Opening with the exquisitely delicate acoustic guitar and lilting vocal confession of "When I See You Smile," Bic Runga's second album ranges from whispery reflection to upbeat pop jangle. "Get Some Sleep," its second track, is an example of the kind of perfect harmonic songcraft that Simon & Garfunkel once made vogue. It's a mesmerizing, hand-clappin' sing-along, littered with perfectly executed rhymes about getting through the day: "Stranded in June/whistling the same old tune/but I do believe I might be having fun/ impeccably dressed in your secondhand vest/we were waiting for the taxi to come."
Runga hails from New Zealand, and picks up the mantle relinguished by fellow down-under artists Frente in her lilting folk-pop approach. She also pulls in another New Zealand star, Crowded House's Neil Finn, to sing backup on a couple of tracks. Runga is not a newcomer to the pop world; she first released an EP back in 1995, and then expanded those songs to an LP release in 1997. It took a couple of years for that album, Drive, to get released all around the world, but it ultimately brought her critical acclaim and a number of awards for its refreshing, unpretentious sound. For the past three years, Runga has worked on its followup, and Beautiful Collision, released last summer in Australia, and at the end of the year around the rest of the world, was worth the wait.
Runga sings in a high, lilting range, but without the overdrama that often comes with such a delivery. She comes across as girlish and vulnerable, and her songs, while often quiet, never fade to ignorable background music. Lyrically, she spins inventive, evocative phrasing, like the introduction to the swaying "The Be All and End All": "Flogging the rocking horse/getting nowhere/we are a pair to behold/you like a funeral, me like a fair/nobody cares for the show."
Beautiful Collision offers a classically influenced, piano-driven jazz mood in the end-of-relationship ode "Honest Goodbyes," and steps up the cymbals and strings for an equally jazzy ballad in the title track. "Listening for the Weather" opens with a harmonica as it launches into a sprightly moving country pop melody that yields one of her sharpest lyrical asides: "All the people that I know in the apartments down below/Busy with their starring roles in their own tragedies."
Runga melds piano and mildly rockin' guitars in "Election Night" and ends the disc with one of its most atmospheric exercises in "Gravity."
Beautiful Collision is a marvelous distillation of heart and humor, featuring the quietly powerful songwriter solidly in control at the microphone. This CD grows more evocative with every listen.
If you bought Lisa Loeb's third major label release, Cake and Pie, released through A&M early last year, you are one of the few.
Dissatisfied with the label's treatment of Cake, after having scored Top 40 hits with "Stay (I Missed You)" and "I Do" from her 1994 and 1997 albums on Geffen, Loeb moved to the smaller Artemis label last summer, shuffled around Cake and Pie's tracks, adding and deleting a couple of songs, and re-issued it as Hello Lisa (call it Cake and Pie mach 2) last fall.
On her Web site, Loeb explained the unorthodox move: "As you've probably noticed, there has been less promotion and touring for my album Cake and Pie than I'd like there to be. I am very proud of this album; I spent a long time working on it and am very happy with the results. ... This is very unusual, but I am excited to announce the re-release of a new version of my album on a different record label ... Because we can't re-release the exact same record, we've made some changes. I like the original version of the album, but in order for the stores to have a 'new product' to sell, I needed to change some of the music and the artwork … I have taken several tracks off of Cake and Pie and replaced them with new tracks."
Hello Lisa leads off with one of its strongest tracks, a new song called "Did That," and moves on to the chimey, whistle-imbued, hand-clappin' "You Don't Know Me," the melancholy falsetto-rich "Drops Me Down" and the moodily catchy "The Way It Really Is" (the latter song led off Cake and Pie). It also includes "Someone You Should Know," which melds a catchy guitar line with strings and uplifting background vocals as she sings "what you got is what you wanted/what you need just happens to be someone you should know."
Loeb has the kind of vocals that are instantly recognizable, and instantly comforting. She imbues every song with a girl-next-door honesty and warmth, the kind of singer you just want to listen to, whatever she sings. Her latest CD is strong throughout, offering smart, catchy bits of pop with brains and soul.
With any luck, Loeb's latest batch of songs will get some more notice than they did on Cake and Pie; her knack with a lovelorn lyric and the occasional Beatlesque harmony remains undeniably strong. Hello Lisa offers a dozen head-nodding songs for a sunny — or stormy — afternoon.