Zee Avi: Ghostbird

[30 August 2011]

By Nathan Wisnicki

This is music for shiny countertops and sparkling glass; for a world where everybody spends their free time making paper boats to set sail in thimbles. So, in other words: nice. It sounds nice.

Zee Avi’s debut album, secured by the quality of her YouTube videos and by Jack Johnson (I know, I know—don’t stop reading just yet) kept the sunny porch acoustics of her videos and left most of the embellishing—if you want to call it that—to her half-skip of a voice. Ghostbird, a dignified two years in the making, plays like a blueprint of how to follow up a YouTube-birthed album without embarrassing yourself. The instrumental palette has expanded, of course, but only slightly, allowing supple texturing to provide the (albeit slight) push forward. Avi’s wise enough not to take herself too seriously just yet.

This isn’t to say that Ghostbird is a prescient step in a long career’ it’s still too soon to tell if Avi will have more than a niche longevity. (Though she’s certainly got the snappy name for it.) For the most part, the album takes the expected sophomore toe-dips all around, wherein the artist(e) casually tries their hand at a bunch of things which they now have the time (/income) to do: there’s the obligatory reggae beat; the hooky, percussion-loaded cut (with handclaps!) that’s sure to be featured in a car or cleaning product commercial; the sans-English song. “Bag of Gold” even provides some vague hints of well-needed dissonance in its woozy guitar slides, which peter off with twinkling piano and triangle.

The album’s at its weakest when it repeats the vibes of the debut—partly because we’ve heard said vibe before, and partly because the songwriting just isn’t there sometimes. Indeed, when the songs get precious, they can be pretty deadening; if Ghostbird had sounded like “31 Days” the whole way through, it would’ve been a big fizzle and would probably cement Avi as a one-shot dose of sweetness, overwhelmed in an increasingly cynical media landscape. Luckily, it doesn’t, and despite ‘pleasant’ being the record’s ceiling, the writing rarely sounds particularly hasty.

The best thing about Avi, though, remains her voice. It’s a sound which some might find habitual, especially in the exhausting and ever-expanding canon of the 21st century ‘coffeehouse’ singer-songwriter. But she carries you through because she’s got the kind of voice that you’d follow anywhere—not just because it’s unthreatening (though it is that… which is a both a benefit and a potential drawback)—but because it feels like there’s something that she’s leaving unsaid.

This is crucial. So many acoustic singers these days try to wrench emotion from where there isn’t any, choosing to flutter around their melodies instead of just delivering the melody with straight conviction. And despite her avowed clarity—or maybe because of it—Avi manages to stop just short of emotional indifference by giving us a feeling of sadness that’s all the more effective because of how detached it sounds. When she sang “And then you come and tell me the same reason as you did yesterday / So tell me, what’s her name?” in the debut’s “Bitter Heart”, she delivered it almost flippantly, as if she wasn’t even trying to conceal her real feelings any more—they’re too far gone. A similar feeling is present on Ghostbird, with a typical lyric in “Concrete Wall” going “You say I’m unresponsive, and here you are talking over me.” These kind of pointed barbs are made all the more effective by the way Avi delivers them without a second thought, as though she’s relaying unassailable fact. The cleanliness of her delivery makes it seem like a link between thought and expression has been removed; like it’s no longer necessary to her. And that’s where the real sadness lies.

How far Avi can push this, err, ‘formula,’ is—as mentioned—questionable; her lyrics in particular should probably be taken up a notch, even with this kind of breeziness. (“The Book of Morris Johnson”, the catchiest and best song here, culminates with the line “Every good fisherman has a pelican watching over him”, which sounds like a moral to the most confusing Aesop’s fable ever.) And yet Avi stands out—in her own shy, cautious way—for a reason, and you can hear it in the first track, “Swell Window”: she dresses up an adequate melody into something lullingly catchy, precisely by dressing it up sparingly, with a sense of patience. Comparing that opener to its live version that closes the album—while not being anything transcendent—exemplifies just how far you’ll follow that voice; the way she slides the word ‘calm’ in the live version is an example of her on-the-spot touch that made her sound fresh in the first place.

So, again: Ghostbird is… nice. To nobody’s surprise. Like most music in 2011, it sounds remarkably pretty. And, like just about everything in 2011, it is completely, perhaps compulsively, adrift.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/146754-zee-avi-ghostbird/