Gregg Porter's Music Reviews
Raiatea Helm: “Sweet & Lovely”
Such a short time has passed since Raiatea’s recorded debut, “Far Away Heaven, ” and since she received Hoku Awards in 2003 as Most Promising Artist and Female Vocalist of the Year. But what amazing growth in that brief time! Her first album showed much promise, yet the fact that she was still a teenager came through in a few small moments. Overall, it was a charming debut, but you could occasionally hear in her vocals that she needed just a little bit more growth and refinement.
Apparently, she knew it herself, because she’s clearly been focusing on improvement, and it pays off on her second disc. “Sweet & Lovely” is a nearly flawless album, filled with a wider range of singing technique – never lingering too long on one style, never allowing listeners to get bored. This is one of those albums you’ll enjoy playing over and over.
As much as I am a fan of performers who take traditional sounds and push them, experiment with them, and (respectfully) create innovative new directions, I also love it when musicians of a new generation come along and show that classic material can be done in a simple, tasteful way – making a classic fresh and new. Musicians like Raiatea give one faith that old styles of Hawaiian music will continue to be performed well into the future.
And what a choice of material! I have to turn first to the great vocal litmus test that is “`Ālika.” Unless you have great breath control, you don’t want to get near this song. This young woman, just tiptoeing into her twenties, leaps in with both feet; or should I say, both lungs. There is a famous note in here, one that singers hold as long as possible. She stays on it a full, and strong, thirty seconds. (Don’t try this at home.)
She is surrounded by many of the top musicians of Hawaiian music, but special note must be made of two of her vocal guests. Keali`i Reichel, undeniably one of the brightest stars in the business, joins her on a chicken-skin turn in a gently jazzy “Haole Hula,” and the legendary Aunty Genoa Keawe (to whom many people are favorably comparing Raiatea these days) makes “Hu`i Ē” such a playful polyphonic pleasure.
The album also includes compositions by Tony Conjugacion, John Ka`imikaua, Lena Machado, and John K. Almeida, among others. Slack-key guitarist George Kuo makes an appearance, and well-known folks like Hōkū Zuttermeister, Horace Dudoit (of Ho`okena), Brian Tolentino, and Jeff Rasmussen surround her throughout. Her supportive father, Zachary (who handles most management and promotional duties) plays on only one selection – very generous of him to step aside for others, since those of us who heard him accompany her in Seattle at Bumbershoot last September know that he’s a strong enough player to have filled in a lot more. But he picked a good one to join in on – “Kalama`ula,” a nahenahe number from her home island of Moloka`i (another one that features her on an extended single note.)
The album’s closer, “At Last,” does give us a taste of Raiatea’s skill with non-Island material, but it seems a weak finish. She does a nice job with it, but it just feels a little out-of-place for me; I wonder if they were thinking the same thing at the time, and that’s why it was placed at the end? But it’s not a reason to condemn the album – if you like it, let it play on; and if you don’t, you can easily stop your CD before the final track – and go back to the beginning, for one more listen to one of the best young artists Hawai`i has produced.
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