Summer Lei, http://summerplanet.com, 1999

Summer Lei, http://summerplanet.com, 1999

ranking: #73 on 1993-2005 list

With my left eye patched and disabled after surgery, I decided to revisit an album that engages suppressed senses which seem to have evolved beyond the body, an album that tells stories and evokes experiences beyond what our mind traditionally perceives as sound and image. This is an album with a song called “The Invisible Oboist” (看不見的吹奏者), lyrics about “the impending loss of sight, like the arrival of dark” but also of “sound unendingly coming into view.” It was uncanny — no, clairvoyant — that the opening track “Cheek Pressed to the Moon” (臉頰貼緊月球) has a line that goes “my left eye can see scenes miles away.” This is an album about the virtual reach of our senses transformed by technology and the imagination. It is an album about the earth in its most organic state, yet which takes a URL for its title. It is an album that bridges the classical and the futuristic, the analog with the digital, so that we can see further than the eye’s reach.

The first reaction to http://summerplanet.com (臉頰貼緊月球) by Summer Lei (雷光夏) is always how effectively it conjures images purely through sound, an ability even more evident to me this time while listening with my visual impairment. Lei’s sonic images are most literal in the sound collages like “Defeat of Empire” (敗帝國) which uses snippets from a New York subway, or multiple tracks that incorporate sounds recorded from nature. But Lei’s more extraordinary accomplishment is to fuse poetic language with stripped-down melodies to conjure abstract possibilities of life and the universe. The lyrics of “Trade Winds” (貿易風) traverse land and sea, stone and soil, and Lei’s voice flutters through an ethereal melody, while the synthesizer blares past a classical guitar. The nature that comes to view is like a primordial world seen through analog video static, or a turn-of-the-millennium computer animation of landscape, a Final Fantasy digital realism. “Memory, missing, fabrication, tears, curses, destruction, reality, wasteland.” The song floats away.

Lei’s evocation of nature has that late-70s innocent spirit of retreating into the planet’s pre-industrial state that so fascinated Taiwanese folk singers. Her upper register on “Trade Winds” and the album closer “Magnificent You” (壯麗的你) indulge in the spiritual and physical transcendence provided through nature, with a vocal flair reminiscent of Chyi Yu. But Lei’s use of electronic sounds and her abstract and eerie take on ecology is less pre-industrial than post-industrial. The images she evokes are of a new millennial wasteland, a post-apocalyptic loneliness where nature is rediscovered only to show us our own callousness, ignorance, and alienation from what makes us human. Nature is already ironic — it is a website — but when we need it most, we’ll force ourselves to comprehend it once more.

Lei’s vision of the earth is futuristic but what stirs the heart on the album are the moments when the past comes into view through the digital haze. “Disappearing Sonata” (消失奏鳴曲) recalls a decadent past with a retro beat that’s almost danceable. The gorgeous “Forgive” (原諒) is man and nature finding each other in a child-like lullaby (completely with “la la la’s”), in which every keyboard note and guitar pluck is stretched to sentimental limits, a nostalgic reprieve in an album of seemingly inescapable malaise. But it’s the sublime “Old Summer” (老夏天) that conjures the past most hauntingly. Lei’s wandering vocals are joined by a lonely cello. An accordion finds the two in the darkness. Lei speaks of summers past. A piano drunkenly waltzes in, circling her with its repeated arpeggios. This is nostalgia, but one both beautiful and creepy; like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, it’s the past conjured through hypnosis not recollection.

As I close my one working eye, I see creatures of the present in the wasteland leftover from a vicious past. The accordion reminds me of old-timey French ballads, or Taiwanese nakashi music haunted by Japan and drunk off life’s miseries. The musical minimalism of “Old Summer,” and so much of Lei’s album, has the effect of bringing an unexpected clarity. I see green and black shadows of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South Goodbye, on whose soundtrack I first heard the song. I see headlights peering out to infinity, not a car in the darkness ahead. I see the ocean stretched to the horizon, daring me to see no further.

