(Herald rating: * * * * )

So what's it like, this already much-trumpeted, long-awaited second coming of our pre-eminent female singer-songwriter?

Well, despite its worrying background - a three-year gestation involving eight different studios, enough backing musicians to form a sizeable Kiwi supergroup and American session players including Joey Waronker, who can now alliterate that he's backed both Beck and Bic - it's really very good.


Runga is obviously a more complicated musical soul than the singer-songwriter of her big-splash 1997 debut Drive. And the dozen tracks stretch out in some intriguing directions away from her voice-guitar-and-sometimes-band template.

But they stop short of anything truly confounding, even when it gets a little Bjork-ish on the symphonic pop of the title track.

With all that studio time behind it, it does sound quite luxuriant.

But it's in no way bland and there's an intimate clarity to the way it delivers Runga's sweet swoon of a voice and the tunes it carries.

That said, some songs do tend to be a little indistinguishable from each other.

It doesn't help that for every truly memorable lyric, there's another which seems a little cut and paste with an, er, astronomical amount of references to stars falling into oceans and other vaguely cosmic phenomenon at curiously frequent intervals.

But, the best songs here are her best songs yet.

Even when they have a banjo in them and a country waltz behind them like The Be All and End All.

Or when they start off sounding like REM - blame Waronker, he's drummed for them too - on the slow jangling folk-rock single Get Some Sleep.

Among the other picks of the bunch there seems a split between songs seemingly expressing a giddy sense of domestic bliss (see the hazardously optimistic Something Good, the spidery rock-chorused Election Night) and thoughts from a departure lounge (the chamber-pop Honest Goodbyes, the aching ballads She Left on a Monday and Counting the Days).

That aforementioned title track may remind of the Icelandic avant-pop princess, but over its plucked strings and swinging piano Runga delivers her album's most dynamic vocal on a song that just might be her way of telling her former nightclub singer mum that, yes, they do write them like they used to.

Bic doesn't quite write them like she used to, though, as the rest of Beautiful Collision shows. But you get the feeling that its musical maturity isn't going to do her any harm.

* Beautiful Collision is released on July 5.

Label: Columbia