv duo gradually amassed more members - some permanent, most not.

Now based in Florence, Italy, Tanakh has developed a more conventional, less experimental sound while maintaining a spirit of give and take. On "Ardent Fevers," Poe and Murphy stick to guitar and lap steel; and there''s nothing too exotic about their gear. But their circle has swelled to include organ, cello, violin, saxophone and cornet players, as well as the rock staples of drums and bass, and all of the elements come together in beautiful and haunting ways.

"Still Trying to Find You Home" best embodies the group''s contradictions. With one hand in folk and the other in squall, it''s richly evocative, and yet feels very small. Songs like "5 a.m." and "Drink to Sher" are warm and wistful; "Over Your Consistency" buzzes with a benevolent sax; and "Take and Read" caps it all off with eight blissful minutes of spacey guitar and organ.

The spell breaks only when the pace slackens. In contrast to the relatively poppy "Grey Breathes," which sets the bar for longing, "Restless Hands" is pleasant but aimless, and "Hit the Ground" is unhurried and mediocre.

"Ardent Fevers" is a late-night meal for one; two might appreciate its candlelight vibe, but yearning is a dish that tastes best when experienced alone.

• • •

Boston''s Natalia Zukerman, who recently played the Tin Angel, is rarely at a loss for words. She comes from an orchestra family - father Pinchas conducts; mother Eugenia plays flute - but she shrugged off her classical violin training as soon as she discovered acoustic guitar.

Her songs are rooted in folk, with more country and jazz touches than her pedigree would suggest. Her vocal style recalls a laidback Ani Difranco - but don''t mistake mellow for sleepy.

Her flow may be on the slow end of the scale, but "Augie''s," from her second album, "On a Clear Day," swings and hops with a keen sense of justice and rhythm. The world can be cruel to artists, but Zukerman slings a wordy story around a swinging groove instead of hollering in childish protest.

Where her previous recordings used cello, drums, trumpet and even her mother''s flute for color, her new one strips down to the essentials. The 13 songs on "Only One," recorded at home, are naked except for guitar and dobro. That approach puts the focus on Zukerman''s voice and lyrics, and she''s up to the challenge.

She''s never sounded more confident than on the sticky, twangy "Ice Cream"; it''s as compelling an ode to sweetness as you''re likely to hear this year, and more calmly reflective than most other breakup songs.

She''s less forgiving on "Bones," which explores the moment a relationship falls out of the honeymoon period. It''s more pointed than most of her songs, and Zukerman comes off as more mature by adding an edge to her usual ambivalence. "If ever there was a time to tell me/If ever there was a time to touch me too long," she sings, "If ever there was a time to be our time, that time is gone."

It takes a subtle artist to make an ultimatum sound like both a threat and a peace offering, but Zukerman pulls it off. For the artist herself, her time is now.

Taking in Tanakh, and an Acoustical ZukermanTaking in Tanakh, and an Acoustical Zukerman

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