Aadia, Balance, 2002

Aadia, Balance, 2002

ranking: #76 on 1993-2005 list

Like Jutoupi‘s “Love Live Punk ‘N’ Funk,” “Pre” (序) quotes Lenny Kravitz’s famous “Are You Gonna Go My Way” riff.  In the older album, the interpolation is part of a larger jokey jumble defacing all things sacred about Chinese and Taiwanese society.  But Aadia (阿弟仔) is no joker.  This opening track to his acclaimed Balance (平衡) sums up the blistering balancing act that will be the record.  A Chinese flute flutters through while an electric guitar crashes underneath.  Rock drums alternate with Chinese cymbals.  Juxtaposing Chinese and Western instruments is nothing new, but Aadia seeks in the combination something of a spiritual breakthrough that goes beyond culture mixing.

“Map” (地圖) begins with a similar instrumental juxtaposition: ruan plucks are joined by electric guitar distortion.  Yes, there’s something immediately alluring about it musically.  But the lyrics suggest other tensions.  The singer searches for a map of good and evil.  He needs help finding his way in the existential goo, and turns to god.  The English rap by sidekick Joe is assured and steady.  The Chinese rap, on the other hand, is manic like Busta Rhymes without the confident swagger, huffing and puffing nervously.  It’s mumbly and rambly, like somebody’s got his tongue but he’s gunning anyway.  He’s driven by his inner demons.  “What should I do? What should I do?” he asks.

“Confession” (認罪) similarly recreates inner struggle as a musical clash.  The track opens with Chinese opera, but it is jagged, cut up and pasted in the editing room.  There’s something bubbling beneath tradition: western mixing techniques, the postmodern pulse of youth.  An electric guitar kicks in, as does a sinister-sounding English and Taiwanese rap bouncing off each other.  A call and response between an adult and a kid, in Taiwanese: “Life’s like that (like that).”  The chorus is a folk call by the new generation, nervous about both the past and the future: the baby-killing parents and the fun-loving youngsters of the song’s opening lines.

Even the love songs are troubled, or at least distracted, by spiritual unease.  “Ambiguity” (曖昧) is an English-Chinese prayer over wispy heavy metal arpeggios.  It’s less a love song than a dream of one, thought up as the heavenly release from earthly troubles.  The outro offers no consolation, just an erhu crying over distortion.  The album’s other “love song” is “Hornet” (虎頭蜂) with its “we can make war or make babies” battlecry, which in hip-hop is an invitation to sex, but in the context of Balance almost feels like an actual dilemma.  The song is too angry to be sexy.  Too heavy to be flirtatious.  Too rough to be romantic.  “Hornet” is lovemaking with stingers.

If it all sounds unsettling, it should.  Balance is Taiwan’s answer to nu-metal.  The very-good title track handily balances good and evil, god and the devil, purity and corruption, selfishness and responsibility, before launching into a memorable chorus blast with Linkin Park-type rap flourishes.  “Birdcage” (鳥籠) is the creepiest track, with monotonous rap mumbling over a rumbling Chinese bass drum.  Occasionally, a solitary folk horn blares, as if for the dead.

But musical hybridity is never merely a “balance.”  How are the Chinese and Western instruments/lyrics brought in, and for what purpose?  In something like “Pagoda” (塔), the bagpipes and other Scottish sounds create a beautiful, even transcendent, air that’s lighter and fresher than anything a Chinese equivalent could have produced, borrowing ethereal melodies from Europe the way Faye Wong borrowed from the Cocteau Twins, creating sonic patterns that release the music from the confines of Chinese pop.  But for the most part, Western instrumentation doesn’t uplift the music, but grounds it in darkness.  Electric grinds, drum-and-cymbal crashes, nu-metal barks — these are sinister sounds made more sinister by their association with Euro-American subculture.

