Herald rating: ***
Anika Moa became - like Bic Runga before her and Brooke Fraser after - an overnight local star on her 2001 debut Thinking Room.
That album's back-story almost overshadowed the songs. Moa had been signed direct to Atlantic Records in the United States after being shoulder-tapped by the local branch of the Warners conglomerate of which the American label is a division.
Despite the solid, shiny and single-heavy debut that resulted - which Moa is happy to dismiss as naive and over-produced now - its US connections led nowhere. Perhaps the wider pop world had had its fill of young women singer-songwriters and, as she herself would admit, Moa wasn't exactly an easy product to package and promote.
So it's heartening to hear its follow-up - of humbler circumstances than its predecessor - isn't the sound of a woe-is-me music industry refugee. What it is, though, is Moa musically exploring outside the pop confines of her debut on a self-consciously New Zealand album - the te reo songs Ka Whaka Huia Ano at the beginning and Kotahitanga at the end frame Stolen Hill with a nice pair of carved bookends.
Unfortunately, its 12 tracks don't make for a cohesive set. A few songs sound an unlikely marriage of style and subject, with Moa over-reaching lyrically when she shifts out of her usual singer-songwriter autobiographical mode.
Among the misfires are Lies in this Land which ponders "this thing we wrote?" (the Treaty of Waitangi presumably) and "the cost of human life that we betrayed", which is heavy stuff for a song that, with its jazzy lope, sounds like it could be backing music for a wine'n'cheese evening. So, too, could Broken Man, with its Ricki Lee Jones-jauntiness at odds with its tough subject matter.
But there are times when Moa's urges towards musical sophistication come off. Especially later in the piece on Loving You (Norah Jones-ish piano-powered torch pop) and Annie Goes to Sleep (which starts off as a sludgy blues before heading to higher ground). And there are songs of fragile awkward beauty like In the Morning (its words hinting at some medical trauma), the dreamy, weird Picture Me in the 70s, and the title track - a vocal performance teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown over gathering electric guitars and strings.
It's an album of more oddball character than its predecessor, especially on those weak spots.
But its strengths suggest that Moa doesn't need an international career to blossom artistically.
Label: Warner Music
Herald rating: ***