The last time New Zealand band Tiny Ruins was here in Singapore, it was frontman Hollie Fullbrook (above) all by herself and her acoustic guitar. With her strums and distinct, caramel voice, she opened the 2015 Singapore Writers Festival at The Arts House with the world premiere of a beautiful composition.
The song was A Million Flowers, now the eighth track in her band's third album, Olympic Girls. It also happens to be the springboard for a more experimental direction, the "visual template" inspired by the torrent of blooms in a Van Gogh painting.
Hear the difference between the earlier live stripped-down version and the fuller studio one. "In a still moment after the rush hour/'Let's play' your motto on the Yamanote Line," she sings, swaying with the tug and release of the melody.
"Catch everyone in a hurry/Sharing our days in the sun/Blossoms all starting to fall," she sings, as the ruddy, undulating rhythm gains steam, slows, then ratchets up again. The listener is buoyed along by tempo shifts, driven by a flourish of keys, percussion and back-up vocals, into uncharted territory.
That suspense, discreet it may be, is sustained throughout the record and you wait for each phrase, good news or bad.
This tougher stance is precipitated by a period beset by exhaustion, writer's block and a personal tragedy - she suffered a miscarriage in 2017. Olympic Girls, thus, represents a re-alignment, a restart and a lucid reckoning with life and death.
Her voice, confidently unshowy and disarming, is unafraid to go even lower this time. In the title track, she alludes to transience and chance. "Stirring, shaken, all of us waking/Under the same cover of sky/You said my freedom feels/ Like a white lie," she sings, her voice almost bruised when it comes to the word "lie".
In between mellifluous cascades of guitars and drums are quieter, starker interludes. "You'll never find a thing/If you can't lose yourself/Every once in a while," she realises, before the melody shape-shifts and takes you away into somewhere unknown.
Ba Da Bing Records
In How Much, she describes an actual meltdown in Los Angeles. "Breakdown in the supermarket/Something for my toothache/Is it getting dark yet?" she sings against increasingly gnarled guitar-work. "How much would you be willing to give?" she asks and there is no answer.
Reliably, her voice is the guiding light through the tumult. An excellent raconteur, she is adept at painting portraiture with a few deft strokes. She uses her rarefied register sparingly and effectively, such as in the song Sparklers, singing about writing someone's "name in cursive on the air" and "conjuring no lasting magic".
Or listen to the dreamlike Holograms where she battles the Grim Reaper and gives him "the slip/ Saved by a Darth Vader novelty helmet". It's a treatise on mortality dressed as a surreal sci-fi romance, as she pronounces the title with a languorous sigh.