This borrowing is ironic given the nationalistic stance Aadia claims lyrically.  “Choke” (嗆) is a rebel yell with Chinese opera claps, prefiguring Leehom Wang’s “chinked-out” experiments and sporting much more hip-hop cred.  “The mighty dragon will awaken. / The whole world readies to chase the Chinese,” he sings.  The most telling moment is “Door” (門), which takes on the controversy of European new age group Enigma’s “borrowing” of a Taiwanese aboriginal chant.  Aadia hijacks the original chorus himself, claiming his culture and protecting it against colonialism.  But what to make of the fact that half of “Door” is in English?  Aadia may decry the West’s hegemony, but he has no problem letting the English language and American vocal traditions form the basis of his own musical signature.  Aadia needs the West because he needs its counter-cultural credibility.  Perhaps that’s why for Aadia, musical hybridity is such a tormented game of good and evil.  This is a game with no winners, only the mutual recognition of each’s presence in the other.

Jay Chou, Fantasy, 2001

Jay Chou, Fantasy, 2001

ranking: #14 on 1993-2005 list

Fantasy (范特西) was the last time Jay Chou (周杰倫) could convince anyone he was young. After Fantasy, he became a grown man who hid in teenage clothes and pretended to have teenage dreams.  On Fantasy, along with his debut Jay, Chou was the opposite: an anguished youngster who couldn’t wait to grow up and be a martial arts hero, a terror on the basketball court, or a lover for the ages.  The musical quality did not diminish after Fantasy, but album #2 was surely the last time Chou the prodigy was taken seriously on a large scale, after which he became more of a commodity than a kid wonder.  After Fantasy he seemed to spend all his time charming the Taiwanese media and audience, whereas on the first two albums, charm exuded from songs which didn’t even want to be charming to begin with.

Take the shocking “Dad, I’m Back” (爸,我回來了), a song that seems impossible from the Jay camp today.  Not only is it partly in Taiwanese (poison for the critical mainland market), but it’s about a husband who beats his wife.  Out of the rainy night intro and slow-motion cello strut, Jay takes the mic as a kid with something to say.  His raps are the clearest, slowest we’ve heard from Jay, as if he doesn’t want to lose us on a single word.  But what comes out isn’t merely anger — that’d be the obvious, pulpitin’ adult thing to do.  There’s also a naive sense of surprise, followed by some genuine growing pains.  “I heard that after a war, there’s peace / Why do I keep seeing my dad hit my mom? / Just because he gets drunk he can take it out on my mom / I really can’t bear to watch it, thinking I’m not man enough.”  This is the closest 2000s Taiwan ever got to a James Dean moment.  Think of Dean’s crushing introduction in Rebel without a Cause: those wails weren’t of fury, but of exasperation in the face of the adult world.  As Jay raps, “So many delusions, mom always said be good, listen to dad. /  Tell me, would I want to be like you?”

On the surface, the rest of the album seems the 180-degree-opposite: not the stark social realism of “Dad, I’m Back,” but the fantasy of the album title.  But upon closer inspection, they’re fantasies grounded very much in the reality of being young.  In other words, though there’s a lot of playacting going on, we never lose sight of the dreams belonging to the actor under the costumes.  Two tracks on Fantasy borrow historical periods to nostalgically convey a purer kind of love.  “Shanghai 1943” (簡單愛) points back to that Casablanca-setting of love on the brink of social turmoil.  But it starts not on the Bund, but in a remote village in the present.  The youthful narrator looks around the old family home — calligraphy fading, vine-infested brick walls still standing.  Suddenly, as the melody transitions into the bridge, a remarkable thing happens.  “Facing the black and white photos I begin to visualize / the way dad and mom looked in that year / A lady speaking soft words of Shanghainese walking by the Bund.”  Where love is real, when love was genuine, he seems to say.  No detail is spared: “Old record players, leather suitcases. / Inside the metal box of postcards, a hidden rose petal.”

