ANNIE – REVIEW + INTERVIEW

Ella Crossland shares the role of Annie with two other girls, Katie Howard and Charlie Hall (not pictured)

A crowd of people dressed in rags and whatever they can find to weather the city winter gather. They pull tight amongst themselves and share whatever warm food they can find.

They speak and commiserate in equal misery. They sneer and jeer and they sing sarcastic plaudits to the former president for his part in driving the country off a fiscal cliff, into poverty and economic wreckage.

A little orphan girl tries to cheer them up.  Before anything can be done, however, the police crack down tight. This city must not tolerate its own uglier underbelly.

An account of the Occupy Wall Street movement from last year?

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CORRINNE MAY PRESS CONFERENCE

Photo by Diana Rahim

What was discussed at the Corrinne May (above right) press conference as revealed by Jeanette Chin and Samuel C Wee.

So Corrinne, you’re now based in LA. How do you feel about coming back to Singapore and being the first local artist to perform here at Gardens by the Bay?

I always love coming back to Singapore, because this is where my family and friends are, and where I can get my favourite foods. So yeah, I’m really happy to be back…I’m really excited! It’s a beautiful venue. We were given a tour, took a look around, and went to the Cloud Forest. It’s a beautiful forest with an amazing waterfall, and it’s just a wonderful setting to just reflect, and to just think, and just to be. It opens itself for reflection and I think it goes well with music, so I like that.

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MUSIC MATTERS LIVE 2012

Charlie Lim by Serena Neo

Review by Samuel C Wee

This is meant to be a review of the final night of Music Matters. Of course, with so many bands playing out the closing night for this three-day conference, it would be churlish for me to even pretend to be complete or objective…disclaimer aside, let’s dive into it, shall we?

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SHIGGA SHAY

BELIEVE THE HYPE!

In many ways, the story of Pek Jin Shen—or ShiGGa Shay, as the rapper prefers to be known—is symptomatic of the odd complex Singaporeans have towards local music have in general. Ever since he first burst out on the scene in 2010 with a divisive performance on the short-lived Mediacorp production Live ‘N’ Loaded, he’s been dogged by accusations of arrogance and trying too hard to be American. Which is curious, because there’s really nothing more quintessentially Singaporean than wanting to be angmoh. But I digress.

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SINGAPORE MUSIC FORUM

Almost coming to two weeks since this event took place on 14th January. I did not want to comment personally because the issues are very close to my heart and I was afraid that my voice would be tainted with lack of objectivity. Bearing that in mind I asked Sam to come up with this feature in order to avoid any pre-convceived bias on my part. Yes I know some of you will say that that has never stopped me before but the scene (such as it is) means too much to me to not at least give it a fighting chance…

If there’s one thing the local music scene is not short on, it’s talk. After all, for years now we’ve been circling around ourselves discussions of reform and revival and revolution, framing every promising up-and-rising band with words of messianic hype and hopes. Is this the one to make a real commercial breakthrough? Is this the one to transform our fledging music scene into a true industry?

After a few rounds of disappointment we learn cynicism, bracing ourselves psychologically for when domestic life and social demands erode away youthful idealism and another one bites the dust. What we are short on are specific, pragmatic solutions that take into account the economic and media reality of the modern music climate.  To that extent a music forum was called to session at the Arts House last Saturday on the 14th of January, with key figures from the Canadian music industry present to, on paper at least, share their experiences and dispense words of wisdom.

The chief instigator was Graham Perkins, a long-time supporter of local music, and to his credit he had gathered together a pretty impressive panel. Tick the names off:  Jasper Donat, president of Music Matters, Eric Lawrence, manager of Simple Plan, Stuart Johnson, the president of the Canadian Independent Music Association as well as Timbre co-founder and scene veteran Danny Loong and local singer-songwriter Inch Chua.

Of course, with so many big names you’d expect things to get a tad corporate, and Messrs Donat, Lawrence and Johnson took up the better half of an hour droning on about their respective organizations. (I couldn’t help but giggle when halfway through the corporatalk Danny took a subtle dig at the irony of a forum about Singaporean music talking about anything but.) Still, if I were a Canadian music executive I wouldn’t be terribly excited about having to fly halfway around the world to give a talk to a commercial dry well of a scene, so credit where credit is due.

A particular point of relevance was brought up when Stuart Johnson talked about the MAPL system in Canada, which requires Canadian radio to fulfill a certain quota for Canadian content, and there was a brief discussion about the possibility of adopting something similar for Singapore.

The success of the MAPL system speaks for itself, of course, with the mainstream success of acts like Feist, Stars, Broken Social Scene, Metric and that critically acclaimed virtuoso Justin Bieber. It should be noted though that before the introduction of the MAPL system the likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and The Band had already achieved mainstream success in the Sixties, so it remains to be seen how effective a similar system for the local industry would be.

Things started getting really interesting when the session was opened up to the floor, with various audience members taking to the mic to pepper the panel with questions: How do we achieve local acceptance among our own population? Is local acceptance even necessary? How do we develop content that is commercially relevant and exportable?

A few common themes started to emerge that bridged genre divides. Everyone agreed, for example, on the need for exposure even as opinions divided over a government mandated quota versus free market economics. Similarly, even though opinions might differ over the the semantics of funding a fledgling band, nobody dissented against the need for capital investment in order to achieve sustainability.

The theme that rang the loudest bell, for this writer anyway, was the issue of community integration–it was pointed out several times by both Danny and Stuart Johnson that the only way to wield social and political clout was for the music community at large to collectively come together and speak with a single voice.

