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Zee Avi's self-titled debut album displays impressive vocal and songwriting chops, hinting that a star discovered on YouTube could be destined for much, much more.
With the internet available just about anywhere and webcams a common feature in laptops, YouTube stars have become a norm. Singer-songwriters Marie Digby, Kina Grannis and David Choi have all found fame through YouTube, so at first glance, Zee Avi might just seem to be just another YouTube internet sensation. However, after the release of her first album, she has distinguished her as anything but.
Originally from Borneo, Malaysia, Zee Avi began recording her videos for a friend, using YouTube to share her videos. Through the internet grapevine, Monotone Record's Ian Monotone found his way to her YouTube page, which eventually led to Zee Avi signing with Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records and Monotone Records.
Although video was the means by which Zee Avi's fairytale-like story came about, her vocals remain the sole reason of her exposure and entry into the mainstream. Her self-titled album begins with "Bitter Heart," which was featured all over YouTube the week of the album's release. In the song, Zee Avi's voice is constantly twirling and spinning, piquing curiosity and luring the listener. This first track captures the playful aspects of Zee Avi's fluctuating voice as well as the jazz inspired tones produced by the trumpet and bass, which remain constant throughout the album. The mellow and unobtrusive melodies, which are easy on the ear, mask the contrastingly somber lyrics, which creep in relatively unnoticed. Zee Avi's voice, much like a constant mischievous smirk in character, relays surprisingly heavy lyrics about a resentful lover who "hate[s] waiting around 'round 'round" and eventually becomes suspicious and concludes with "so tell me what's her name." This same kind of lighthearted yet biting tone underlies the majority of songs, as seen in "Poppy." "Poppy" retains the jazz-like 1920s mood, while lyrically dealing with a lover who has fallen into drug addiction. What could easily be taken as a carefree tune about love and butterflies and rainbows demands a second take with the haunting repetition of "I swear I'm gonna kill him."
But don't worry, Zee Avi's not a psycho killer. She doesn't limit herself to the same routine of eerie contradictions and allows for genuinely carefree tunes -- best represented in "Just You and Me." With the slight plucking and strumming of a ukulele, "Just You and Me" creates a sentimental love song about wanting to escape from everyday routine while constantly urging, "Let's pack our bags / And lie on the easy stream / Where we can carry on dreamin'... / Darlin', just you and me". She shows a more playful side in "Kantoi," in which she keeps the ukulele and mixes in Manglish, a mix of Malay and English as spoken in her hometown of Borneo, while recounting a situation with a cheating boyfriend.
However, just as it seems as though she has made a complete transition from jazz to island, beach music, she shifts yet again. Zee Avi drops the jazzy trumpet and the lively ukulele for the solo meditative acoustic guitar, which dominates the last phase of the album. Although changing instruments, she reverts back to the solemn lyrics, but this time matching form with content. A series of songs on heartbreak and separation ensue, at times completely losing all signs of the earlier liveliness of "Bitter Heart" and "Poppy." "The Story" moors over the situation of going unseen and unnoticed, asking, "Will you remember my name?". And the album concludes with "Let Me In," desperately "trying my best to reach out for your hand" as Zee Avi repeats over an over "let me in."
But at only 23-years-old, Zee Avi has by no means reached her peak. Her first album successfully captures attention with her Billie Holiday-esque voice and playful lyrics; however, as the album progresses, she is unable to maintain that captivity, and at times songs begin to blur into one another. That being said, Zee Avi's self-titled debut album effectively pulls her away from being "just another YouTube star" toward having the respect of a legitimate singer and songwriter. Glimpses of potential and hopes for an even better sophomore album can be seen throughout the album, but most clearly in the song "First of the Gang." "First of the Gang" takes a narrative approach on the sentiments of love and loss as Avi reminisces how "[Hector] stole all hearts away" when he died. The most memorable song on the album, it stands completely unique, the one that repeats in your head and creates an itch for the listener to play it again once the album is done. The unique mix of folk narrative and the touch of sentimentality, guided by the simple acoustic guitar, showcase Zee Avi at her best, displaying the enthralling nature of her vocals and her creativity in lyricism.
From Borneo to Jack Johnson's solar powered studio in Los Angeles, Zee Avi brings a fresh approach to the acoustic folk genre, never taking herself too seriously. While displaying most of her early works, written prior to her discovery, Zee Avi's album also seems promising of what is to come: a young artist who is very capable of eventually stealing all hearts away -- armed merely with her voice and a ukulele.
For more information, go to Zee Avi's official website here.
Date Posted: 7/3/2009