Jay didn’t live wartime Shanghai, and he certainly didn’t live Mesopotamia, the setting of the album opener “Love Before A.D.” (愛在西元前).  Through the images of cuneiform, ancient weapons, and black diorite, Jay risked coming off as pretentious.  But once again, the fantasy is grounded in the yearning of the present.  Jay isn’t in B.C., but in 2001 AD, strolling through a museum with a love interest.  “Offerings, alters, bows and arrows: whose past do they belong to? / I like that in this crowd you belong to me.”  As in any teenage poem, the “my love for you was written centuries ago” boast risks being over-dramatic.  But Jay is too sincere for that.  He knows that though his deepest sentiments are timeless, his youthful voice isn’t.  So instead of being a transcendent power ballad, “Love Before A.D.” takes on a mid-tempo, sputtering hip-hop beat.  Jay’s spits his verses in quarter-time staccatos reminiscent of a rap flow.  He may be playacting in another century, but he knows he’s just a 21st century cool kid with a crush.

The album’s boyish fantasies are more traditionally “fantastical,” as in the cartoon-gothic “William’s Castle” (威廉古堡), one of the album’s sillier moments, but which nevertheless remains frivolous enough to know to mispronounce medieval Latin as basketball court gibberish (“la la hoo!”), and including a closing hook from “Wife”  (娘子), one of the best songs on Jay’s first album.  “Ninja” (忍者) is a mesmerizing martial arts fantasy that, at two and a half minutes, never overstays its welcome.  Musically, it’s surprisingly witty, as when he overlaps his raps with an alternating rhyming second voice: “Where? [na li?] / I was praying at the shrine when I saw a flash / Here [zhe li] / a ninja with a covered face shooting darts from a corner / In the heart [xin li] / the shogunate has reappeared.”  The second voice doesn’t flow from the first, but pops out of nowhere, like a  ninja on the prowl.

But it’s “Nunchucks” (雙截棍) that shines as the rap tour-de-force, as “Wife” did on Jay.  As with “Shanghai 1943” and “Love Before A.D.”, “Nunchucks” is about a kid who dreams of assuming mythical qualities.  These dreams explode past the precious piano and erhu as a full-on rap-metal tremble.  Nothing in Jay’s resume — or hell, in the nascent mando-pop rap canon — prepared listeners for the speed, the contrasting instruments, the totally assured syncopated flows of the opening eight lines.  Or the playful consonance throughout (creating that signature Jay “mumble”) or the overlapping inner rhymes: “yi ge ma bu xiang qian, yi ji zuo gou quan, you gou quan / yi ju re mao wo de ren you wei xian, yi zai chong yan / yi gen wo bu chou de yan, yi fang hao duo nian, ta yi zhi zai shen bian.”

Given this virtuosic velocity, it’s easy to forget that Fantasy contains some of Jay’s most memorable ballads.  Traditional ones too, like “Can’t Speak” (開不了口), which like David Tao’s self-titled debut album, begins with the sound of an airplane take-off and continues with the pangs of lovers separated.  “Simple Love” (簡單愛) is about simple love, and unabashedly so.  If “Shanghai 1943” and “Love Before A.D.” go to the ends of the earth to express Jay’s love, the Vivian Hsu-penned lyrics here need only a flowing brook, hair blowing in the wind, and a visit to grandma’s house.  A poppy, youthful beat skips throughout, as sunny in its metrical bounce as the lyrics are in their innocence.  “Sorry” (對不起) is an apology with braggadocio — the sort of sua ku posturing that came to define Jay’s most juvenile tendencies.  But given the context of the album, we can almost accept Jay’s apology since it’s as unabashedly kid-like as “William’s Castle” which follows it.

And then there’s “Silence” (安靜), which remains one of Jay’s most beloved ballads.  In some sense it’s the most unusual track on the album.  Unusual in that there are no musical or sonic adornments, no Chinese instruments or Western histrionics, no extended metaphors or Vincent Fang’s grandstanding lyrics.  Just, as Jay sings in the opening lines, a piano and some strings to accompany him.  Jay sings his heart out, and then throws in a key change for good measure.  The “silence” of the title refers not to some void in his life or the darkness of his heartbroken spirits.  Surprisingly, it’s what he wishes he could muster when a lover is leaving.  “I wish I had the ability / silence doesn’t come easy. / I will learn to give you up / because I love you so much.”  Musically and lyrically we know that silence indeed doesn’t come easy to a showman like Jay, and he’s proven that in his albums since.  But Fantasy remains arguably his best work in no small part because it’s the last time Jay put his passion first and left the fawning to the fans.

