Zee Avi - Nightlight | Album Review | By Volume

Gotta get out, before my heart explodes. Candy Says - Not Kings

Zee Avi


A collection of covers, reinterpreted into doe-eyed lullabies, that end up being little more than snooze-worthy.

Comments (1)
Author: on April 29, 2014
Little Monster Records

The happy crab danced on the beach to a calypso beat / The happy mullet jumps for the pure joy of being alive”, sang Zee Avi unabashedly on “The Book of Morris Johnson”, the literal and figurative centerpiece of her 2011 release, Ghostbird. Two and a half years on, the song still feels like a bit of an anomaly: whereas Ghostbird’s other songs took it in turns to tell tales of utopian love, pastoral beauty, and unfulfilled dreams, “The Book of Morris Johnson” was content to trade-in pelicans, turtles, and flamingos across a three-minute jaunt that had only one rather throwaway message to deliver: “sometimes, you just gotta know how to feel.”

But when viewed in the context of Nightlight, “The Book of Morris Johnson” quickly starts to make a lot more sense. Zee Avi’s third studio release – somewhat unexpectedly – consists purely of lullaby covers of well-known songs; think the Rockabye Baby CD series, but without a specific artist (or a timbre-laden piano) as the central theme. So instead of being a random juvenile tangent on an otherwise well-focused album, “The Book of Morris Johnson” now feels like a preplanned foreword to the next chapter in Zee Avi’s discography. Which only serves to embellish its parent album’s reputation as one of the more important titles to have emerged from Malaysia’s fledgling English scene in recent times.

Unfortunately, that may be all the utility that Nightlight ends up providing for Zee Avi in the long run, as the album itself is beset with several problems that prevent it from becoming the statement of growing edges that the Malaysian singer-songwriter so clearly wants it to be. For starters, the rap on Nightlight is that it was recorded in four days, with Zee Avi and producer Kevin Salem (Giant Sand, Chocolate Genius) thumbing through a list of personal favourites and picking songs that they thought would fit the overall vibe of the record. The resulting concoction is predictably uneven: a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun” sits alongside the late Michael Jackson’s “Ben”, which is in turn placed next to Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and a greatly-cowed version of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game”. The other tracks are mostly stuff that you probably have a dozen variations of already in your hard drive: Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, Ozzie Nelson’s extremely overplayed “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, and Judy Kuhn’s “Colors of the Wind”.

But an unbalanced set list is actually the least of Nightlight’s concerns; to wit, cover albums typically struggle to find a proper place for themselves in an artist’s canon, mainly as they seldom make for the most interesting of conceptual or artistic narratives. Nightlight, with no visible form of utility beyond its stated goal of being an album of cradle songs, is no exception. Then there’s also the rather inconvenient fact that most of the covers on here are generally quite poor; take the reinterpretation of The Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun”, for instance: whereas the original number was essentially a lofty hook and two verses of up-tempo, sunbaked gibberish which fed directly into that hook, Zee Avi’s version is the kind of ill-advised and tuneless listening experience usually associated with playing a 45 rpm record at the wrong speed.

Elsewhere, some fairly significant damage has also been done to Michael Jackson’s “Ben”. It’s perfectly understandable to want to cut back a little on the pained vocals of the original, but that clincher of a closing verse, where a young MJ rams the song’s thesis home on the back of a lifetime of heartbreak (“They don’t see you as I do / I wish they would try to“) is completely ruined by the appearance of a jaunty ukulele arrangement that runs completely counter to the sentiment of the song. Zee Avi’s take on Joni Mitchell’s classic “The Circle Game” is yet another piece of evidence that the Sarawak native may have missed the point entirely; look no further than the second iteration of the song’s chorus when she chooses, for reasons unknown, to randomly emphasize the words “ponies” and “carousel” –- the effect is almost as comical as it is jarring. To be fair though, the rest of the song is completely passable – as long as you can excuse it for not coming within several candles’ worth of the otherworldly omniscience exhibited by Mitchell’s original narrative. As for the covers of “Mockingbird”, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, well, these are the sort of songs where if you’ve already heard one other version, then you’ve probably heard them all.

All things made equal, the only contribution of note here is the “Nightlight Medley”, which is actually a fairly clever mash-up of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “Sing A Song of Sixpence”, “Rock-A-Bye Baby”, and the Malaysian folk rhymes “Lima Anak Ayam”, “Air Pasang Malam”, and “Lagu Tiga Kupang”. Unfortunately, one good song does not a good album make. Now, I admit that it does seem slightly unfair to be so harsh on an album which obviously had sleepy little kids and not miserable music critics in mind, but coming immediately after Ghostbird, a record which comfortably spent most of its runtime somewhere between Pulau Santubong and the sultry jazz clubs of Kuala Lumpur, Nightlight truly feels like a regression in every sense of the word. Here’s hoping that outing number four yields better results.

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  • BD Daniel

    Yes, it is unfair to come down hard on what was meant to be a tribute to her little fans. If you have followed Zee closely on the social network, you would have come across tweets and youtube comments from parents claiming Zee’s music keeps their little ones calm and put smiles on their faces. Hence, the birth of Nightlight. And just to clarify, Nightlight is a “side project” while Zee preps her actual third studio release. I am currently enjoying this album despite its pared-down elements, which according to Zee was intentional. I do agree with you on one thing – the highlight of the album is the medley, particularly the Malaysian lullabies. My other favorites are Ben, Rainbow Connection, The Circle Game and Mockingbird.


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