The idea? Every day in May, to mark NZ Music Month and 38 years of his own rancid opining and reportage, Gary Steel will present something from his considerable behind. Personal archive, that is. In 1999, Flying Nun made one of its worst-ever business decisions: pouring money into former Headless Chickens chanteuse Fiona McDonald’s solo album. My review appeared in the Sunday Star Times on the 17th of October of that year.
A DIFFERENT HUNGER (FLYING NUN)
THE BUDGET OF this glossy debut by the former Headless Chickens cluckette would probably have paid for the first decade of releases on our proudly lo-fi label. Chris Knox would be turning in his grave if he was dead.
McDonald’s pleasing vocal pyrotechnics have blessed a variety of jingles, so its bitter-sweet tones are already embedded in the public consciousness. Audience interest from her short but productive tenure with the Chookies and Strawpeople has finally been matched by a lot more of Fiona.
The fact so much importance is placed on the success of this album is a worrisome reminder of the tiny country we live in; it’s implicit reviewers are supposed to play their part in the industry’s investment by rooting for Fiona at every possible turn, making A Different Hunger out to be some kind of milestone, thereby encouraging positive crowd reaction.
These expectations place a heavy burden on the humble critic, who has to admit to his shocked readers that A Different Hunger isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. All the moves are right, from the stylised photos to the slick production, the post-Portishead trip-hop torch song refits to the X-rated sex files storytelling.
But it’s all a bit mannered, a bit clinical, a bit contrived to these sullied ears. At its best – the Everything But The Girl-isms of ‘Don’t Tell’ and ‘I Don’t Care’, or the cheeky drum programming of ‘Let Me Dream’ – McDonald makes it work by not forcing it into submission. But it falls off the rails on tracks like ‘Sin Again’ which end up, over repeated listenings, sounding as painfully obvious as the Pet Shop Boys on one of their faux-dramatic, orchestral Gothic pop efforts.
Despite its international production (because of it?) A Different Hunger fails to draw a compelling picture. McDonald has ended up suffering through polite arrangements that show the lack of any kind of creative foil, while the fragility of its songs are easily disemboweled by her shovels-and-all lyrical approach. But don’t take my word for it… GARY STEEL
Notes: My memory of this review was that I really savaged Fiona’s album, and by implication, her. But it seems quite mild to me now. It seemed weird to me (it still seems weird to me) that Flying Nun, with its religiously indie aesthetic, would run with an album as glossy as this, and one so ill-judged.