Find "Fantasy" at YesAsia.com

Jutoupi, Funny Rap 1, 1994

Jutoupi, Funny Rap I: You Sick Suck Nutz Psycho Mania Crazy Taipei City, 1994

ranking: #27 on 1993-2005 list

Before rap in Taiwan was sexy, before it was thug, and before it sold cans of Pepsi at 7-11, rap was funny. We got a hint of rap’s capacity for irony on Blacklist Studio’s seminal Songs of Madness.  That was 1989, just after the lifting of martial law.  Then, in the early 1990s, rap turned hip-hop and went in two possible directions.  The L.A. Boyz and to some extent The Party (樂派體) explored the physicality of hip-hop, namely through dance, fashion, and sexuality. And then there was Jutoupi (豬頭皮) aka Ju Ywe-hsin (朱約信), who continued Blacklist Studio’s ironic take on rap — its aggressive hyperness, its ear to the odd cadences of the streets.  In short, the funniness of the sound and the funniness of society.  Not Weird Al funny, but sick, psycho, manic, crazy funny.

On his debut album, Jutoupi called it “Funny Rap.”  He also called it “You Sick Suck Nutz Psycho Mania Crazy Taipei City,” an English title that today seems too good to be true.  The Chinese title was “I Am Insane” (我是神經病), probably a nod to the 1993 hit “Insane in the Brain.”  The Cypress Hill comparison is a good one, though Jutoupi is less druggy and more intellectual.  Like that L.A. collective, Jutoupi heard in rap an inner explosiveness that immediately reflected our fractured, bombarded psyches.  The album cover of Funny Rap 1 is a Sgt. Pepper-type collage of Taiwan cultural politics circa-1994.  The music is a mix of genres, dialects, and international references.

But beyond just mixing and juxtaposing, Jutoupi shows the hilarity that reveals itself when the collision of cultural touchstones is placed under his (somewhat distorted) rap microscope.  “The Way of Making People” (做人的道理) brings Serge Gainsbourg’s very sexy “Je t’aime …moi non plus” into self-help-y, globalizing Taiwan, where the rise of a sex culture (namely from abroad, as seen in the song’s many references to Euro-American music) and the residues of Confucian principles make for interesting bedfellows.  (Incidentally, Funny Rap 1 came out the same year as Edward Yang’s similar sex comedy A Confucian Confusion.)

Likewise, “Long Live Punk ‘N’ Funk” (中華民國萬萬歲) perverts a KMT catchphrase (“Love Live the Republic of China!”) via Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and rhyming the catchphrase (“wan wan sui”) with homonyms like sleep (“shui”), water (“shui”), tax (“shui”), and most awesomely the Run DMC chant “walk this way” — all until the familiar patriotic slogan becomes a defamiliarized slog of syllables.  Wordplay galore continues on “Taiwan Language Battle” (If U 惦惦 No Body Say U 矮狗), which beatboxes its way through the disillusionment of all the English and Japanese infiltrating Taiwan, as well as the difficulty (and hilarity) of understanding the Mandarin and English of people from Taiwan.  (“How old are you? / I’m dirty”)  Once again, globalization seems if anything a subtractive as opposed to additive process: the more hybridized Taiwan gets, the less anybody seems to make sense anymore.

