Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna Zarai is definitely on a roll. Already a well-known recording artist at home, Yuna began to catch the attention of music fans around the world with the release of her self-titled album and appearances at Lollapalooza during 2012. Then in 2013, she continued to garner attention with the release of her EP, Sixth Street; an appearance on “Conan”; and the recording of a track for the soon-to-be released animated film by DreamWorks, “The Croods.” With the release of her Verve Records debut album Nocturnal in late 2013, Yuna is positioned to achieve continued success this year. Indeed, she has just recently announced a headlining tour across North America, with select dates in Singapore and Europe in support of the album. In addition, the single “Rescue” was a Starbucks “Pick of the Week” that resulted in over 300,000 downloads and is also the single for which Yuna released a stunning music video.
Before listening to Nocturnal, I learned that Yuna had been named one of the “20 Artists To Start Listening To In 2014” by The Huffington Post. As I watched her perform two singles off the album, “Rescue” and “Falling” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” this month, I understood exactly why she deserved a spot on that list. It also made me excited to hear the entire album, and in this I was not disappointed.
Nocturnal is highly polished, thanks to production input from the likes of Chad Hugo (“Someone Who Can”) and Robin Hannibal (“Falling” and “Lights and Camera”). But what makes it an album worth owning and listening to often, is that the polish was applied without straying from or diluting the unique blend of soul, pop, R&B and Malaysian sound that is Yuna.
In the two opening tracks, “Falling” and “Mountains” you immediately understand why Yuna is frequently compared to Feist and Norah Jones. And while clear, pure and radiant are adjectives often used to describe Yuna’s vocals, I would add light, smooth and sultry to that list. Her free-flowing phrasing and vocal control are displayed throughout Nocturnal, whether on the slow sultry groove of “I Want You Back,” the more trip-hop sound of “Escape,” the R&B tinged “Lights and Camera,” or the made for radio-play rhythmic pop of “Rescue” – its use of hand-claps, xylophone and lyrical hooks all combine for an addicting ‘positive girl-power vibe’ that will have you singing it in to yourself as you go about your day.
If I were forced to pick one shortcoming of the album it would be that as a thematic album on love and relationships, Nocturnal suffers from the lack of topical variability. While Yuna’s innocence is usually counterbalanced by her earthy frankness, a few times on the album the lyrics tip over into the realm of bubblegum sweet. While quite possibly an intentional decision made in order to target the younger demographic in the pop audience, I think it hampered Nocturnal’s ability to achieve the level of brilliance that Yuna’s voice is capable of achieving. Nonetheless, this is only a minor issue on an otherwise stellar album from an artist who has already been moved to my “favorites” playlist.
Nocturnal is a highly polished album by an up and coming artist who trusts and relies on her talent to reach her fans – unlike some in the crop of pop stars today who use shocking antics in order to scream out for our attention. As Yuna’s lyrics make clear: ‘She don’t need no rescue and she’s okay.’