Of course, that’s easier said than done–the idea of unity can be easily dismissed as a hippie ideal. Scene veterans might feel like they’ve paid their dues in personal and financial sacrifice, while I’ve heard dark mutterings on more than one occasion about nepotism,  protesting that this scene remains too cliqued up and intolerant of dissenting opinions. Then there are those who resent the advantage that Mandopop or Malay artists have over English indie musicians when it comes to media airtime.

All of this talk, in my very humble position as a lowly amateur some-time music writer, amounts to missing the point. Fighting for a bigger slice of the pie is an inefficient and myopic strategy–why not grow the pie altogether? That’s not to dismiss the legitimate concerns that some might have of course– the ability to disagree, to beg to differ is the greatest strength of a team and a community.

At the risk of sounding like an insufferable know-it-all, though, I firmly believe that our only hope for long-term sustainability and breakthrough is dialogue and communication, to seek a midpoint between idealism and cynicism that is objectively pragmatic. After all, we destroy our enemies when we make them our allies…

A forum like this one is a step in the right direction definitely, and Graham Perkins deserves to be praised just for getting a working microcosm of the community at large into the same room (though the free breakfast did wonders to help). Of course, work remains to be done both strategically and semantically. Nevertheless, dialogue can only be a good thing, especially when it occurs across genres and across scenes like it did last Saturday, and I personally look forward to seeing future sessions advancing the agenda even further.

To steal a pet phrase from a good friend of mine–still there’s more…

(Samuel Caleb Wee)

POWER OF POP INTERVIEW – CATALOGUE V

IN certain circles of the local music scene, you’ll find the term “mainstream” bandied about almost as an insult. Catalogue V will take that gladly as a compliment–this self-styled schizo-pop outfit is unabashedly hungry for commercial success and radio play.

Live, this six-man outfit consisting of Razil Razil Razil (lead singer), Matt Raham (drummer), Alfredo Lucius (guitars), Mal Mikhal (bass), Hans Ibrahim (guitars) and Rave Zulo (keyboards) are an electrifying, bottom-end moving act, combining sticky pop hooks with irresistible jackhammer funk grooves that disguise the oft-weighty lyrical themes of their songs.

Fresh off a November visit to South Korea for the Yamaha Asian Beat competition as the representative champions for the Singapore edition, we catch up with the homecoming heroes and find out what they have in common with army infantry units, Stanley Kubrick and leprechauns.

One month ago you guys were in S. Korea for the Yamaha Asia Beat. What was that like?

Mal Mikhal: It was an awesome experience. Definitely it was something different from what we have over here in Singapore. The atmosphere was quite encouraging.

Alfredo Lucius: We arrived in the middle of autumn so the weather was very cold. We were stuffing our hands in our pockets, bringing heat packs, wearing gloves…anything to keep ourselves warm.

Matt Raham: The entire experience was surreal, from the moment we boarded the plane at Changi Airport to the sound check before we played the gig. When we stepped on stage to a full house crowd…it was a really “wow” experience. The crowd numbered about 3000 to 4000, which makes it the largest audience we’ve ever played for.

Razil Razil Razil: It was a regional competition showcasing the champions from each country. We were the third band to play and we performed a song called “Mighty Night‟. Previously we had been told that Korean crowd was hard to please, but they actually stood up and danced and sang along during our performance. At the time we thought that the crowd was warming up and that they were going to do the same for the other bands, but they only did it for us.

It was quite amazing. We took a break outside of the hall and slowly the people from the audience started coming out and going, “eh Singapore!” We don’t get this kind (of recognition) in Singapore. We took a lot of pictures with both members from the audience as well as the other bands.

Did you guys play any other gigs in S. Korea?

Razil Razil Razil : Our trip was entirely sponsored by Yamaha, so we had to strictly abide to their terms and conditions. We weren’t allowed to extend our stay or play other shows.

Was winning an important thing for you guys?

Razil Razil Razil: Winning wasn’t an objective. The main objective was to leave them remembering the band from Singapore, and in that respect we’re quite satisfied. After our performance they (the other competitors) were saying they would tell their juniors back home to watch out for SIngaporean bands. That made us very proud…the main fuel for this band is not to impress, but to imprint. We want the whole experience to be imprinted in the minds of the audience.

I heard the rhythm section won quite a few awards…

Alfredo Lucius: One of the judges was a very good drummer named Akira Jimbo (from fusion-jazz band Casiopea) and when he came to Singapore to do his drum clinic a few weeks he actually mentioned our rhythm section by name. To get a comment like that from an international musician was a very big endorsement.

Razil Razil Razil: Apparently, there was somebody who was being condescending towards local music and putting down our musicians,, saying that the most Singapore could hope for was to replicate Japan’s music industry. Akira was actually pissed off, and defended Singaporean music by citing Matt as an example of local talent.

He might have a point though. Local music is not exactly financially sustainable. How are things on that front for you guys?

Razil Razil Razil: Financially it’s getting better and becoming clockwork. Before Korea we had a lot of doubts about whether we could sustain this financially as a career. After Korea I think most of the doubts have been cleared. Right now it’s a world ruled by the Internet. Online you can sell your music, talk to people, forego labels, and forego the middleman…so we’re planning to break into the digital market.

Definitely, with digitalization, you can distribute your music internationally a lot easier, but the flipside of that is that people are putting a lot less value in recorded music–they see it as something free and sharable. How do you guys make sure all those listens translate into actual money to recoup your costs?

