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Album Review: Zee Avi – Ghostbird

B

Artists

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Frequently, debut albums are interesting but simply do not fulfill their artistic potential. This is the case with Zee Avi’s self-titled 2009 debut. While interesting—and flush with Avi’s lovely voice—the songs ventured at times into a cloying cuteness. The listener was tempted to wish for a more mature, jazzier version of Avi. Luckily, 2011 gives us Ghostbird, an 11-song meditation that only gets better upon replay.

One part island breeze and one part classic jazz, Ghostbird sounds like a record you would find in your grandmother’s attic, the work of some jazz age ingénue. But, no, you’re listening to Avi, a twentysomething native of Malaysia in possession of an old-soul voice. It would be easy to dismiss this music as easy listening, one more Jack Johnson-style veg-out disc, but the sheer beauty of her floaty alto voice and shimmering arrangements help it stand out and stand up to repeat listens.

Opener “Swell Window” captures attention from the start, with its chime-like lyrical repetition. “31 Days” pops up a few tracks later, a meditation on growing up: “At the ripe age of 17/I moved into that big, bad city,” she croons. Later she learns “I’m half crazy/you’re too sane.” This has been done before, of course, but the earnestness in Avi’s delivery sells it.

“Siboh Kitak Nangis” best exemplifies Avi’s smoky jazz skills. All the while, its foreign lyrics hypnotize in the way that Sigur Rós’s Icelandic wanderings do. A few tracks are, yes, cute (particularly “The Book of Morris Johnson”), but “Concrete Wall” pays back your patience in spades, Avi giving one side of a lovers’ quarrel with a darkness that has eluded her before. Its smoldering passive aggression has a mature tone that suits her.

Jaw-dropping closer “Stay in the Clouds” features strong, clear strings and a throaty rasp of a jazz-throwback vocal. Singing softer in her higher register, Avi intones, “Can I please stay in the clouds forever/‘cause I really like it here,” an almost cruel irony when the song must, inevitably, end. Fortunately, you can hit repeat, and you will.

Essential Tracks: “31 Days”, “Concrete Wall”, and “Stay in the Clouds”

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