That feeling that more is less figures most manically on the album’s title track, a mix of Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and Japanese, with references to everything from New Balance to Megadeth, ensuring that with more thrown into the concoction, the less chance there’s anybody who can understand it all.  The song is also perhaps Jutoupi’s most impressive rap performance.  We’re a far way from the calculated, syllabically-simple constructions of Blacklist Studio.  Jutoupi’s flow is deranged, more like Fu-Schnickens, minus the velocity.  Jutoupi struts from verse to verse with unpredictable flows, shifting from slow to quick, low to high tones, often mid-line.  The diversity of flows lends itself to Jutoupi’s dialogues, in which he plays multiple characters cackling at each other.  And while those moments break up the flow, as well as Jutoupi’s verbal attack, he makes up for it in his rare extended spits, as when he raps about renting an apartment.  21-year-old wunderkind producer Jerry Lo (羅百吉) layers a jazzy strut below the vocals, smoothing-out the rapper’s drunken staccato with old-school flair.

In fact, Lo (also an L.A. Boyz producer), and the rest of the production team, is as much the star here as Jutoupi is.  The Zapp and Roger “Doo Wa Ditty”-esque “Lady Skindeep” (皮小姐野史) lends the album some genuine street-corner cred.  The children’s ditty “Don’t Be Cool” (來放尿) transcends  its schoolyard roots due to the professionalism of its juvenility.  The cautionary condom announcement “Franchcap Called Englishcap in France” (給我抱抱) is lovable (and huggable?) due mostly to Jutoupi’s PSA-type delivery and hilarious lyrics, but it’s underscored by an equally ludicrous collage of sound effects and instruments, and a most-strange interpolation of “Do That to Me One More Time.”

Even more masterful, and weirdly moving, is “No Hometown” (我的(故鄉)), which incredibly samples Angelo Badalamenti’s title theme from Twin Peaks.  Here, David Lynch’s creepy reconsideration of small-town living becomes a haunting lament for a society bent on money and property.  Jerry Lo and Jutoupi don’t sample one of the weirdest moments of early-90s pop culture just to prove they can; they borrow what they need and they reinvent the rest.  They know how to slow things down, boil things down to a soft murmur, or drag things out to a haunting choral.  The result is sick.  Nutz.  Psycho.  Crazy.

[Note: I used the English song titles from the album’s iTunes store listing instead of directly translating them from the Chinese titles.]

Blacklist Studio, Songs of Madness, 1989

Blacklist Studio, Songs of Madness, 1989

ranking: #10 on 1975-1993 list

The end of martial law in 1987 opened the floodgates for dissent and clamor — some progressive, some reactionary, some progressive then reactionary.  In a blistering 43 minutes across a mere nine songs, Songs of Madness (抓狂歌) distills that moment of noisy contradiction with unprecedented critical self-reflection.  It’s not exactly a political album, but a freeze-frame of the turmoil, laced with anger and irony.

Suddenly Taiwan could be seen and expressed as a collision of voices and ideologies, refracted through broken glass.  For rock collective Blacklist Studio (黑名單工作室), the many sides of Taiwanese society could only be experienced through a mix of genres and dialects.  New wave rock meets rap meets folk song; Taiwanese crashes into Mandarin, English, and Japanese.  Appropriately, the members of Blacklist Studio take turns venting their frustration and regret rather than singing as a collective. In this stark vision of Taiwan, there is no harmony.

“Imperial Taipei” (台北帝國) kicks things off with the kind of vivid social realism of old school political hip-hop; this is the New Taiwanese Song’s call-to-arms, its “broken glass, everywhere!”  Its narrator takes us through the old streets of Zhongxiao East Road, from prostitutes whispering in English (“Say yes my boy”) to the brand names of foreign-made motor scooters in the streets, the details of everyday life spun to — get this — caution the listener about the coming imperialism of the U.S. dollar.

Surprisingly, Songs of Madness is never preachy, largely because it’s so tongue-in-cheek.  “Mad” (抓狂), a cover — rather, a complete rethinking — of the Thai classic “Yin Dee Mai Mee Pun Hah,” takes the chant and drone structure of the original to depict a world numbed by madness and religion.  The sing-song-y melody and hypnotically good vibes only make the madness madder.

