For her third studio album Runga again reinvented herself, this time as a jazzy lounge singer. Following the effervescent hooky pop of Beautiful Collision, Birds is hushed and sombre, a eulogy to her father whose passing provided the stimulus and emotional backdrop to these songs. Runga’s backing band is a remarkable collective of New Zealand musicians – the album’s principal musical contributor is Neil Finn, in the unfamiliar role as pianist. Trinity Roots’ Rikki Gooch is behind the drum-kit, while Shayne Carter and Anika Moa guest on backing vocals.
Birds works on an emotional level, but sometimes light on musical ideas, and isn’t as engaging as Beautiful Collision. This comparison is unfair, since it’s to be expected that a straight out pop album like Beautiful Collision would be more accessible than the darker Birds, but this record could certainly use more hooks in a few places.
This statement doesn’t apply to the opening single, the excellent ‘Winning Arrow’, where the bright country sheen feels at odds with the rest of the album, like a warranted concession to commercialism. Elsewhere, Runga is able to produce some great songs in her new found jazz-pop vein, where she’s covering ground more akin to piano-vocal jazz like Nina Simone. The surging, dramatic ‘If I Had You’ is a great example of the potential the project has, with a memorable call and response chorus, while the dramatic sighs of the closing ‘It’s Over’ also demonstrate dynamics that the rest of the album sometimes lacks. Elsewhere, Birds is eloquent and elegant, but it’s hard to get a grasp on the individual songs and they do tend to meld together more than they should.
Birds is an ambitious album from Runga, a successful attempt at almost an entirely new genre for her, but it’s not the tour de force it could have been; it’s beautiful background music, but it doesn’t demand the listener’s full attention like it could have.