Album Reviews

 

 

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l'amour et le reve (2002)

 

 

In spite of possibly the worst album cover photo from anyone in recent memory, overall this turns out to be a freakin’ good album.  Reading over 100 raving reviews on YesAsia did not ruin the surprise awaiting therein.  As much as I enjoy to rail against majority opinion every chance I get, I’m compelled to join in on the cheerleading squad in this case.

Somewhat deceivingly, the album kicks off on familiar ground.  “Can’t Afford to Love” and “Forget about Betrayal” are a pair of ballads that are pleasant enough if a bit interchangeable.  Dave himself wrote the music for track 2, but for some reason it could not be more similar to track 1 structurally.  As usual, Dave is to be commended for putting 110% into the vocals, but from my perspective the stylistic similarity to Celine Dion ballads is too much to be ignored.  Fortunately, the recording quickly picks up steam thereafter with “On the Dreamland”, a much more adventurous song which starts out with a breathtakingly beautiful electric guitar prelude.  Delicious two-part harmony pervades the verses and the irresistible chorus.  Lyrically the song is also appropriately dreamy and atmospheric, especially the second verse.  The background singer’s voice evokes a gentler Alanis Morrissette, which fits perfectly well with the overall light-alternative feel of the song.  This mid-tempo track serves as a very successful change-of-pace before the next ballad, the instantly-likable “Missing Snow”.  The piano-driven melody is simple but memorable, well-complemented by picturesque lyrics.  However, the real surprise of the album lies elsewhere.  As soon as the metallic-tinged first note of track 5 starts, it’s clear that Dave is really stretching his musical boundaries these days.  The self-penned music of “Mutant Lover” commands attention with its brooding moodiness and dark undercurrents unprecedented in Dave’s work, accentuated by a climatic instrumental bridge complete with primal screams, sinister chanting and a blistering guitar solo.  In fact that the entire mid-section sounds like a mini-version of Peter Gabriel’s highly dramatic “Signal to Noise” from his recent “Up” album (which by the way he spent 10 years making).  The lyrics about a good lover gone bad is delivered with a slightly distorted husky voice conveying a degree of desperation and cynicism only a mature artist is capable of.  The bottom line is this track qualifies as a minor masterpiece for its sheer originality and Dave deserves an award for being so progressive (no joke!) and avant-garde.  If this does not restore our faith in experimentation in today’s Chinese pop music I don’t know what will.  Not surprisingly, after my favorite song on the disc I have a tendency to overlook what comes immediately after.  This is unfair however because “A Game between Disgruntled Lovers” actually stands very well on its own and deserves individual attention.  The story begins the morning after as we envision the protagonist sitting dumbfounded in the corner picking up the pieces.  Quiet piano accompaniment is then replaced by a rousing rhythm section as the chorus recounts the stormy fight the night before.  The lyrics paints the picture so vividly that it makes you feel like you are watching the blow-by-blow from a camera.  The line “you really love me, but you hate me more” pretty much sums it up.  Unfortunately we all know what happens when passion turns into hatred: love becomes a casualty of war.  With “Yesterday’s Love Song” Dave returns to what he was known for and what we have come to expect from him:  ballads that don’t necessarily stand out  musically, but nonetheless move us due to his remarkable vocals.  “I Know How to Endure Pain” is another crack at a new style, this time a sort of Bruce Springsteen mid-tempo rocker.  To my ears the words sound a bit humorous, maybe even poking fun at Dave’s own “King of Pain” image.  The rest of the album were more conventional, “Find a Place” is a remake and two of the three mandarin songs are mandarin versions of “Can’t Afford the Love” and “Missing Snow”.  Comparing to the Cantonese lyrics, the mandarin ones seem a lot more straightforward and heartfelt,  but also less poetic (probably no coincidence that Dave himself wrote the words for two out of three).  The last song on the album is a nice bonus where we finally get to hear a something written and produced entirely by Dave.  It doesn’t have any high notes, but keeps moving along in an easy-going groove that grows on you and stays with you.  We all know the wisdom behind “Men are Best Simple” derives from Dave’s life experiences.  Is it any wonder he sings it with such an extraordinary conviction?  Is it a surprise that it rings so true to this listener?  The answers are of course “No” and “No”. 

So don’t be driven away by the ridiculous cover photo (trust me there are better ones on the inside), don’t be stopped by preconceived perceptions, experience this album the way it is meant to be, in a quiet place, listen with your heart and soul, you just might find yourself reaching the same conclusions as me.

 


 

I'd Rather Forget Myself than Forgetting You (1991)

 

 

Dave Wang never ceases to amaze me.  For someone whose musical taste is as particular as me, it is nearly impossible for a recording artist to produce an album that is thoroughly satisfactory by my standards.  However, thus far Dave has already achieved this feat twice, first with the his highly impressive 1987 debut "A Game, A Dream", and now again with the less-acclaimed but equally stunning "I'd Rather Forget Myself than Forgetting You" from 1991.  It is the latter that I will focus my attention on in the following review.