The irony is most apparent on the rap tracks, often called the first of the genre in Taiwanese-dialect music.  “Papa’s Words” (阿爸的話) is a critique of aimless youth.  In a sort of reverse “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (with the same old school flow), the song describes a son who gets lost in dreams of the global, never learning English properly and going to Japan only to hit a dead end.  Despite a fairly monotonous delivery — vocalist Wang Ming Hui relies on the same metrical patterns and three half-beat line-endings — “Papa’s Words” is as funny as it is tragic.  When he rhymes “I’m sorry” with “Thank you very much-ee,” you don’t know whether to laugh at the dad or the son he’s parodying.

“Taxi” is the album’s tour de force.  A collage of traffic noise and taxicab banter, sassy vocals and charismatic rap, the song is a literal collision of personalities on the streets of Taipei.  The deliveries are syncopated deliriously and the Taiwanese tones are wildly unpredictable.  Over car horn-like trumpet squeals, the song asks repeatedly, “Hey hey taxi, where are you headed?” — an unmistakable allegory for a nation speeding manically into the unknown.

Social message is even more explicit on “A Democracy Bumpkin” (民主阿草), whose provocative story of protests in the Hsimenting area of Taipei would have landed the songwriters in jail a decade earlier (thus justifying the band’s name).  What’s most fearless about the song is how deftly it narrates how misunderstanding and suspicion can lead to political fury.  It’s a bold, sometimes frightening, picture of how politics and the police state can permeate any facet of everyday life.

Even at its tenderer moments, the album never loses that edge.  “Dragon Festival Celebration” (慶端陽) by Chen Ming Chang (陳明章) is a standard folk song, but Chen’s vigorous delivery sounds more battered than festive.  As in “Imperial Taipei,” the fast-paced present leaves little time to be nostalgic for the past.  “Too Sad to Speak” (傷心無話) with guest vocals by Yeh Shu Ying (葉樹茵) is reminiscent of the stereotypical tragedies Taiwanese-dialect pop is famous for, but the instrumentation is western classical not Japanese enka.  The result is not longing for bygone years so much as sheer desolation.

That refusal of sentimentality is what makes Songs of Madness so uncompromising in its fervor.  This is music caught in the headlights of modernity, but shouts back without blinking.  Dense with detail and emotion, Songs of Madness is chaotic music about a chaotic world.

Harlem Yu, Let Me Love My All for Once, 1989

Harlem Yu, Let Me Love My All for Once, 1989

ranking: #48 on 1975-1993 list

He may have named himself after the New York burrough, and he may get credit for bringing western genres to mandopop, but Harlem Yu (庾澄慶) is less the Americanization of Taiwanese pop than somebody who really aimed to push it forward. Pop music from Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have always been heavily inflected by rock and jazz (as well as Chinese opera and Japanese pop), so the fact that Yu gets credit for adapting western sounds for Mandarin seems to me a work of record label publicity. (He’s also often credited as the first to rap in Mandarin.)

Rather, his early albums, such as Let Me Love My All for Once (讓我一次愛個夠), didn’t simply imagine what west+east sounds like, but brought Chinese music up to date with global pop, circa 1989. It’s an eclectic album covering the breadth of what the 80s sounded like, according to MTV. The keyboard fills and pop drama of “Song of the Wharf” (碼頭之歌) is reminiscent of early Babyface. The slow jam “No Choice” (沒有選擇) has that signature 80s saxophone break. “Memory of Loving You” (愛你的記憶) is tinged with Chinese flavor, but its fog-machine atmospherics are straight out of Paul Young. Gloria Estefan would take no issue with the faux-calypso of “Deserted Island” (無人島).

Of course, mimicking tinny synthesizers and power ballad shreds is no guarantee of musical pleasure — and much of Let Me Love My All for Once has that sort of superficial postmodern blah you get from watching VH1 specials. Nothing screams uninspired like the “whoah-ohs” and “higher!” on the wall of thunder “Gliding over the City” (飛翔城市). It’s not all kitsch though. The vocodor intro of “Music All Night” (整晚的音樂) makes way to sunglasses swing bound to rock any rhythm nation. Yu takes home each verse with hard bop swagger, before mellowing out with the slow burn bridge “oh…free flying / oh…together dancing.” Even better might be “Unable to Endure” (無法忍受), which transforms a completely out-of-place electric guitar intro into the hand-clap pop of Elvis Costello at his most jubilantly nostalgic.

