By Ben Ratliff, published in The New York Times, December 6, 2010

Here’s something healthily irritating: The 23-year-old singer Anika comes from Surrey, near London; she’s got an unmistakably southeastern English accent in her speaking voice; but when she sings, she’s a German singing English, making syllables long and slow, affectless and severe. Essentially, she’s Nico.

Anika — real name is Annika Henderson — has a German mother and has explained in interviews that she’s just opening her mouth and letting childhood sounds tumble out. O.K., but the happier explanation is that Anika isn’t betraying her own singing, because she isn’t really a singer at all. She was working as a journalist and booking bands in Cardiff, Wales, not long ago when she met Geoff Barrow, formerly of Portishead and now of the band Beak. Mr. Barrow assembled Beak around her in a studio, playing clanky, relaxed dub and post-punk grooves, and for her self-titled debut album they made judiciously chosen cover versions of songs by female singers, including Yoko Ono’s “Yang Yang,” Skeeter Davis’s “End of the World,” the Pretenders’ “I Go to Sleep” and “Terry,” a girl-groupish song from 1964 by the momentary English star Twinkle.

Her voice is faltering and off-key, but dogged. The grooves are minimal, with the bass pushed way up front, and the sound is fresh and lumpy: the songs get your attention; they’ve got texture. The longest song is a version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” and her delivery is as shell-shocked and haranguing as the song’s mood demands; at one point, she stops singing, you hear a siren, and then the voice of an American Iraq war veteran, Mike Prysner, from an antiwar speech he gave two years ago. (“The real terrorist is me, and the real terrorism is this occupation,” he says.)

Because “Anika” is made the way some rock records in the late 1970s and early 1980s were both recorded and felt — with everyone playing together simultaneously, with scuffiness and bitten-off ideas quite the point, and with a space for enthusiastic amateurs — it’s startling. BEN RATLIFF

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