New re­leases from Anika Moa, Un­known Mor­tal Orches­tra and Low.

Anika’s Amer­i­cana mis­fires.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - RE­VIEWS — GARY STEEL

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.

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