Review Summary: Malaysia’s beloved starlet returns to haunt the night.
Zee Avi, the latest in a line of sultry folk rock heiresses, certainly knows something about the difficulties of balancing two interlocking worlds. A signed songstress to Brushfire Records and the symbol of a nation’s newfound consciousness in English indie music all at once, hers is a position worthy of both envy and embarrassing amounts of schadenfreude
. The story of Zee Avi's (born Izyan Alirahman) rise to fame speaks volumes about the nature of talent sourcing in the 21st century: the half-dozen songs that she recorded and posted on YouTube at a friend’s behest ended up being discovered by the head of Monotone, who subsequently offered her a record deal. But before she even put pen to paper, the suddenness at which fame had been thrust upon her was there for all to see: those awkwardly posed video clips, a frozen moment of Southeast Asian night-time fashion shamelessly immortalized by a webcam from the bargain bin, suggested a young girl unsure of her place in the world and completely out of touch with the supple smoothness of her soon-to-be contemporaries. And yet, as hundreds upon hundreds of internet surfers flocked to the video repository like moths to a flame, the sheer force of the music sliding out from the speakers was so raw and sincere and appealing that it set Avi on a course to a future packed to the brim with music festivals and bright neon lights, almost despite herself.
There may be something to be said about how being raised in a country with an artificial western feel might have prepared Avi for a life as a global citizen, but that sentiment only ends up trivializing how vital her personal mission as Malaysia’s musical ambassador to the English-speaking world really is. The initial approach to the affair was threefold: with Avi coming from a nation long starved of international musical recognition, her extraordinary self-titled debut album first became an attempt at introducing her as the pioneer of a hidden generation of talent. Then, the stripped-down harmonies on Zee Avi
were heralded as timepieces from her own paper background, which included runabouts on both the rustic streets of Malaysian Borneo and around the high-rises of the nation’s capital. Elsewhere, her unfamiliar, developing world appearance became both a blessing and a curse; initially viewed as a potential barrier to universal accessibility, by the time her debut release came around it was gently being massaged and exploited – in a vague, almost Putumayo sort of way – to act as a seal of authenticity and to assure prospective buyers that this was
genuine exotic burlesque entertainment. Remarkably, it all worked like a charm; Avi’s debut was a splendid success. But that was the easy part. Having proven that she could translate the simplicity of her homemade videos to the recording studio with virtually no loss of intimacy, the onus fell on Avi to record a sophomore record that was both dynamic and reminiscent of her first album; to prove that there was depth and candor behind all that smiling sunshine.
And as if on cue, the introductory shimmer of “Swell Window” serves to do just that. The track opens with swelling acoustic strums and a series of stately drum beats, before Avi begins: “Like a swell window, I will wait for you/I'll ride the moment 'till I catch you again/'Till I catch you again,” she explains, her lyrics pared down to the most minimal of philosophic wanderings. Second track “Anchor” abandons its predecessor’s cascading approach in favour of an intensely personal, metaphor-filled, style of pop music that borrows heavily from Liz Janes’ lush cosmic analog sound (it even shares a title with one of her songs). “Milestone Moon” is a warm, ornate, and very human thing that could so easily have been a cut from Lisa Hannigan’s Sea Sew
. Here, the music ebbs and flows as it bubbles and pops along, eventually capturing the listener in its tinkling warmth as Avi’s voice melts all over the maracas shaking softly in the background.
But for all of its attempts to sound more sophisticated, Ghostbird
does orbit around moments of strong familiarity: one hears echoes of “Poppy” in the finger snaps of “Madness”, a cut that picks up exactly where Zee Avi
left off and sees the singer return to a more stripped-down afternoon sound. The same effect is also audible on “Stay in the Clouds”, where a series of unplugged strums finds itself buried deep beneath Avi’s lofty vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, “The Book of Morris Johnson” relies heavily on the listener’s familiarity with the Floridian folk artist to make a connection, and marks the first time that Avi has written new music to accompany words that are not her own. Yet the most enticing thing about Zee Avi is her unpredictability – for she can never seem to suppress the urge to include a complimentary token from her Malaysian heritage. On her debut it was the cheekily-arranged “Kantoi” (“Caught”), which featured Avi effortlessly code-switching from urban Malay vernacular to pristine Queen’s English as she detailed her anger at being cheated on by a two-timing boyfriend. However on “Siboh Kitak Nangis”, Ghostbird
’s response to “Kantoi”, Avi goes a step further and totally indulges herself by singing in her native Sarawakian dialect, a particularly fiery brand of creole Malay. The end result is a thoroughly incomprehensible two-and-a-half minute ballad which somehow manages to stay engaging despite the songstress’ no-holds-barred approach.
In hindsight, perhaps all of this was to be expected: Avi’s musical maturity, her newfound desire to go out on a limb, and the unabashed amount of love she has to share with the world (“I want people to feel like they’re being hugged,” she says of Ghostbird
), as she has proven time and time again that she’s made out of pure spunk and is not afraid to show it. But for an artist who is only a tender twenty-five, and whose idea of a fun scavenger hunt is to tuck as many owl calls as she can into the eleven tracks of her sophomore disc, in many regards Ghostbird
’s greatest strength is the sheer amount of promise that it holds for the future; Izyan Alirahman will yet grow, and her journey has only just begun. It looks like all those music festivals and bright neon lights will be forced to call out her name for a little while longer.