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February/March 2017

by Dixon Nacey

X-Factory: Bic Runga – Close Your Eyes

by Dixon Nacey

X-Factory: Bic Runga – Close Your Eyes

Released in November 2016, ‘Close Your Eyes’ is Bic Runga’s fifth studio album, a 12-song tribute featuring interpretations of some of her favourite covers to which she also added two new original songs. Bic was recently inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame, deservedly so, following a successful 20 year (plus) career of unique and iconic releases. And this latest is yet another gem.

The lo-fi psychedelia-styled production present throughout knits the whole album together beautifully, providing a warm landscape for her delicate vocals and some well-played, cleverly crafted and arranged instrumentation to dance around. Live drums, fat bass, acoustic guitars, strings, subtle synths, beefed up by clever modern recording techniques and wrapped in tape-compressed valve lushness screams 1960s with contemporary cool – I’m guessing Kody Nielson, her partner and co-producer, played a strong role here.

Close Your Eyes is also the name of the first single and stand out original track. Although I was hoping for a higher Bic-composed song ratio – the only other original Dream A Dream is a strong, well-written tune (with a super-hip disco outro!).

At 142bpm Close Your Eyes really moves. A flamming snare and tom-tom figure on the drumset at the intro is the main propulsive force, echoed in the guitar and bass parts, driving hard under dramatic high strings. I’m guilty of comparing new music to something I already know, but that is most certainly a deliberate and desired effect here – my music memory scanned through everything from ’60s Bond themes, Boney M, The Beatles to Tarantino film scores with repeated listening – the scene is set!

The melodic source throughout is diatonic (A major / F# minor scale tones and chords, with the exception of a C#7 in the second measure of the chorus) which might imply a bland harmonic palette. However, 12 seconds in we hear the title lyrics ring out through counterpoint layers of vocals that entwine and echo against each other. ‘Close your eyes, God is everywhere at once, don’t you realise we are the luckiest ones,’ Bic’s gentle singing style eliciting a dreamlike feeling over a busy, punchy rhythm section.

This sophisticated blend of vocal tracks, from unison – to harmonised – to overlapping counterpoint, creates a rhythmic tension, adding momentum without being cluttered.

In the key of F#minor, the verse chords move through a repeated 8-measure cycle that descends via familiar harmonic terrain (F#m to C#m to Badd9 to A6 returning to F#m), although the darkness of this progression, heightened by an eerie muted synth pad, minimal cymbals and no hi-hats, is contrasted by the sweetness in her vocal tone and demeanor.

Greater contrast comes in the next section ( ‘chorus’ is the best-fit term), double-time tambourine brightening the mood as chords now rise from Bm through C#7 back home to F#m, then E major. Strummed acoustic joins here to support; ‘day after day, I still want to, want you,’ these last lyrics breaking into two-part harmony, drum fills and crashing cymbals underpinning the accents.

Interestingly, the ‘close your eyes’ lyric at the top of the tune hints at a chorus section; except that the following sections’ lyric and melody could arguably be the ‘hookiest’, albeit subtly, hinting at more of a ‘chorus’ feel. Debatable!

Looking back across her plethora of pop hits it’s apparent Bic tends to let the melody do the work – she’s not overly fond of vocal theatrics, which makes her music even more appealing in my opinion. This is clearly evident throughout Close Your Eyes and many of the other album tunes; melodies sung straight and pure where any embellishment is a hint – a beautiful but imperfect doubled vocal or subtle shift in tone, as opposed to wow-factor arpeggio or scale runs and trills. No auto-tune here.

The album features many longer-than-expected interludes, again harking back to a different era of music where instrumental themes or even entire instrumental sections were explored and developed. At 2:43 long it’s surprising to find an extended interlude (16 generous measures long!) after the second chorus – usually the place for a contrasting middle 8.

Then, another variation from the norm; following the third and last chorus is a shortened third verse identical to the first 8 bars of verse one – which might create a tidy book-end except that the final 4-measure outro is entirely new harmonic material.

Here an interesting and uncommon song form is revealed, a means by which an artist might bend or disguise the ‘golden ratio’ (a gradually building dynamic arc across the whole song, with an apex somewhere around the 62%[-ish] region that dissipates rather quickly towards the end) – yet still create music that is satisfying to listen to. On Close Your Eyes the job is well done; while the overall song dynamic is fairly consistent, movement and interest is generated by mood intensity and dramatic, contrasting vocal and instrumental parts.

I’ve always enjoyed Bic’s voice, her distinctive tone with a hint of Kiwi-ness, cute, lilting, even raw on occasion but never raspy or edgy – yet an edginess is introduced in this album, more prominent on other tracks where her vocals are processed through a subtle ‘clipping’ effect; compressing and dirtying the tone.

This could be Kody Nielsen’s producer chops, or something she arrived at organically. Either way, the sense that there is more to her than the softer Bic we know from earlier hits is welcome and refreshing; not a total reinvention but certainly a subtle progression and development.

Dixon Nacey is a guitarist, composer, producer and MD, who teaches music at Auckland & Massey University, CPIT in Christchurch, and online at www.jazzguitarlegend.com.