Graded on a Curve:
Bic Runga,
Close Your Eyes

Singer-songwriter Bic Runga has been active since the mid-’90s. Huge in her native New Zealand, she’s amassed a solid discography including a live collaboration with fellow Kiwis Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn while counting Sir Elton John as a fan. Her early records are noted for being composed entirely of self-penned material, but her latest is a broad landscape made up largely of smartly chosen covers; offering a handful of gems, Close Your Eyes has just received global release on vinyl and compact disc through the new international pop label Wild Combinations.

Having sprang from the ’90s adult alternative zone, Bic Runga’s records are amongst the better examples of the form. Nearer to pop traditionalism than any sort of iconoclastic mode, she’s still tangibly contemporary as her work reveals nothing secondhand, the songs imbued with emotion yet refreshingly direct. While Runga hasn’t equaled her chart accomplishments elsewhere (she does have a following in neighboring Australia and Ireland), listening to ’97’s Drive and ’02’s Beautiful Collision, it’s clear that under different circumstances she could’ve.

Between her initial pair of albums, she toured with Tim Finn (Split Enz/ Crowded House/ Finn Brothers/ solo) and Dave Dobbyn (Th’ Dudes/ DD Smash/ solo), a combo affair that resulted in the 2000 release Together in Concert: Live. Touching upon the work of three intelligent but accessible New Zealand songsmiths (spanning the ’70s to the new millennium), it was a stone cinch for commercial success in their home country (it climbed to #2 on the NZ Album Chart and chalked up 26 weeks on the survey).

Although 2005’s terrific Birds maintained Runga’s streak as the sole author and shaper of her records, after a long break in the schedule Belle appeared in ’11 with Kody Nielson (The Mint Chicks/ Opossum/ Silicon) as producer and sporting a bunch of songs cowritten with Nielson and others. Plus, in a tidbit foreshadowing Close Your Eyes, the set’s title track is a cover of the theme song to the French television series Belle et Sébastien.

Strategically borrowed material often succeeds in spicing up the discs that hold them, but full-blown covers albums regularly fall short of expectations. Here, Runga undercuts a potential sense of the blasé by opening with an original, though the title track simultaneously presents another possible snag, specifically that her own stuff will suffer in comparison to the numerous adaptions they accompany.

Followed by a fine update of The Meters’ nugget “What’cha Say” (from their ’74 LP Rejuvenation) that branches out effectively from the vibrant dream pop tech gloss of “Close Your Eyes,” rather than diminishing the value of her own writing, she bests the issue with ease and sets the table for an engaging version of Kanye West’s “Wolves.” Moving at a faster pace than the original (from The Life of Pablo), Runga cultivates an almost trip-hop vibe highlighted with symphonic shading and even a touch of neo-exotica.

At this point the album diverts from its established template, scaling back the modernity considerably and delivering Close Your Eyes its first standout in a reading of Nick Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun.” Frankly, this is also dangerous territory, as Pink Moon and Drake’s oeuvre overall are beloved by his persevering cult, but even as Runga and returning co-producer Nielson transform the intimacy of the original into a full band setting they avoid mucking matters up.

The playing is crisp, the symphonic flourishes descended from chamber pop, and Runga’s singing is assertive while keeping tabs on Drake’s alluring fragility. The whole strikes these ears a bit like Drake contemporary Kevin Ayers, and the track segues nicely into The Blue Nile’s “Tinseltown in the Rain,” which like “Wolves” speeds things up as the original’s sophisticated synth-pop gets transformed into symphonic art-funk.

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was written by Ewan McColl for Peggy Seeger way back in the 1950s and has since been recorded over 100 times, most famously by Roberta Flack. While Runga clearly touches on the ’72 hit version, an attempt to replicate Flack’s depth of feeling would be another tricky maneuver, so she instead opts for crisp prettiness that’s significantly enhanced by a full-band.

Notably, Runga became proficient on drums, guitar, and keyboard in her teens. Where a percentage of records by singer-songwriters are weakened by limited instrumental dimension, that’s not been Runga’s problem as Close Your Eyes retains an emphasis on musical detail. For evidence look no further than the splendid take of Love’s “Andmoreagain,” which stands as the disc’s most beneficially reverent moment.

And if she’s regularly quickened and shortened her sources here, the version of Françoise Hardy’s “Viens” (from ’71’s La question) is the first to be aptly described as urgent, a quality increased by the warm “you are there” production and the largeness of the bass playing in the track. Next comes the LP’s second original, with “Dream a Dream” returning to a bachelor pad pop-tinged aura that underscores Runga’s emergence in the ’90s.

But from there, her take of The Beach Boys’ “The Lonely Sea” (from ’63’s Surfin’ U.S.A.), brightly hued and bookended by the sounds of surf, vaults over the group’s more critically lauded work for the still relatively underappreciated early stuff. It marks Runga as an astute listener, as does the way she plays down the Beach Boys-esque vocals of The Mint Chicks’ “Life Will Get Better Someday,” choosing instead to scale it back to an attractive slice of ’60s-ish folk.

It bleeds right into the engaging electric keyboard-driven finale, a sweet run-through of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” The song fruitfully caps a covers record that’s neither too offhand/ underdeveloped nor excessively calculated. It sounds like Bic Runga and friends had a blast making Close Your Eyes, a scenario that easily translates to the listening.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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