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(Brushfire Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/27/2009)
The ranks of chanteuse style vocalists continues to grow, with the success of such performers as Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. It's notable that some have an interesting personal story -- Ms. Jones being the Texas-reared daughter of Ravi Shankar, and Ms. Peyroux spending a lot of time busking in Paris. This week, we have another appealing young woman vocalist and songwriter with a distinctive background, who has appeared with an impressive debut album. She is Zee Avi, and that is also the name of her CD.
Twenty three-year-old Zee Avi is from Malaysia, and was born and spent her first 12 years on Island of Borneo, in a small village called Miri on the South China Sea. He father was a businessman, serving as an energy consultant, and education was stressed in the family. She expected to follow a career path toward being a lawyer. Her father was also a musician and multi-instrumenalist. Later her family moved to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lampur, where she still lives. In her teens she took up guitar, often spending hours locked in her room practicing. But she put music aside for four years during which she went to London to study fashion design. But back in Kuala Lumpur, she got back to her music, and starting writing songs and playing with a band. She began recording some of her songs on a computer webcam, and began posting them on YouTube. A British singer-songwriter named Kris Rowley, who had some following began posting some of her songs on his site, and Ms. Avi was soon getting lots of web hits.
Apparently tiring of that, she planned to post one last video, a Christmas song called No Christmas for Me. But she found herself with getting some 3000 messages about the song, and a record deal offer, from a label affiliated with Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records. She flew to Los Angeles to record, and the result is Zee Avi the CD.
Ms. Avi, like others recent chanteuse singers has a sound that belies her young age. She has obviously been listening to some of the great classic jazz singers, but she also counts Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits as influences. She sometimes goes for a nostalgic sound, including using a ukulele at times, reminiscent of Nellie McKay. Her lyrics are primarily love songs, but most are about relationships gone awry. But she can sing about heartbreak with a lilt and kind of charm that belies what she is saying. She is joined by a variable group on the sessions. No two songs have the same personnel lineup, and there are three solo performances. Among the more frequent contributors are guitarist Merlo Podlewski, who also served as co-producer, bassist Juan Perez, keyboard player Zach Gill and drummer/percussionist Adam Topol.
The recording starts with a piece that epitomizes the CD. Bitter Heart is one of those songs about a love affair coming apart, while Ms. Avi sounds quite cheerful musically. <<>>
A good deal more serious is a song called Poppy which according to Ms. Avi is autobiographical with some poetic license. It's about a boyfriend who decends into heroin addiction. <<>>
Somewhat more lyrically cheerful is Honey Bee, performed solo. According to Ms. Avi, it's about a couple of non-conformists in love with each other. <<>>
It's back to the sad songs on a track called Is This the End. Unlike many of Ms. Avi's songs with downcast lyrics that sound so cheerful, this one is done as a ballad, and actually does sound like a sad song, but tastefully done. <<>>
A track called Kantoi, is done in a mix of languages, presumably some Malay alternating with English. It's a somewhat whimsical-sounding love song, again done on ukulele. <<>>
Although most of the CD consists of original songs, Ms. Avi covers a song by Morrissey of the Smiths, First of the Gang to Die, accompanied by Raul Pacheco on classical-style guitar. The somewhat tragic song does rather fit in the often dark lyrical mood of the rest of the CD. <<>>
On some of Ms. Avi's songs, her significant other leaves her. In the bouncy composition called Darlin' It Ain't Easy, she is the one who dumps the guy. <<>>
And yet another take on a breakup comes on I Am Me Once More, in which the protagonist finds herself liberated after the dissolution of the affair. <<>>
Zee Avi, the debut recording by the young Malaysian singer-songwriter of the same name is a delightful release by an appealing chanteuse who manages to make a bunch of mostly sad songs sound close to happy-go-lucky. She's a very likable vocalist and who is joined by a tasteful, understated mostly acoustic backing band. While her songs tend to be lyrically somewhat dark, there seems to be an underlying level of innocence and hope to them.
Our grade for sound quality is a B plus. While Ms. Avi's vocals are given a kind of intimate quality without much of any reverb, it's not a particularly warm sound, and the overall dynamic range is underwhelming.
I suppose that there remain geographical stereotypes in music. It is still a novelty and pleasant surprise that the Island of Borneo would be the source of such a musically sophisticated and Westernized singer-songwriter. But, especially in the Internet age, such assumptions about music are becoming rapidly outmoded. And Ms. Avi herself owes her connection with the American pop audience to her homemade web videos. It's becoming a small world, and Zee Avi is a great example.
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