World Behind Curtains is the second album by Israeli guitarist and composer Yair Yona. His debut effort, Remember, was a charming nod to the work of American pickers like Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose, with Yona building on those guitarists’ post-Takoma palette with a few indie rock touches and some ensemble playing to fill out the sound. Well if Remember sounded full, World Behind Curtains is bursting at the seams! Throughout the disc, Yona’s fiery acoustic fingerpicking is augmented by lush orchestration and carefully arranged instrumental interplay, ranging from the tender, to the sinister, to the ambitiously cinematic.
The tender: First single “It’s Not The Heat, It’s The Humidity” finds Yona in Bert Jansch mode, and the guitarist says that the track was inspired by Jansch’s 1979 masterpiece Avocet. It’s not hard to make that comparison, especially at the beginning of the track where Yona dances around the chord roots, sprinkling in some modal ornamentation and basically nailing Bert’s thumb-picked sound. When Yona is accompanied by Shira Shaked on piano, though, the piece really begins to soar… and when the two players are joined by a chorus of strings, “It’s Not The Heat…” sounds like nothing less than a full-on, big-budget Joe Boyd production. It’s a striking step forward for Yona.
The sinister: There is a foreboding quality to opener “Expatriates”, one that seems to echo the tension that is ever-building in Yona’s part of the world. As the track goes on, the twelve-string acoustic is swallowed up by caterwauling electric guitar noise, and this howling, haunted atmosphere reminds me of Japanese psych-rock heroes Ghost. Later in the disc, “Mad About You” comes out of the gate with tightly wound, energetic strumming before retreating to it’s moody main body, which gradually builds in intensity, picking up speed and eventually unfurling into an insane courting dance. The orchestral players are the stars in this song, and though Yona’s guitar ties the whole thing together, it’s their instrumental filigree that propels the track. Erek Kariel contributed the ambitious arrangements on this tune.
The cinematic: “Miss Fortune (Kaiser’s Eyes)” might be my favorite track on the disc. It still delivers the orchestral drama, but in measured doses, and has Yona playing a long, beautiful melody in standard tuning. I love the sounds that Yona conjures by blending some electric guitar with the strings. At just 3 1/2 minutes, “Miss Fortune” is actually one of the shortest tracks on the album, but it covers a whole lot of ground in that span of time.
There is still some work in the “Fahey platform” on World Behind Curtains, particularly the Basho-inspired psych-jam “Poetry Nights In Valhalla” and the expansive “This One’s For You, Glenn”. During “Glenn”, Yona abides John Fahey’s advice, gradually increasing the tempo of the track as it unfolds… but even when Yona is carrying the torch for the American Primitive style, he’s keeping his ears open for embellishment possibilities. When “Glenn” eventually explodes in a James Blackshaw-esque flurry of triplets, Idit Mintzer’s french horns enter like sunbeams through the clouds, the melody triumphantly restated.
With these few paragraphs, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface in describing the music on World Behind Curtains. There have been a handful of acoustic guitar albums in the last few years that have combined fingerstyle playing with orchestral textures, and many of them are very fine records… but Yona has taken things to the next level with this one, he’s raised the standard. On his sophomore album, Yona harnesses and channels the energy of his many influences without ever sounding derivative, his reverence for his sources is worn proudly on his (album) sleeve. Yona breaks from the majority of his peers in that his songs don’t leave vast openings for long stretches of open-tuned noodling, which so many of today’s players try to pass off as improvisation… rather, this extraordinary guitarist shows a true commitment to composition, and this makes all the difference. Still, World Behind Curtains is full of surprises, and though this may sound like a cliché, really does reveal something new with every listen.