Razil Razil Razil: It will be and it has always been very hard… it’s a matter of mental stamina. I think the only thing we only care about right now is our main focus, our passion to get the music out there. Money is always a need, yes, at the end of the day you need to put food on the table, but we take that as a secondary priority.

Matt Raham: We will probably do something different live from what we have on record and add something additional to our live experience. We can arrange something more extravagant…the challenge of trying to reinvent our songs live and add value is the proof of our musicianship.

For the benefit of our readers, take us through how the band started.

Alfredo Lucius: It basically started when I was playing an acoustic show at a company corporate show in mid ’09. I can‟t remember who the singer was, but Razil was in the audience and we met. We both wanted to start something and slowly we started sourcing for musicians. I knew Mal from NS and so I roped him in almost instantly and Razil met Matt in reservist training.

Razil Razil Razil: We were looking for a permanent keyboardist, and while Matt was sessioning for another band he met Hans. We intended him to be a keyboardist, but when I heard him playing guitar I was like…hell no, I‟m not gonna let this dude not hold the guitar. The line-up was complete when we saw Rave at the Boat Quay underpass outside Home Club, busking and playing keyboards early this year.

How long did it take for you guys to find a musical identity–what’s the creative dynamic in the band like?

Matt Raham: We basically came from different genres and…when you get different colours from different rainbows, you get a new rainbow which is unique.

Alfredo Lucius: And if you try hard enough, you might find a pot of gold…

Razil Razil Razil: And Fred would be the leprechaun.

Alfredo Lucius: Creatively, we work like an infantry section. The rhythm groove section are kinda like the SAW gunners who sit back and lay down the suppressive fire… and the vocal instruments like the guitars and the keyboards and the vocalist, we’re the soldiers doing the flanking.

Rave Zulo: For example, for “Mighty Night‟, Razil came up with the initial idea and we all tried to contribute. On my part I wanted to find the right kind of sound, the right kind of melody that would make people dance.

Razil Razil Razil: We’re all writing the song, and we don’t want to consciously set out to replicate the same sound with every song. We‟re not one of those bands that go, “Oh, we want to sound like The Strokes!” Basically our mindset is that every song is a movie.

How do you mean that?

Alfredo Lucius: Well, you can look at certain directors who‟ve directed movies of various genres, but their movies are still very distinctively them. People like Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, they‟re all directors who touch on various different themes but still retain a distinctive identity.

I’ve noticed some pretty interesting terrain in terms of the lyrics. What are your influences?

Razil Razil Razil: As a lyrics writer I’m very influenced by narrative song writing, people like Babyface, Anthony Kiedis, and Jay Kay from Jamiraqoui. I try to be ambiguous and make it relatable. The song “Dancer‟, for example, is a sarcastic song about girls who lead guys on, but I get female dancers who come up to me and tell me they identify with the song! So my approach is to leave it open so that the listeners can find their own meaning in the song.

Alfredo Lucius: We try not to do the obvious thing. “How I Am Alive‟, for example, is a song that has a very serious message about human trafficking and sexual exploitation, so we tried to make it easy-listening so it would grab attention.

Razil Razil Razil: It’s about the psychology of the song. We didn’t want to write a slow song which would only put people into a mood for moping and complaining–we wanted to inspire people to get up and do something about it.

So what’s your definition of success?

Razil Razil Razil: Our definition of success is having our songs played on local radio. Other radio stations might be friendlier, but our goal is still to get our music on local radio even though friends might tell us not to waste our time. It‟s not a matter of wanting to prove something. We want to be mainstream; we’re not shy of being mainstream. Some people come up to us and call us sell-outs–we don’t care. We want as many ears as possible. We’re doing the digital media thing but we also want the conventional media recognition because nobody is trying to change the system.

Doesn’t it frustrate you though, going to a foreign country and getting such a warm reception from fans and musicians alike, only to come back to Singapore only to run into so many walls?

Razil Razil Razil: It does but we’re still gonna be very optimistic about it. We take it as a new challenge to make Singapore react as much as a foreign audience would. We’re not giving up on Singapore…I still believe that if you can’t succeed in your own country, what makes you think a foreign country will be any different? We want to make Singapore dance.

So any concrete plans for the future? Is a full-length album coming out?

Razil Razil Razil: We‟re working on an EP right now, and “Mighty Night‟ is going to be the first single for sure. Most likely we’re gonna focus on releasing our songs single by single and afterwards compiling them into an EP.

Alfredo Lucius: It‟s a singles market now. With Katy Perry‟s last record, ten of her songs hit the charts–every song has to be a single.

Razil Razil Razil: You need all killers, no fillers now. The way music is consumed is something that‟s not in our control anymore. You used to be able to package your music and have the audience experience it the way you want it to tell a story, but audiences are much cleverer now. They mix-and-match, and music is like a candy store to them where they cherry-pick the songs to put on their iPod.

Alfredo Lucius: We’re living in the age where everything is being customized to what we want. Everyone has the option of a playlist made for themselves.

(Samuel C Wee)

Watch the video of Catalogue V’s performance in South Korea at the Yamaha Asian Beat below.

VULTURE WHALE

VULTURE WHALE Long Time Listener First Time Caller (Ol’ Elegante)

On their previous two self-titled LPs, Vulture Whale perfected their deep-fried brand of crunchy guitar pop. On the other hand, the intermissory EP Bamboo You saw frontman Wes McDonald trying out a pseudo-British accent, just in case you weren’t confused enough by their Birmingham roots (Alabama, not West Midlands).