Far from being a blind purchase, I have heard five songs from this album before I mail-ordered it, two of which, "Heartache" and the title track, were featured in the film "Casino Riders II" starring Andy Lau and Dave himself.  The album-opener, "Heartache", is arguably the most well-known song written entirely by Dave.  The employment of traditional instruments such as Gu Zheng gave the melody a timeless quality.  Similarly, the lyrics also exudes the succinct beauty of a Chinese traditional brush painting.

What is love, what is powerlessness
Silently facing each other
It seems I already understood
Slowly moving towards you, grabbing your hand
Holding back the tears, I say to you: "take care"

These few lines outline the essence of a parting scene, what more do we need to know?  "Less is more" is so true in this case.  And for those who have seen "Casino Riders II", the emotional impact of the song is only intensified by its association with that unforgettable scene involving Dave's character and his daughter in the film.  The title track "I'd Rather Forget Myself than Forgetting You" is another tune which benefits from its synergy with a touching scene in the film.  Even now, my heart still feels a slight twinge every time I hear the line "Alone I Walk the Frozen Streets".  But the tragic quality of this song can easily be appreciated without having seen the film, thanks to Dave's voice which simply tears you up like a dagger. 

Another one of my familiar favorites was "Renew Our Romance in Next Life".  Armed with lush instrumental back-up and highly poetic lyrics, I was surprised that this song was not more famous than it was.  But what impressed me the most was Dave's lead vocal, which at times seemed like it had taken on a life of its own.  Especially during the soaring chorus, his voice just took off into "no-man's land", flying effortlessly above the clouds.  This dramatic vocal style is very appropriate to the theme of the song, which is about unrequited lovers and their determination to reunite in the next life.

The two English covers that appear on this album ("He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother", "Sealed with a Kiss") were not surprisingly among the first Dave Wang tracks I downloaded off of the Internet.  I confess a little smile or two would sneak onto my face every time I hear him mispronounce the word "laden" such that it sounds like he was singing "If I'm a lady, I'm a lady with sadness".  But who never makes a mistake, right?  Moreover, his vocal performances on these two songs more than make up for the occasional pronunciation errors.  Technically, these two songs are quite challenging, just listen to Dave's voice smoothly slide down the scales on the sentence "And the load doesn't weight me down at all", few Chinese singers would have been able to negotiate that down-turn convincingly.  Personally, I find it impressive the way he took on these English oldies with such confidence and feeling that they practically sounded like his own compositions.  

Five great songs from an album would have been enough for me to justify the price of purchase, or at least that was what I was thinking when I placed the order on YesAsia.  I wasn't expecting a lot from the rest of the album, because based on my experience album tracks tend to be of lower quality than singles.  Boy, was I wrong!!  For one, two other original compositions by Dave himself put to rest once-and-for-all any doubts regarding his song-writing ability.  The musical progression of "Forever Drifting" feels so natural that the song could practically have written itself.  Soothing piano music coupled with nostalgic lyrics create a perfect musical world where I can get lost in for hours.  The verses of this song offer some of the most real and heartfelt lyrics Dave has ever written:

Stepping on the road home
Future prospects are bleak
It had been my ignorant choice
to drift in foreign land

Walking on the road from childhood,
The footsteps of time march on endlessly
The short wall I used to clime on,
Now can no longer be found

The little river is still clear
Reverberating the song of my youth
The world that used to belong to me
Where can I look for it now    

Similarly, the other Dave Wang composition, "Vagrant", also won me over straight away with the first line.  Arrangements were kept at a minimum, while the simple beauty of the guitar/piano combo was exploited to the maximum in this song.  Like the songs from "A Game, A Dream", "Drifting Forever" and "Vagrant" have an instant familiarity and that down-to-earth quality which make them infinitely hummable.

Yet another stand-out track is "Wandering Heart", which starts out like another slow-number, but soon evolves into a top-notch up-tempo rocker.  I like the method of contrasting the female background voice with Dave's lead vocal at the beginning of the song.  Dave gets plenty of chances here to show off his tenor, and the reverb technique brings it out even more than usual.  Can you imagine anyone else sing those "Woh..."s with such style and emotion?

Short of mentioning every single song on the album, I would like to direct your attention to one last track, "Missing is Sadness".  The main surprise here is the extended instrumental bridge which sounds very progressive.  I kid you not when I say that the mysterious synthesizer solo which emerges halfway in the song reminded me of Pink Floyd.  I don't know if it was Ricky Ho or Daniel Chen who was responsible for this music experiment, but I seriously like it and hope for more of the same in future Dave Wang projects.

