Distinctive foreign artist Yael Naim has mass appeal

It might seem hard to take an artist seriously when her new CD features a remake of Britney Spears’ quality track “Toxic,” but the version on Yael Naim’s new eponymous CD is just one of the many things that makes her multilingual U.S. debut worthwhile and enjoyable.

Naim’s name might not be familiar or even pronounceable to American audiences, but the lead track off her new album, “New Soul,” was heard by millions and skyrocketed to popularity through its featured spot in ads for Apple’s new MacBook. Another English track, “Far Far,” was heard by millions as the iTunes free single of the week, also helping to make Naim accessible to American audiences. It also helps that she produces catchy melodies and that has an eerie vocal similarity to some other well-known artists – Corrine Bailey Rae, Feist and Ingrid Michaelson all come to mind. While you may not have heard of her, plenty of others have, most recently proven by “New Soul” ranking at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100.

Singing in French, Hebrew and English, Naim’s gentle yet still throaty voice mixes with delicate piano on songs ranging from energized (“New Soul”) to somber (“Lonely”). This versatility in tone is paralleled by the variety of styles Naim exhibits on the album as well, as her sound is a hybrid between jazz and folk to a sound even bordering on new age in classification.

While the “Toxic” cover might remind you of another tongue-in-cheek parody by Alanis Morissette, the clunky piano on “New Soul” might call to mind Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” and is equally addictive, even to the cynic.

The Israeli-French singer illustrates her creative and feisty spirit on every track, as the uptempo songs carry an air of hopefulness that permeates the entire album down to its slowest selections, which might want to make you do yoga or take a nap. Bare vocals and simple accompaniment enhance Naim’s voice and increase the poignancy of the sad lyrics on “Too Long,” but songs like “Yashanti” or “Shelcha” are equally as impacting although the language barrier prevents their literal meaning from being understood. Much like these foreign language songs, listening to the way Naim’s music sounds is much better at expressing the emotions it encapsulates than attempting to put the feelings into words.

In fact, the best summary of Naim’s album itself can be seen just by reading the track listing – of the 13 tracks, only six are in English, and one of them bears the promising and optimistic name “Endless Song of Happiness.”

The instrumentation of this song and all of the others synthesizes sounds like brass instruments and sound effects with the raw beauty of Naim’s gruff singing and at times simplistic piano and guitar melodies. Plunky strumming and playing gives some of the songs a child-like quality, uniquely countered by the mature jazzy melodies on “Pachad” and sobering lyrics on “Lonely.”

Mainly ballads, even her saddest songs like “Far Far” are far from depressing because of her earnest delivery and inherent sense of positivity, ironic upon learning how Naim almost abandoned music-making after the disappointment of her first album. Sincere, earnest and raw are all among the best descriptors of Naim’s album, which might draw similarities to Fiona Apple or Regina Spektor, but her album is refreshingly unique especially in its use of Hebrew to produce songs that sound unlike anything you’ve heard before. Naim thus avoids any accusations of being a just another female singer-songwriter.

Why did Naim’s album rise to the top of the iTunes chart? Possibly because of its cute and quaint lyrics and melodies, or maybe just because it’s the only place it can be purchased besides internationally until its stateside release by Atlantic Records on March 18th. While I wouldn’t recommend the entire CD to anyone who doesn’t already like the light pop of artists like Feist, who ironically also gained popularity through an Apple-related campaign in iPod Nano commercials, Naim’s songs “New Soul” and “Toxic” are at the least worth a listen for a guaranteed smile and laugh.