While the quartet has held on tightly to their smirking sense of mischief, its third record Long Time Listener, First Time Caller sees them adapting their deep-fried, alt-country twang into a brand of nuanced hard rock that owes as much to their Southern backgrounds as it does to their Brit-pop explorations. Yes, the guitar work is still riffy and infectious, but this time round there’s a certain sharpened precision that’s less early Kings of Leon and more AC/DC –check opening track Devices, for instance, which sports a Angus Young riff over a groove reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. Elsewhere we still hear touches of 90s lo-fi rock; Friday Night Video Fights could very well be a lost Dinosaur Jr track, and rays of Guided By Voices shine through on the twinkling, twilighting campfighting verses of VCVW.

There’s a certain formula here on this short, ten-track album that clocks in at just over half an hour. We’re talking sharp, punchy, riffs on top of tight grooves, with a strong, Rooney-ish pop discipline and a mix that highlights those bombastic guitar riffs. Still, things are kept interesting by McDonald’s trademark swagger: the anti Bon Iver, his is an attitude rare to music today outside of Steve Tyler’s lecherous leers on American Idol. It’s fresh for the scarcity.

If you’re a fan of fuzzed-out hard rock with traces of Brit-pop–highly recommended.

Official Site

(Samuel C Wee)

MONSTER CAT

MONSTER CAT Mannequins (KittyWu)

The long-form explanation for MONSTER CAT’s name is a mystical affair involving Japanese folk-tales and myths, but we prefer the short-attention span answer. MONSTER CAT loves cats. Really fat ones.

Now that that’s out of the way, the vital details, then, quickly: The band members of MONSTER CAT are Hentai Cat, Psycho Cat, Black Cat, Copy Cat, Zen Cat and Paper Cat, with the band’s name always in caps (because fuck you, Google Chromebook). Having already been featured once in legendary local producer Leonard Soosay’s Snakeweed Sessions in May, the new KittyWu recruits have followed up that burst of publicity with the release of Mannequins (itself also a Soosay production).

Interestingly enough, the record proper features none of the humour hinted at by their quirky pseudonyms. Instead, Mannequins is a mellow, fragile affair, shivering with sex and soul as well as nuanced emotion. Beginning with the aptly-named opening track, Initiation, we dive head-first into a measured instrumental piece that is deliberate in its atmospheric build-up. Title track Mannequins then introduce us to the EP’s central theme; under a bed of stark, urgent folk-rock instrumentation, the band launches into a lyric inspired by Italian writer Alberto Savinio that is frightening in its desperation.

The rest of this short EP takes its cue from the first two tracks: having opted for fragile, articulated melodies over instant pop hooks, the band spends the rest of its time building up and refining the ambient atmospheres, laying claim to the texture and drama of influences like Fever Ray and Smashing Pumpkins.  Underwater is a particular masterpiece of arrangement and production. At once both intimate and claustrophobic, the track shimmers with a kind of midnight blue reminiscent of Miles Davis. In its spiritual eroticism Mannequins presents us a refreshingly intimate and private perspective not often heard from local shores; The Courier, for example, is a love supreme unto itself, a moment stolen from the bed of two lovers soulful and hot.

By the time the EP closes on the quiet and intense number, These Hands, you ought to have realised that this is one of the best warning shots ever fired by a local band. One would do well to keep an eye on the strange and brilliant animal that is MONSTER CAT.

(Samuel C Wee)

Official Site

DAMION SUOMI

DAMION SUOMI AND THE MINOR PROPHETS Go and Sell All of Your Things (Hopeless)

There are few things that excite me quite as much as when cliches collide to produce something gorgeously original. Imagine my cynicism when I first found out that Damion Suomi’s latest effort would draw from both folk-rock/bluegrass music as well as the Bible–both sources that have been bled dry in recent years. Yet the end product produced by Suomi (pronounced like a legal show cliche) and his aptly-named band, The Minor Prophets, is one of the best records I’ve heard this year!

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SEBADOH

SEBADOH Bakesale reissue (Domino)

Fans of American 90s lo-fi rock outfit, Sebadoh, will recognise their 1994 album Bakesale as the point when the band put on some commercial make-up in a brief come-hither attempt to seduce the mainstream. Released in the wake of founding member Eric Gaffney’s departure, this more commercialist effort is nonetheless often overlooked in favour of more successful efforts in the same year (viz. Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand and Weezer’s debut effort). 

Still, Bakesale marks an important turning point in the discography of Sebadoh, which is why this year has seen its reissue, complete with a bumper second disc of bonus tracks. 17 years after its first release, the record still holds up magnificently—Gaffney’s resignation from the band had led to bassist Jason Lowenstein stepping up as co-songwriter alongside Lou Barlow. The result was a gorgeous collection of 15 songs that was slightly polished up in terms of production as compared to past records like III and Weed Forestin’, but still rough and raw enough for the new electic guitars to come through with urgent punk energy. 

Opening on the oddly named License To Confuse, we’re quickly introduced to Lowenstein and Barlow’s first collaboration on Careful, a tight, clenched fist of a song. The album’s first highlight comes on Not Too Amused, a gorgeously melodic, quietly distorted tune that builds up into a maelstrom of spite. Similarly, Skull treads its way through a tight, controlled ebb and flow dynamic, while first single Rebound is a punkish, energetic slab of power pop. 

On top of the 15 tracks from the original album, the reissue also comes with a bumper disc of 25 unreleased songs, demos and acoustic versions of album tracks, which brings the total track count to 40(!) –-surely a value for money deal if there ever was one. Most of the unreleased material here is wildly different from the album proper–pyschedelia noise rock and reflective sonic experiments (Check out MOR Backlash and 40203). The demos here and acoustic versions are also interesting for the die-hard Sebadoh addict, if only to see how the songs evolved and changed into the final versions on the record.