I know some people dislike this album because of certain political leanings hinted by the album sleeve, but great music should be appreciated as such, regardless of country, politics, religion, ethnicity, etc.  The selection of songs reflected a great deal of thoughts by Dave and the creative team at his label.  To be able to create an album of such quality every few months as what Dave did in the early 1990's was probably a feat never to be repeated again.  As I put the album on once again and surround myself with Dave's music, I'm filled with appreciation that he chose to share his talent with the rest of the world, and hope someday he will receive the recognition he so richly deserves.

 


 

Goodbye Madman (2007)

 

 

Since I did translate this entire album into English recently, I guess it would only be natural for me to write a few comments about the music itself. For those unfamiliar with the Hong Kong pop music scene, <Goodbye Madman> is the latest mandarin release by Dave Wang, the well-known veteran singer whom I've been a fan of since 2003.

Not long ago Dave has been quoted in the news as saying he may be quitting the music business for good within the next three years. While this certainly is sad news for us fans, I must admit I could detect a tiredness in his voice in the last few studio albums. While some evidence of wear-and-tear on the vocal cord is normal and to be expected for singers who have been actively productive for almost 2 decades, Dave's singing voice seems to have suffered particularly hard due to a combination of overuse and lack of protection. Being both a smoker and an asthmatic did not help either. While his voice did gain some warmth and texture in the baritone and bass frequencies, there is no denying that it has also lost some of the spirit and prowess in the tenor range. Long time fans have a point in lamenting on and on about the "good old days" when Dave used to be able to negotiate those high notes so well.

But wait, this is Dave Wang we are talking about, he is the Rocky Balboa of Chinese pop music. He may be down, but you would be a fool to count him out. Despite the above mentioned physical limitations on his voice and the on-going feud with his record company over creative control, the end product here is a remarkably high-quality album.

The first surprise is that <Goodbye Madman> actually features some of the catchiest melodies Dave has sung since he returned from semi-retirement in 1999. Though Dave accuses his recording company (EEG) of forcing half of the songs on him, it sounds to me that 8 out of 9 songs work very well together. The lyrics are rather strong as well, demonstrating a freshness and creativity we have missed in Dave's recent output. The two tracks about war are exceptional, evoking a subject matter Dave has not touched since early years of his career. "Shadow" paints a stark and desolate sonic landscape of the future when a nuclear holocaust brings the world to an end, sounding like an alternative take on Neil Young's chilling nuclear-war prophecy "After the Gold Rush". Similarly, the feeling of hopelessness and regret permeates "Frontier Borders", a song about the last musings in a dying soldier's brain. Songs like these make great use of Dave's weathered, unadorned voice, bringing back memories of early classics "Asian Orphans" and "Home is too Far", reminding us of what made Dave Wang such a cultural icon in the first place. As a very capable songwriter, Dave's own contribution to this album isn't a lot but is respectable. The self-penned "Madman" and "Web Site" are a pair of well-crafted torch songs about the crazy things we do when we try desperately to hang on even after the ones we love have moved on. On familiar grounds now, good old Dave proves to us once again that he could still belt out ballads with more feeling and abandon than 99% of the "young punks" out there. This lion may have aged a bit, but he is still the king of the jungle. The rest of album is mostly populated with gentle and melodious tracks about the various stages of romance, stand-outs among them include "Time Difference", "Merman" and "Acid Rain" (Dave composed the music for this one), mostly due to inventive lyrics featuring clever usage of metaphors.

In this otherwise highly enjoyable collection, the odd ball out is the much-maligned dance mix "Love 920", which is really a extended suite made up of 8 different songs (6 cover songs and 2 of Dave's own early era classics). The 6 segments Dave covered are supposed to be recent chart hits by popular singers in Taiwan, though I find little to like about them. Most are rather bland musically, but the lyrics are even weaker, some almost sound like works of elementary school kids. The musical arrangement, which has been consistently excellent for the rest of the album, also inexplicably fails here to splice these pieces into a coherent whole. The end result is a ill-advised, jumbled-up mess, made worse by the fact that singing dance tunes has never been Dave's strong suit. His distinctive drawling delivery does not fit well with the bouncy beats in the background. Dave has said on numerous occasions in interviews that he disagreed with EEG on the inclusion of this song, and I'll have to agree with him here.

Given this is almost certainly one of Dave Wang's last albums, the significance of this release looms large. Undeniably, he has one of the most unique voices in Chinese pop music. Though this voice has changed considerably over the years, it remains so utterly recognizable and magnetic that it has attracted a large number of new fans who have to go back to rediscover Dave's early catalog. Before he rides off into the sunset, Dave leaves us yet another sincere and thoughtful album. Though not perfect, it shows the world he has matured musically, and that he has not strayed from his musical ideal after all these years. Looking back at his career, wiping away a "hero's tear", I know Dave would be able to honestly tell himself "no regret, no remorse". But let's all hope Dave changes his mind about retirement.  And until next time, goodbye madman!


 

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