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Found in Translation
After achieving stardom in her native Malaysia with emotionally and lyrically intricate indie pop, Yuna has released a self-titled album aimed at a global audience. For the production of this debut she worked with Pharrell Williams, Chris Braide (who has worked with Lana Del Ray), busy Grammy-winner Andre Harris, and James Bryan. Despite four different producers sharing writing credits with her, Yuna’s album is a coherent and often beautiful piece of progressive pop.
The overriding goal seems to be a translation of the intimacy of Yuna’s acoustic world into something ready for big stages and airplay. Even if you question that this was necessary, it’s tough to argue with the outcome. That’s clear from the first bold track.
“Lullabies,” one of Pharrell’s joints, kicks things off with a hip-hop beat, a spectral orchestra, and Yuna handling things in a style that adds some exciting diva tendencies to her usually unassuming indie manners. Perhaps in an effort to kick things up a notch, Yuna and Co. approached these songs with an inspired open mindedness, borrowing from everywhere and trying anything to create something varied and inventive while keeping the mood and tone even. The result is thirteen tracks that all evoke a coffee house gig in some brightly lit, post-everything utopian future. This is what makes it seem reasonable to follow a couple of tracks like “Lullabies” with the feisty, folky “Remember My Name.” In the future, the only limits set on pop will be the human imagination. This album shows we’re almost there.
Occasionally, the songwriting edges into predictable alt-pop territory, raising concerns that someone somewhere was overly anxious to package Yuna for America’s narrow pop mainstream. But Ms. Yunalis Zarai’s strong instincts prevail just enough to keep things interesting. A lot of what the team came up with could be compared to pre-Metals Feist, one of Yuna’s inspirations. The music is familiar and fairly simple, but playful and edged with nice subtleties.
Yuna is at its best when the crew takes a well-worn pop style and drastically reinterprets it through modern production capabilities and musical mores. “See You Go” transmutes a spunky ’60′s girl-group vibe into something that could work on modern radio, while “Stay” transforms ’70s soul. The single “Live Your Life” has a vintage Latin lounge thing going on. Yuna is a vocalist as versatile as she is distinctive, and that quality lends itself to this.
When they get it right, hearing the old fashioned framed by the bleeding edge is fascinating and delightful, but the aptly named “Bad Idea” features some distracting production work from Pharrell around a delicate old-time jazz tune — an industrial rhythm, a repetitive ukulele sample, and weird 8-bit sound effects. It’s an original but, ultimately grating experiment.
Whatever its flaws, Yuna demonstrates that this young artist has a lot of potential and room to grow. It’s a very promising debut full-length, made all the more interesting by its quirks.
Hear her perform “Live Your Life” live at MTV Iggy’s 2011 Best New Band Concert: