Water or Gold – Hollie Smith (Album Review)

With her new, aptly titled third solo effort, Smith really has struck it – big time!  For years she’d resisted taking the easy route and cashing in on the success of her performance on Bathe in the River.  She shunned making commercial music at every turn.

After a series of patchy experiments with big labels (the Manhattan Records ‘incident’); independent lash-outs (Humour and The Misfortune Of Others); techno-trash (Band of Brothers, with Electric Wire Hustle’s Mara TK) and churchyard-vineyard collaborations with Anika Moa and Boh Runga (Peace of Mind) she’s found her way back to ‘Soul’ and her mojo with it.

That couldn’t be clearer than on the album’s title track, which is saturated in infectious dirty-cool, hook-laden guitar funk, Rhodes keyboards and almost-perfect Gospel harmonies.  And Smith is right in the middle of it leading the charge with a big, crystal-clear vocals and strong lyrics.

The big power ballad In Love Again has more than a hint of Aretha behind it, reminding us that with the right tune, she’s is well capable of nailing the big emotional belters.

Helena (about her friend Helena McAlpine, who recently died of breast cancer) is a deeply, gut wrenching personal song.  It was and co-penned by Helena’s Husband Chris Barton and performed bedside during her last days.  Even without the backstory, it yanks the heartstrings with swirling organs and more Gospel choruses which swell up, heaven-bound to a full tempest of emotional crescendos.  If Smith does this one live on her upcoming national tour, it will totally steal the show.

Elsewhere, she gets her conscious groove on.  Poor on Poor has a heavy dose of guitar fuzz and there’s plenty of hard swing driving home the messages on the inspirational Lead The Way.  The single Lady Dee is the only one that sits a little outside the brief, with a chorus that borrows too heavily from Prince’s ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ (or is it Margaret Urlich’s “Escaping’) and never really delivers on the promise.  Still, its loose cabaret ambience and yet more funk overtones make it brilliant tune-none-the-less – and a million miles from the awkward, difficult torch songs of her debut Long Player.

In a previous interview Smith told me that when it comes to writing she’s a bit of a perfectionist and a procrastinator, taking her own sweet time to coax out the muse.  With recent a break up and the ensuing custody business, a move to Tauranga and a return to Auckland to nurse her terminally ill friend recent life has been a huge rollercoaster of a distraction.  But it was also a motivator.  So she set a December 2015 deadline, bought tickets to NY enlisted USA based Kiwi Producer Aaron Nevezie (Black Keys, Danger Mouse) and went hell for leather for three weeks.  The end result is quite possibly her best work to date: Infectious, funky, personal, mainstream accessible and above all deeply soulful.

Tim Gruar

Click here to listen to Water Or Gold from Water Or Gold:

Click here to watch Hollie Smith perform Helena at The 13th Floor