New releases from Anika Moa, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Low.
Anika’s Americana misfires.
Oh dear. This is hard to write, because Anika Moa is so ubiquitous right now that she feels like a de facto friend, but her selftitled album isn’t really much chop.
Then again, I was clearly wrong about her last album, Queen at the Table, which I really liked, but it flopped bigtime. That album’s attempt at an alternative take on contemporary R&B moves seemed to have read her fans wrong, so Anika Moa sees her back doing what she knows her demographic likes: winsome, MOR folk-balladry.
It’s a surprise move, as the whole thing was recorded with top session musicians in New Orleans, players whose licks decorate albums by the likes of Lucinda Williams, Marianne Faithfull, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan, and a tonne more.
Moa hadn’t entertained the thought of America since her Atlantic Records deal fell through in 2001 and she returned to New Zealand broken by the corporate experience, only to quickly become one of our most cherished artists.
It could have been great, but the problem with Anika Moa is that the whole thing was recorded in six days, and it sounds like it. While swift sessions can revel in sensa- tional results, they also risk sounding half-baked, and that’s what’s happened here, where the edgy yet lovable television personality that Moa has become has eclipsed the musician.
The sad truth is that duality is rarely accepted in the public’s mind. In 2014, in a feature on Moa for this publication, I wrote: “Her innate talent at singing and songwriting has been gnawed away by the everpresent threat of becoming the acceptable face of dyke culture, a solo act you throw on winery tours because she sings like an angel and has the crowd in stitches between every song — a veritable, if risqué, family entertainer.”
If the success of her first Songs for Bubbas children’s album made it harder for audiences to take her seriously, then becoming a genuine TV phenomenon may have eroded her credibility as a singer-songwriter.
Audiences are not only fickle, but they like a little mystery in their music. Moa’s on-screen persona is bawdy and loud, while the only hint of that person coming through on her new album is the love song, “Fire in Her Eyes”.
The album’s inherent flaws are myriad. The songs are mostly painted with the same colours, and they’re rolled out in a drab, listless form of American country-tinged folk-rock that’s tired and conservative. There’s strummed acoustic guitars and weeping pedal steel guitar and the backing sounds professional but disengaged and woefully anonymous. But that’s not surprising, given that so many of these songs sound like sketches that Moa has scribbled out on a napkin between takes.
Moa has always specialised in yearning ballads, but here there’s a uniform melancholy that sounds contrived and monotonous. Worse still, it’s only on rare occasions that she does what she does best and layers her voice into spectral choirs. Stripped naked on most of these songs, her vocals sound underrehearsed.
There are a couple of songs that act as indications of what could have been if she’d been able to take her time and put the required effort into rehearsing, planning, rewriting and troubleshooting. The album’s first single, “Buttercup”, sounds like something Portishead might have worked up, with its
mysterious minor key progression, and the song ends with a cool groove where it seems like the studio musicians are just jamming it for fun. “Cry” is yet another gloomy end-of-romance song, but it’s blessed with the enticing sound of a Mellotron, and Moa finally gets to overdub some appealing cooing in the background.
I wanted to love it, honest.
IF YOU LOVE ANIKA MOA’S LATEST, THEN THERE’S A LONG TRADITION OF MIDDLE-OFTHE-ROAD AMERICANA TO EXPLORE.
Albums, page 93.
ABOVE— Anika Moa recorded her latest album in just six days.