Official Site

(Samuel C Wee)

THE BRIGHT WHITE

THE BRIGHT WHITE Until Then

It takes a certain amount of cojones to claim for yourself instantly recognizable acts like The Beatles and Oasis as your influences. After all, the number of bands out there who fall over themselves trying to mimick their idols and end up making bland, generic MOR rock are aplenty (exactly the case with Oasis and the Beatles, actually).

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TIMBRE ROCK AND ROOTS 2011

Let’s get this out of the way—quite possibly the worst decision made at this year’s Timbre Rock and Roots was the issuing of free lawn chairs to everyone in the VIP area. I mean—what on earth were they thinking? I can understand the concern that audience members might get tired after a few hours of non-stop music—but that’s why God made grass. All that those fancy lawn chairs accomplished was to ensure a snoozefestin’ atmosphere for the greater part of Day 1…though it all still ended in a blast! But we’ll get back to that later.

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MARISSA LEVY

MARISSA LEVY 63 Songs About Joe

I have a confession to make before I begin:  I’ve always had a weakness for spunky, cute indie female vocalists, so I try to overcompensate by being extra harsh on the material on display. Make of the following review what you will, then, because they certainly don’t come spunkier or cutesier than New Yorker Marissa Levy.  “I am coy, I am subtle, I’m cute and I’m trouble,” she proudly declares on her new EP 63 Songs About Joe (it’s actually only five songs long, calm down). Thankfully the record is palatable, or the blatant indie ingenue poseuring might have been rather rich.

As it stands, though, 63 Songs About Joe is an acceptably melodic pop-rock affair, slickly produced by Mike Viola of Candy Butchers fame. Levy claims to draw influence from The Beatles and The Beach Boys; fair enough, tracks like A Love Song and Heartbreak Liar will float their airy ways into your ears pleasantly. There are enough hooks here anchoring Levy’s breezy vocal performance to make this short EP an enjoyable experience, though, if I were to nitpick, not a particularly ingeniuous or gutsy one —the material never seems to vary from the slick sunshine pop, and the production is squeaky clean in the vein of indie-pop darlings Two Door Cinema Club. Oh, but don’t bother with cynical music critic me, pfft. She’s cute after all.

(Samuel C Wee)

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THE KRINKLES

THE KRINKLES Dusty Ribbons (Self-released)

The story of the The Krinkles, four-man Chicago powerpop act, is one of those classic “What-might-have-been” tales. 

What if, for example, they hadn’t disbanded in an acrimonious shouting match on stage at the start of last decade?  What if their third album, 3 – The Mordorloff Collection, had ridden the momentum of their sophomore effort, Revenge of The Krinkles, instead of taking nine years to drop? Would their blazing brand of loud power pop music have taken them to the top then?

 It’s always hard to know for sure when you’re reminiscing. In the spirit of looking back at the past though, the band themselves have cleaned out their archives and come up with Dusty Ribbons, a 19-track collection of acoustic versions, demos and unreleased songs, as well as the odd piece of live on-stage banter. 

It’s a hodgepodge motley crue of raw mixes and unpolished recordings. Nevertheless, on tracks like the unreleased opener Still In Love (strongly reminiscent of The Who), the record manages to showcase the visceral power of a rock and roll band in full flight. You’ll also hear shades of Cheap Trick (their spiritual and geographical fathers) when they let rip into one of those big, joyful choruses stuffed full of tight harmonies on the demo tracks of So Many Girls and Dirty Girl, and if you have the patience to sit through the rawness of their rehearsal tapes, you’ll find yourself admiring the tightness of their playing. 

Of course, there are the odd misses here and there, but if you’re a fan of melodic, ballsy guitar-driven powerpop by way of The Cars and Weezer, you’ll find quite enough good material here to keep you entertained.

(Samuel C Wee)

THE ORION EXPERIENCE

THE ORION EXPERIENCE NYC Girl EP (Self-released)

If there’s ever been a band better suited to this website’s moniker than NYC indie outfit The Orion Experience, I’ve yet to hear them—after all, this is a band that demonstrates beyond doubt the sheer boogie-grooving, feet-tapping, mighty-morphin’ POWER OF POP!

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POSTROCKOLOGY

VARIOUS ARTISTS Postrockology (Deep Elm)

In the gospel according to Deep Elm Records, you have the corporate sell-out pseudo indie labels who work hand in hand with major record companies for distribution and publicity, and then you have the keepers of the true faith, as exemplified by Deep Elm Records themselves: untainted by commercial interests, true indie labels undyingly devoted to the music with a singular passion.

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RUN WITH THE WANTED

RUN WITH THE WANTED Self-titled (Panic)

At first glance, the self-titled album released by Phoenix hardcore quintet Run With The Wanted (yes, Bukowski reference there) seems like your run-of-the-mill genre record.

Dig a little deeper than the cursory listen, though, and there is much to credit the band with on this debut full length album.

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WHAT WOMEN WANT

How much you’d enjoy the new Chinese remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson film, What Women Want, largely depends on how much you’d enjoy seeing a topless Andy Lau prance around in drag. 

Does the idea of that turn you off? Then this glossy romantic comedy starring Andy Lau and Gong Li would probably fall short of your expectations. If you’re looking for a passable date movie, however, this low-calorie fluff flick has just enough humour and sex appeal to fill an hour and a half or so.

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THE POWER OF POP INTERVIEW – BASEMENT IN MY LOFT (PART 2)

Continued from Part 1

By now, it should come as no surprise that Adrian is full of surprises.

