A surprisingly mellow follow-up to Rudd's 2005 Food in the Belly.
If smiling counted for anything Xavier Rudd would be as big as U2. On stage, the Australian roots artist spreads goodwill like sunshine, in a green t-shirt with a tree on it, with his salt-bleached, blonde hair straggly and free. His voice is light but earthy, a little like Ben Harper and a little like Jack Johnson. And, occasionally, like Graceland-era Paul Simon. His music, live, is simpler and more direct than on record: the songs' simple, honest character shines easily through. One one night in New York, there seemed a heavier reggae backbone to hits like "Let Me Be" and "Solace", elements somewhat masked on the recorded version. And on Rudd's out-of-time, fragile slide-guitar version of "No Woman No Cry".
Rudd's last album, Food in the Belly, was full of appealing radio-friendly hits filled with a new-found sense of gentleness -- perhaps from Rudd's new role as a father, as well as a musician. Ever since, and this is reflected on Rudd's third studio album White Moth, there has been a growing avoidance of judgment, a growing all-together vibe of live-and-let-live, all under the banner of nature-worship. This is a blessing and a curse. While White Moth is many moments of undeniable, sometimes infectious optimism, Rudd's music is so passive that it fails to really register. The problem's exacerbated by the fact that the new album has a higher quotient than usual of Rudd's more tranquil, softer songs. In this context of fresh-faced hope, the heartbeat-fueled upbeat songs seem oddly escapist -- like those dancing scenes in the second Matrix movie. Is retreat into this kick-drum really valid?
Musically, White Moth takes these recognised elements of Rudd's musical vocabulary and breaks them down, concentrating on one at a time: here a harmonica, here the didgeridoo, here an acoustic guitar, here Rudd's own distinctive voice. On "Stargaze", Rudd proceeds through four of these elements, transitioning from his choking voice to a rootsy guitar figure to the kick-drum to the yidaki. This last is his shining moment, as he lets the instrument breathe with its own complex rhythms, now deep and tribal, now in an uncanny imitation of a bird-call.
The album is front-loaded; the best songs are the openers "Better People" and "Twist", both entirely familiar Rudd tunes but both casually enjoyable. The first, a fuller version of "Let Me Be", shows the influence of co-producer Dave Ogilvie (who's worked with David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and N.E.R.D.) in its patient, more complex background keyboards. And "Twist" is classic Rudd, from the refrain of "Everybody's OK" to the reggae-tinged melody. It'll be all over Australian radio before long, safe bet.
But as it goes along, the disc repeats itself and fails to hold the listener fully enthralled. "Come Let Go" repeats "Twist"'s chord progression; and a number of songs towards the end of the album feel oddly depressed, without the vitality that makes Rudd's best work and his live show such a pleasure. "Message Stick" opens with an Aboriginal chant over the sound of a bush creek, to the accompaniment of slow-patted drum and didgeridoo. If Rudd had sustained that compelling mood for the length of the track (or across the album as a whole) the result would have been truly magical. As it is, we're given a series of simple, formulaic guitar ballads and rootsy stomps, and a somewhat disappointing follow-up to Food in the Belly