SJD: Songs from a Dictaphone

By Russell Baillie

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Herald rating: * * * *

Having been himself praised to the heavens on previous releases, it would appear that Auckland studio'n'song-boffin SJD - Sean James Donnelly - has got religion. Well, midway through the 11 songs of this, his fourth album is a trinity of songs drawing heavily on the Good Book.

Well, one is called Jesus. It's a bold and brassy electrofunk gospel number which recalls everything from the David Byrne/Brian Eno classic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts to Moby and gives SJD's co-vocalist Sandy Mill a chance to shine.

Another is called Lucifer. It again proves that the Devil still has the best tunes with its languid torch soul and some lyrically wry satanic verses.

The one in between is titled I Am the Radio, which, over a hydraulic beat, theorises that God had his ear to the wireless during his creative burst in Genesis (the Old Testament, that is, not Phil Collins' band) before it takes it to a gospel bridge concerning the resurrection of Lazarus.

The three songs are initially intriguing. But there's an air of flippancy and sarcasm about them so the novelty wears off far too soon. That's something of an impediment to the album which, otherwise, might have been as much of a religious experience as its 2004 predecessor Southern Lights.

Otherwise, there are some true wonders in the balance of the tracklisting. The obvious standout is Beautiful Haze - one of the two numbers Donnelly has on the recently-announced 20-strong finalist list in the Apra Silver Scroll song of the year prize. The other is I Will Not Let You Down which appeared on Don McGlashan's Warm Hand album - a ballad ruminating on a seemingly contented existence: "Just a puny guy on a blue-green ball. Got no problem with that thought at all." Donnelly and his lovely voice, which can sometimes sound like McGlashan's baritone brother, makes fine work of other pensive numbers such as The Last I Saw of Maryanne, the brooding Bowiesque 40 Flights Up, and the closing escape-the-city tale of Two Bodies. Elsewhere, there's much infectious pop energy. Especially on the arpeggiating synthesizer madness that is I Wrote This Song For You which suggests an electropop collision of Beck and, gulp, Peking Man as well as the punk funk of (Just Say No) The Disco Inferno and the Afrobeat lope that wobbles behind the Black is a Beautiful Colour.

So Songs from a Dictaphone does offer plenty more evidence that Donnelly remains a local pop original with some beautiful songs of intelligent design. But his halo has slipped a little on this one.

Label: Round Trip Mars/ Universal)
Verdict: Fourth outing from Auckland alt-pop virtuoso suffers divine intervention

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