28 Sep 2021
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Album Review: The New Blue - Pixie Williams Reimagined

06 Apr 2021 // A review by Kev Rowland

Before starting on the music on this tribute album, we first need to understand who Pixie Williams was and the impact she had on NZ music. Pixie was the first wahine Maori vocalist to reach number one on the New Zealand singles chart, with the song Blue Smoke in 1949. Written by Ruru Karaitiana, this was the first hit record wholly produced in New Zealand from composition to pressing and provided the debut for the TANZA record label (and was later covered by Dean Martin and many others). It topped the New Zealand radio hit parades for six weeks, selling more than 50,000 copies in a country which at the time had less than 1.9 million inhabitants. Over the next few years, she sang on more songs such as Let's Talk it Over and Windy City, before leaving the music industry to raise a family in Dunedin. In 2011, her daughter Amelia Costello was behind the release of an album which preserved her collection of Williams’ shellac recordings, and in 2019 Williams, composer Ruru Karaitiana and guitarist Jim Carter were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in recognition of the importance of Blue Smoke, and to tie in with the 70th anniversary.

Costello’s original aim was to preserve the recordings, but after that had been achieved, she wondered if it would be possible to have the songs reimagined with contemporary artists, and discussed this with sound engineer Mike Gibson, who had restored and remastered the recordings on For the Record - The Pixie Williams Collection. He in turn brought in Riki Gooch (Eru Dangerspiel, Trinity Roots) and singer Lisa Tomlins (Fat Freddy’s Drop, L.A.B, Hollie Smith), and together they started looking for artists who would be able to do the songs justice, while at the same time ensuring they never moved far from their roots.

The result is an album which is a time machine: there is no way this could have been recorded in 2020, as the sound is from a time at the very beginning of modern popular music, before Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats released Rocket 88 in Memphis in 1951. This is music which makes me think of the old black and white musicals I used to watch with my grandad when I was just a kid myself, with the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, when music had a soul and there was never any need to rush, as it would take whatever time it needed. Thanks to modern technology, Pixie starts her most famous song herself before Lisa Tomlins and Kirsten Te Rito come in to take it on – they are also the only singers to have more than one song, yet everyone involved has done an incredible job. The arrangements are sedate, slow, full of passion, with room for everyone to shine. I must confess to having not heard of Pixie prior to this album but having been listening to this a great deal in recent times, I know I am going to have to search out the release from 10 years ago. This is a true tribute, with musicians and singers combining together to produce a remarkable piece of work, packed full of emotion and feelings, showing off their own skills but also ensuring we never forget the person who came before, a trailblazer in NZ music, Pixie Williams.

Rating: ( 5 / 5 )
 

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