A conversation with this man is much like talking to a river. Like a mind-reader, Adrian is prone to answer the question on your tongue before you ask it, but through the course of his reply he is wont to change course several times until together, the two of you are cutting a path through new, uncharted wilderness, far away from your original destination.

So it is that a simple question I ask about the emotional honesty of his songs leads into a deep discussion of spirituality and transcendence—hardly your typical rock and roll topics.

“Transcendence is about sitting with your own mind, seeing the shit that goes on,” explains Adrian.

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THE POWER OF POP INTERVIEW – BASEMENT IN MY LOFT (PART 1)

NIGHTS out with Adrian Jones, the always-colourful frontman of power trio Basement In My Loft, are invariably bound to turn surreal.

Here I am, the Singaporean army boy slash music writer, seated at an Irish pub along East Coast Park with a Welsh skinhead and his respiratory disease specialist girlfriend.

A minor furor has conspired to occur here tonight; a favourite vegetarian burger has gone AWOL from the menu. Foul play is suspected.

Said Welsh skinhead is currently engaged in a half-serious heated discussion with the manager, who faces the daunting task of trying to account to the punk rocker the mysterious disappearance of the veggie burger.

Continue reading “THE POWER OF POP INTERVIEW – BASEMENT IN MY LOFT (PART 1)”

THE FIRE FIGHT: SO LONG FOR NOW

HALFWAY through the set at The Fire Fight’s farewell concert, So Long For Now, frontman Joshua Tan decides to shake things up a little. “This is an unrehearsed song,” he tells the audience, acoustic guitar in hand, before starting on a quiet, emotional version of Sonnet.

Earlier on in the show, a couple of technical glitches had made for rough riding through the first couple of songs.  At this particular moment, though, no one is thinking about technicalities. The sparse accompaniment of the band seems to scrub the air clean of the jitters that had come before, and Joshua has his eyes tightly shut as he sings about matters close to his own heart. He’s holding on tightly to the song, and the lyrics–“Into the fire, into your grace/into your love, You know I’m here/to love you”– seem to drift out of somewhere deep within.

At this point, Joshua turns away from the microphone to choke back a cry, tears streaming down his face.

Later, Joshua will tell me he was moved by the memories of the original revelation behind the song. Right now though, watching from the audience, one almost gets the feeling that God has just walked through the room.

TWO days ago, we are at Backbeats Studio, a jamming studio wedged in between the heartland and the city at Farrer Park.

The Fire Fight have been practicing intensely here for their all-important final gig together as a band before they go on an indefinite hiatus. It will be a Sunday matinee at the newly-launched SCAPE Warehouse; this is the band’s way of saying farewell.

Right now, we are trying to nail down the precise reason The Fire Fight are taking a break. Joshua starts off first, choosing his words carefully.

“We’ve come to the point where we realize we can’t really make a career out of music, and we need to make decisions about what we’re going to do with our lives.”

Drummer Iain Tham goes on to elaborate: “This is a critical point for us personally. We’re at the crossroads of our lives, and we have essentially two choices. One is to do music all the way, and the other is to focus on our personal careers and studies.  At the end of the day, the most important thing for us is to make sure we can support ourselves and our families.”

The realization that he did not have a career stable enough to settle down, says Joshua, who is a media producer by day, sparked his decision to further his education in Australia. At the same time, the rest of the members in the band were reaching milestones in their lives as well.

Bassist Jbarks, for one, had decided to further his education as well, while guitarist Jonathan Leong will be graduating from the University of Buffalo in December this year.

With drummer Iain Tham also opting to pursue a career in piloting, it all came to a head in a McDonald’s outlet at West Coast, where the band agreed unanimously to take an indefinite break.

Was this the original plan, I ask, to reach a certain milestone as a band and then split up to focus on your personal lives? There is silence for a moment from the band before Joshua answers. “We didn’t really think so much when we started out,” he says.

“We wanted to take the music places and give our best efforts. Where we are right now, which is a certain level of recognition, is really the result of a blessing of events.

“People have been very gracious to us since we started; they’ve taken us in, believed in us, and responded to the sound. This farewell gig is our way of giving something back to the listeners, a way of giving them both closure as well as something to remember.”

The Fire Fight have a special relationship with their listeners, that much is clear. I ask them about the impact they think their hiatus will have on the scene, and their answer is unanimous: the scene is fickle, and it won’t miss us.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. The Fire Fight are not the only band to be departing the spotlight this year, though. Earlier on in February this year, Astroninja had similarly said farewell when their always-colourful frontman Levan Wee departed for Melbourne, while Allura will be thanking their fans for all the fish in July.

I ask the band their opinion about this trend, betraying my youth in the process. Esmond Wee (the band manager) points out things were even worse ten years ago, when bands would just fade away into oblivion without any sort of closure. On his part, Joshua treats my observation with a matter-of-fact sort of pragmatism, shrugging as he tells me, “This is the life-span of a Singaporean band.”

THE Fire Fight are quick to acknowledge that even within the scene itself, there are people who bear animosity towards the band.

Esmond, who watches over the interview proceedings with the watchful wariness of an older brother, tells me about how somebody on Facebook had slammed the band, describing them as “cocky, pubescent teens …more interested in swagger than musicianship”. To which Joshua had reacted with bemusement; the band, after all, are firmly in their mid-twenties.

The band laugh such negativity off. After all, Joshua says, there is something inherently funny about people who dislike The Fire Fight expending so much energy ranting about The Fire Fight.

