It has to be said, “Blues Rock” isn’t the most promising combination of words in 2018. “Dance Blues Rock” might be one of the least. So my expectations going into My Baby’s new album, based on their online genre tags, were not exactly stellar. I was expecting to write something along the lines of “I can imagine this being good live.” So maybe it was partially the level of my expectations that made MOUNAIKI ~ By the Bright of Night more enjoyable than it might have been otherwise. Whether this is true or not, the album was a pleasant, if not major, surprise.
The album consists of, for the most part, tastefully minimalist grooves that manage to hold back on the heapings of pseudo-soulfulness and stale blues that often mar similarly described releases. The production really carries these ten tracks... making the very straightforward compositions and hooks a lot more interesting than they could have been.
This is apparent right from the instrumental opener By The Bright Of The Night, which introduces us to the Dutch-Kiwi band’s fourth album with the sound of rainfall, a distant hand-drum rhythm, and a close-up slide guitar part. It sounds as though we’re listening in on a late-night lonely jam, before the guitar is joined by a string section, making for a moody and aurally lovely beginning.
The title track is the first song proper, and one of the album’s most immediately enjoyable successes. It grooves along on a four-on-the-floor bass-kick dance pulse, which is joined by some nice minimal pulsing synths, a great slide guitar part, and tastefully delivered vocals from front-woman Cato van Dijk that stop just short of being over-sung. The slide guitar sound is a relief - unlike in a lot of modern blues production, it’s bassy, smooth and crunchy, and the playing by Daniel Johnston (not that one - the NZ one) isn’t too over the top, choosing to stick to some nicely crafted lyrical melodies.
For A Change continues with the same template - a grooving, pulsing dance rhythm with more intermittent melodic parts. The songwriting however is less successful, and the song is undermined by van Dijk’s weak vocal delivery (really not something you want when calling “for a change”) and a lackluster backwards guitar solo (backwards guitar really hasn’t sounded cool or futuristic since Revolver.) The next track, Supernatural, makes up for it though, with a nice muffled radio vocal sound and an effective contrast between the funky verses and the floaty jazz-influenced pre-chorus. Once again, the close-up punchy production really flavours the groove.
I like how, for the most part, the band keep the groove minimal and punchy... always stripping the verses back down to the basic drum-and-bass beats when you expect them to build it up. This ensures the smoothness of this music never gets too sugary or over-the-top. That said, there are many points at which I wish they could have put more thought or effort into avoiding ‘lazy’ instrumental parts - such as the dull acoustic guitar scales on the otherwise nicely groovy Shadow Dancer, the strangely irritating primary-school-level guitar hook of Vigilante, or the lack of interesting syncopation and variation in many of the drum beats.
Borderline fits a Celtic folk-influenced melody and a bouzouki line to a steady, mid-tempo groove with lovely swelling vocal harmonies on the chorus. It’s been done before, and there’s nothing new on offer here, but it’s not bad. In The Club brings back the nice slide-guitar lines, alongside a bluesy vocal melody and a dance beat.
Aside from the aforementioned misstep For A Change, van Dijk’s vocals for the most part fall in a nice area of not-too-soulful/oversung and not-too-underwrought. It’s not the most characterful or memorable voice, but it’s very talented and absolutely perfect for the band, especially when gently pulling out high notes without any over-dramatic straining. The vocals are also treated with some lovely production choices, separated from the crystal-clear and punchy drums by some nice reverb and a muffled radio-like treatment.
Silhouette brings a welcome change of pace towards the end of the album... opening with smokey vocals over some smooth tremolo keyboard and a bed of lush fluttering synths which later give way to a slow beat with rumbling dubstep-influenced bass. The beat is strangely ghostly, and carries the song quietly to its inconspicuous end. The following Vigilante is an understated end to the album, and once again features some folky vocal melodies over a dancey beat. It doesn’t really develop into much of a “song” beyond a mere rhythmic loop and one too-obvious guitar riff, but at least it wraps things up with some nice sonic work from the production team; setting guitar, vocals, violin, and acoustic production in a sea of reverb which flows over into the final track To be Continued, an instrumental conclusion of the previous song.
On MOUNAIKI ~ By the Bright of Night, My Baby have done a pretty good job of taking the danceable energy of their live set and adapting it to a tastefully restrained studio album without losing any of their groove. The instrumentation and great production makes for an aural success, leaving the album lacking only in compositional quality. There is no doubt that live shows are the focus of My Baby’s appeal, so the focus here on timbre, rhythm, and direct hooks makes sense. Despite boasting plenty of underdeveloped musical ideas and a lack of any truly great songs, MOUNAIKI ~ By the Bright of Night is a satisfactory listen.
My Baby are currently touring New Zealand. Tickets available here.
See them perform live on the following dates:
5 Jan Blue Smoke, Christchurch (MOUNAIKI RELEASE SHOW)
11 Jan Meow, Wellington
12 Jan Cabana, Napier (MOUNAIKI RELESE SHOW)
17 Jan YOT Club, Raglan
18 Jan Soundsplash Festival, Raglan
19 Jan Neck of the Woods, Auckland (MOUNAIKI RELEASE SHOW)
20 Jan TOTARA STREET, Mt Maunganui (MOUNAIKI RELESE SHOW)
31 Jan- 5 Feb Luminate Festival, Nelson
08 Feb Golden Bear Brewing, Mapua
15-17 March WOMAD New Zealand, New Plymouth
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Released: 05 Oct 2018