Diamond & Kowhai Ltd./ Universal
Anika Moa is many things – TV host, kids music specialist, sensitive singer/songwriter, total clown, irreverent and indelicate yet there’s heart and soul in her work; huge heart in her as a person too. And that’s clear in her zest, the relish, and she’s always heart-on-sleeve when she’s making new music.
She’s also – as hinted above – a blur of contradictions. And late last year I watched a nearly botched “10th Anniversary of In Swings The Tide” gig be saved in its encore by a batch of brand new songs. Those songs are here, now, on her sixth album, titled simply Anika Moa. It’s her first (for adults) in three years and her best in some time.
It brings with it a sense of closure too. For, 18 years earlier, the young Anika was being talked up as a fresh new talent. And she was. But her debut album, recorded in America, arrived with the weight of expectation and America broke her, or threatened to. She did what Kiwis do so well. She turned her back. Walked away. She gave a series of interviews saying she didn’t care if she recorded another album ever. Then…she recorded another album. It featured her very best song. And a few others close to it.
And it’s not that it’s been diminishing returns since. But there have been dips in quality – always saved by the cheeriness and cheekiness of her demeanour, the naughtiness and haughtiness of her between-song banter.
When Anika dropped the laziest album of her career (in my book) she followed it up with one of her best ever tours.
The unpredictability is yet another contradiction since there’s an absolute canniness to Anika’s brand. She’s on point and able to get away with so much. She has fans that don’t even care about her music! She has people that love her music and aren’t across all of her other appearances and projects. The die-hards spread the word for her, connecting the dots.
Well, on the album “Anika Moa” the singer/songwriter Anika Moa backed herself and returned to America. Time to conquer it. On her terms, of course. Self-funded, self-aware, self-assured she took a trip to New Orleans. She had a tight deadline and a sharp set of songs.
She worked with some of the very best. Doug Pettibone (Lucinda Williams, Tracy Chapman) is on guitars and pedal steel, Tony Hall (Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris) is on bass – and producing it (and playing drums) Brady Blade. A decade and a half ago he was the hired-hand helping any number of Kiwi acts rise to the charts for a week or a month. Outside of that he’s played with everyone great and is a total star; some of the best ears in the business.
Anika trusted these guys with her songs. And it’s paid off.
Because here she’s about as heart-on-sleeve as she’s ever been. Opening with To Be Young, To Be Sad and taking us back to Thinking Room in a way; telling us how she’d have made that album now. Her acoustic guitar is purposeful, driving many of the songs here. Setting the tone, often mournful, sincere, nearly stern at times, always serious.
So, the complete opposite of her public persona.
In The Arms Of A Woman is the latest rewrite of the sort of ballad Moa has been crafting since In Swings The Tide – and in an alternative universe this would be a tears-in-the-beers karaoke classic. Pettibone’s pedal steel and the cymbal-splashes of sound-colour from Brady Blade cut through.
Buttercup is one of a small handful of songs here that have hints of Neil Finn’s finest craftsmanship – hinting at late-period Crowded House in particular. Moa’s vocal is subtly magnificent here but if you’re not on board for the lyrics and vocals you have the arrangement and the backing band to soak in; the instrumental work on this track is low-key magnificent.
The deeper into the album the more personal the songs (1993, Heavy Head) and the introspection and self-awareness is beautifully realised in constantly stunning arrangements (Fade Away) that are all at once subtle and contain multitudes (Cry).
When I heard some of Anika’s new songs – at the time un-recorded – I felt a country angle coming, or at least a little shimmer and shine and a bit of spit and dust and then a boot-polish and Doug Pettibone and Brady Blade provide a lot of that here, giving the flavours without ever serving up a pure country feast.
Slow, soft shuffles, slow-fire guitar churn, arrangements that cling to the sides of the song and frame the angst and anxiety and assuredness in Anika’s lyrics.
Fire Of Her Eyes is, for example, the new gold standard Anika Moa song.
Well, that’s until it’s immediately swept off the table by I Don’t Wanna Break Your Heart Anymore.
I’ve been listening to this album for a long time. I had a copy long before release. And I’ll be listening to it for many moons to come.
It’s simply her finest, best realised work to date.
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