The Fire Fight have made plenty of friends in their time, though, that much is clear. The guest performers at the gig are familiar faces. Esmond, who had earlier recounted the “cocky, pubescent teens” anecdote to the audience before the gig, joins the band to take vocals on a couple of songs.

Amanda Ling (she of ex-Electrico fame and schoolboy fantasy) also takes the stage at certain times to fill in the keyboard parts that were played by former Fire Fighter Chris Ong on Henri, their debut album released last year.

Other faces can also be recognized here and there: Angel Lee, who contributed backing vocals to the record, long-time supporter and close friend Kevin Mathews, Saiful Idris from Great Spy Experiment as well as Matthew Lim, Joshua’s bandmate from A Vacant Affair.

Matthew’s duet with Joshua at the gig proves to be one of the emotional watermarks of the event. Watching them together on stage, they make for an odd couple; Joshua in his Ben Sherman checkered chic best, Matthew in his cap and tee worn under an unbuttoned shirt.

Nevertheless, there is a bond between the two that is palpable; a friendship that one senses has weathered both laughter and tears. Together the two of them sing Hours.

The song is of particular significance to Matthew, who had been in attendance at one of the early gigs played by the Fire Fight (at a place that Joshua describes as “a dodgy club around the Duxton Hills area”).

At the time, Matthew’s late mother had been battling late-stage cancer. In light of his close friend’s personal situation, Joshua’s performance of the song took on a powerful emotional charge as he sang about mortality and eternity, about love and life and death.

“The song is basically about knowing how much time you have left with someone, and treasuring it,” says Joshua. “At that point in time, it was exactly what Matthew was going through. I took one look at Matthew while I was singing the song, and I started bawling my eyes out.”

PART of the magic of The Fire Fight is the way that their songs can morph and change to adapt to different situations for the listener, without losing anything in the process.

Portrait Lover is one example. Iain, who worked together with Joshua on the lyrics, tells me about how the song had resonated with a friend of his who had recently gone through a bad break-up.

Yet the essence of the song, according to Joshua, is less romantic than it is spiritual. Joshua explains it as being about intimacy, about loving somebody past their flaws.

This kind of love, the ancient Greeks describe as agape, namely, the divine, unconditional love of God. That is indeed the significance of the song for Joshua personally, though he is quick to stress that the song could also be about the love of a father or a lover.

“The same song can take on different shapes for different listeners,” says Joshua. “But I don’t ever feel like I need to water down God in my songs. For me, the songs are an honest, personal expression of myself. I don’t try to hide God.”

Joshua’s faith is a major contributing factor to not just the music of the Fire Fight, but also their mission.

Earlier on, I had asked the band if they were satisfied with their achievements.  Joshua had responded with an admonishment, reminding me that the purpose of the band was not a certain level of success or recognition, but a mission of positivity and change, of bringing people together through music.

That mission itself is well-documented through various interviews and articles. What is less publicised is the manner in which Joshua was inspired to his vision. At the age of 12, Joshua had been going through personal emotional turmoil when he sat down in his bedroom with his sister’s acoustic guitar.

At that point, Joshua received what he calls a “revelation from God”: that his music could and would be able to change the world around him. It was a life-changing moment for the then-teenager.

Joshua tells me, “The reason I write music is to reach people where they need to be reached. I have no chance at all in this lifetime of ever being able to attend to anyone’s needs, but with music, I can help people without being physically present.”

Coming out of anyone else’s mouth, those same words would either have sounded insufferably saintly or symptomatic of a messianic complex.

Coming out of Josh, however, they sound just about right; something to do, perhaps, with the quiet conviction with which he speaks them, a certain vulnerability and humility that marks him more as a pilgrim than it does a preacher.

Not that Joshua is anything less than the consummate frontman. . As a performer, Joshua inhabits a certain charisma that makes it near impossible to take your eyes off him.

It’s a quality that defies analysis. One can try to examine his stage moves, his singing technique, sure. At a certain point, though, you lose track of yourself and focus instead on the song and Joshua.

To a certain extent, the song is Joshua. Whether he’s whipping around the stage during Train Song, his hair stuck to his face in the most unglamorous fashion or singing with his eyes tightly squeezed shut during an acoustic version of Fires at Night, Joshua Tan loses himself in the music.

The fundamental appeal of The Fire Fight, then, is their rapture; the essence of The Fire Fight experience is surrender, and no one personifies this more than Joshua himself.

OF course, The Fire Fight is so much more than just Joshua Tan.

It is fascinating to watch them live, if only to see the little details that colour their personalities, and subsequently, the way those personalities contribute to the overall spirit of The Fire Fight.

Live, you get to see how Iain is the one who takes a macro view of it all, perched from his drummer’s throne as he lays down a solid groove to hold the band together in time. Live, you get to see how Jonathan is the catalyst who ignites the cocktail, something that is most obvious when his guitar goes out because of a technical fault and the energy drops noticeably.

Live, too, you see how Jbarks is both Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr rolled into one, how his unassuming attitude leads him to be the one who plays with his back to the audience most of the time, and how disappointed this makes the schoolgirls, who are deprived of his movie-star good looks.

More than any other local band, The Fire Fight is a product of not just instruments but personalities. The spirit of the band comes from the interaction of these four characters together. You see this clearly when they strip away the noticeable elements of their songs to make them even more intimate and confessional than they already are, when they change the rhythms of their songs, the melodies, the guitar sounds, everything, in fact, that make the songs recognizable to the audience.

Yet despite it all the captive audience still sits enraptured in their plastic chairs, watching the band with something approaching wonder. Then you realize, ah. The spirit of this band withstands obvious guitar sounds, exceeds signature rhythms.