It’s not all fun and games though. “Waiting for Tomorrow” (等待明天), with lyrics co-written by the great novelist and screenwriter Wu Nien-jen, is a sensitive, then soaring, ode to seizing the day. The quite-good title track follows roughly the same formula, only it’s a tribute to seizing love. These tracks lend the rest of the hodgepodge album some rare gravity — the kind of sincerity that has allowed Harlem Yu to be both a respected artist and Taiwan’s longest-running pop idol.

1976, Sense of Direction, 2000

1976, Sense of Direction, 2000

ranking: #52 on 1993-2005 list

Indie rock band 1976 has long been called the sound of the new generation, a band for the future.  So why is it then that they sound like the past?  1976 burst on the scene at the turn of the millennium as Taiwan’s answer to The Smiths, The Cure, and New Order — that is, the sound of Anglo-American rock circa 1986-1995.  They may be named after the year the members were born, but they may as well be signaling their inclination toward looking backward.  It’s tempting to blame this paradox on the old culture-lag standby: that places like Taiwan need a few years before they get the cool sounds of the world’s music capitals.  Or maybe 1976 is in fact ahead of the game, being retro for the New Wave before The Strokes’ mini revolution.

As we look backward to look forward (or vice versa?) it’s natural to be a little disoriented.  Curiously, 1976’s breakthrough record is entitled Sense of Direction (方向感), and though the album doesn’t in fact send us along a straight, consistent path, it reveals a confidence about the musical future — a sense of direction, without a map or a plan.

Indeed 1976’s foray into rock history is itself eclectic and multi-directional.  “Taipei Voyage” (台北遊記) betrays a band that learned English pronunciation from Damon Albarn and rhythm guitar from Graham Coxon; the song is Modern Life is Rubbish melding into 13 in eight minutes.  The aptly titled “Revolve Backward” (倒轉聲音時間) and “Carry No Baggage” (忘掉依賴去旅行) feature Lou Reed-type speech over guitar chirps and electronic moans, while “The Flashing Shaking Bulb” (雨棚下的燈泡) rocks Reed’s teetering declamations to the point of dizziness.  “Party” is a dead-ringer for Radiohead’s “Creep,” and “Black Coffee” (不加糖) fantasizes about Seattle from a Taipei coffee shop.

There’s something juvenile about 1976’s nerdy enthusiasm, but on the album’s best tracks, we find that it’s that youthful naivete which really inspires these recent college grads.  The summery “Easy Way” (單純復雜) has a dark underbelly that’s more Pet Sounds than “Fun Fun Fun.”  The song conjures a breezy beach past sunset, where angsty teens scream “now! later! never! forever!” into the unknown.  That same sense of unease and temporal dislocation pervades the album’s moody title track, which offers snapshots of moments in a relationship (a missing key, foam floating in a cup of coffee) and then multiplies them into double images in care of a chorus of overlapping lyrics and voices.

If 1976 hasn’t quite found its way yet, at least it knows to look where you’d least expect to find it.  The album’s Cure-like opening track “Message from My Shadow” (影子) summarizes the sense of (in)direction best.  “To run after you I must change direction / I must hide I must let go of idealism.”  “If I could not chase anything / wouldn’t I be happier. / At the count of three I turn off the lights / and just go.”  Musically of course, 1976 is chasing plenty.  But it’s not what it’s chasing that matters, it’s that it’s constantly in a state of looking elsewhere.  After Sense of Direction, 1976 continued its search, though the obsessive reliance on 1990s britpop on an album like Asteroid (2008) shows a band no longer restless and more intent on resting comfortably as the future of Taiwanese rock.

[Note: I used the English titles provided on the album packaging, instead of directly translating from the Chinese titles.]

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