I ask the band what will happen to that obvious brotherhood when they go their separate ways, what happens to the relationships they share?

They break out into easy camaraderie like they did so many times before, like when they teased Jon about the size of his balls or Jbarks about his starring role in Boo Junfeng’s feature film, Sandcastle.

They gleefully list down the various ways they can keep in touch: e-mail, Facebook, Skype lor, TTYL lor…

Joshua is the only one not contributing to this. There is an ambiguous expression his face that straddles humour and sadness.

“The truth is,” he says quietly, “I don’t know. Relationships will drift apart inevitably. I hope we can keep in touch.”

AT some point during our interview at the small but brightly lit room at Backbeats Studio, I am asked what my favourite Fire Fight song is, and I answer Covenant.

It is an odd reply, not least because the song in question is rarely played live.  In fact, clocking in at just over 8 minutes, it is nobody’s idea of a radio single.

Despite its unwieldy length, though, there is a certain captivating quality to the song, especially during the last minute or so, when the band takes off and slams into a joyful refrain that combines the jet engine from U2’s Beautiful Day with lyrics from King David.

Joshua tells me that the intent of the outro was to recreate a feeling of eternity, specifically, eternal praise.

(It is a testimony to the band that sticking on an eternal refrain to an 8-minute long song hardly makes it feel lengthy at all.)

Later on, at the gig, the band plays Covenant as their closing number. The inclusion of the song is a surprise, not least because it comes after their usual closer, Train Song.

Kevin Mathews had joined the band for that one, singing a mournful, haunted acoustic version of the verse as an intro before the band launched into the song proper.

As usual, the rendition is rousing, the hook at the end anthemic, and the audience sings along passionately until the finish. It feels like the end of the event, but nobody’s getting ready to leave just yet.

Joshua takes to the mic again after Kevin leaves, announcing the final number. “We’ve come to the last song,” he announces.

Then silence for a beat, as he realizes the significance of what he’s just said. The audience does too, and responds with some noise.

Then Joshua invites the guest musicians up, including Angel on backup vocals and Kelvin on trumpet, and they are off, launching into passion and emotion, taking us to church.

And the chorus is worshipful and the verses are earnest, but the band have one final trick up their sleeve as they blast into the stratosphere for the refrain, trumpets blaring, guitars riffing, Springsteen-esque vocalizations soaring, and the audience members leap out of their seats to jump up and sing a new song.

Joshua is right. It does feel like eternity.

THE most special thing about a Fire Fight gig doesn’t come during the gig itself.

Joshua calls my cellphone later that night; I had earlier texted him my congratulations and best wishes, having failed to catch him after the show. In response he sheepishly asks me who I am, he has lost my number. Pai seh lah.

We chat for a while and I offer my congratulations on the amazing show. Joshua’s voice is cracked and tired from the show, and he is obviously weary, but he makes the effort to engage on conversation (only breaking away for a while when his rabbit bites his finger).

At some point I tell Joshua something I have observed about his songwriting.

“Your songs,” I say. “They have no Them.”

He pauses for a while, trying to make sense of what I’ve said.

“Sorry?”

“It’s like this,” I explain, not quite knowing where I’m going as well. “In rock and roll—punk rock in particular—there’s always a mentality of us versus them.  Versus the establishment, versus the government, versus The Man. Even in Christian music, you’ll find that mentality. The church against the world.

“But your songs have no Them, there’s only an Us. There’s only We. We are the problem—“sad sad so we are together, woah”—but We can also be the solution. That’s the thing I really admire about your songs.”

It’s a haphazard rambling, but Joshua thanks me for my opinion anyway. We talk for a while more before he excuses himself to rest.

That’s where their power comes from, I think to myself after Joshua hangs up. At the end of the day, it’s so much stronger to unite for something, rather than against someone.

The special thing about a Fire Fight gig doesn’t come during the gig itself.

It comes afterwards, when you leave the venue and realize that on a fundamental level, you don’t just feel like you’ve been uplifted.

You feel like somewhere within you, you can reach out and lift someone else up too.

(Samuel C Wee)

Pix by Thomas Tan.

THE HARVEY GIRLS

THE HARVEY GIRLS The Prisoners of Candy Island (Circle Into Square)

Someone help me out here: If a band says, “Oh, we play bubblegum pop,” are you going to be expecting sprawling, eclectic jungles of drum loops, vocal samples and synthesized swirls? Yet in the weird and wonderful alternate universe that The Harvey Girls inhabit, that’s exactly what they mean. It’s not like someone was trying to be ironic either: the songs on this five-track EP entitled The Prisoners of Candy Island are entirely irony free.

Instead, in their own kooky, adorable way, Hiram Lucke and his wife Melissa Rodenbeek have successfully married the melodic, cheerful sunshine of pop acts like the Beach Boys and the Shangri-Las with the freeform eclecticism of Captain Beefheart. Top that off with bold experimental production that takes a leaf from the book of hip-hop crew De La Soul, and you have yourself a smashing formula.

Don’t just take my word for it: Check out second track Tickle, and try not to fall madly into the love-pit that the hooky piano riffs and synthesizer touches dig. Or the delicious bleep-bloop jangle of Song XLIII (My Roman numerals aren’t all that great, so I won’t bother messing around with trying to figure the numbers.) This is bubblegum pop, all right, but with the gum firmly stretched out and blown to its limits, until everything explodes in a burst of juicy flavour. Tasty.

(Samuel C Wee)

Download The Prisoners of Candy Island for free at the Official Site below.

Official Site | Myspace