Singaporean singer songwriter Charlie Lim’s latest record ‘CHECK-HOOK’ is one of a select few this year which has left me speechblown and mindless. Mindspeech and blown- Well, you get the idea. A tightly packaged 7-track album showcasing an immaculate fusion of experimental electronica, R&B, Soul, Jazz and Folk Rock, Lim delivers an immersive musical experience that does not leave one wanting more nor less. Nay, the compact album is one that delivers just right; drawing listeners into a painstakingly handcrafted soundscape where music and lyrics divide and conquer to construct an equilibrium that has often eluded even the best of us.
‘CHECK-HOOK’ , a concept based on Lim’s interest in the art of boxing is a unique choice for the album title. It alludes a defensive boxing move incorporating the pretence of aggression, followed by intricate footwork to allow the opponent to miss their mark and swing by harmlessly. (Thanks Wikipedia) Yet while other artists have used such combatant concepts in more straightforward ways; creating dense, stimulating soundscapes advocating tropes of senseless violence, aggression and brute force, Lim takes the path less trodden and turns a mindless trope into a mindful sentiment.
Instead, the 29 year-old uses this album to convey a meaningful discussion about the challenges and negative emotions that come with daily life through the metaphor of a boxing technique, reinforcing ‘self-defence’ as a crucial yet oft-forgotten component of combat.
The album, characterised by a mix of experimental electronic beats, melancholy piano arrangements and a heavy emphasis on vocal samples/backings paints an eclectic landscape. It is at times playful and at others reflective, but always dotted with Lim’s signature wry lyricism.
‘Welcome Home’ is one of my favourites on this record. It tastefully reinforces the album’s theme with genius lines such as ‘spent too long picking all my battles/now the fight’s gone out of me’ and mimics this in its constantly changing arrangement. Unpredictable like the contents of a fight, the song has a certain grit and adrenaline-like energy coursing through its veins which I find endlessly intriguing and energising.
‘Circles’ is another genius track which; like its name reprises an unconventional song format. Jazzy chords, dissonant lo-fi beats and a hint of math rock-ish guitar licks keep things fresh here. The song’s hook is a concentric melody that rises and falls with the arc of a circle as Lim croons ‘I cannot explain/why things so easily break/And the longer I’m here/the longer forever has no meaning’. Interesting choice of words, despite circles essentially being one unbroken line. Yet the following lines denote that maybe actual circles are not the only thing Lim is talking about here. His lyrics denote a sense of hopelessness often found in the mundane routine of daily life, positing ideas about circular thinking and self-awareness.
In ’Zero-Sum’, Charlie goes deep with a reference to game and economic theory concept. The theory refers to a situation where each participants’ gain or loss of utility are equally balanced. Lim cleverly and soulfully makes reference to this through lyrical themes of need, exchange and loss, crooning in passive tones ‘Cus I can’t do this anymore/And I don’t need you anymore’. The song begins with undercurrent-like synthesisers, ebbing and flowing like the calm before a storm, reminding me of fancy footwork in a boxing match. Charlie’s vocals lean back seamlessly into the undercurrents, folding itself in without losing clarity. Here, through a mesmerising future-soul soundscape, Lim sends the message that give and take with certain opponents as a losing game, a situation he doesn’t need, neither can he afford.
The second half of the album is decidedly more laid-back, but evolves into something more self reflective and hauntingly beautiful, a vibe Charlie is very familiar with. I love ‘Least Of You’, a simple but tastefully positioned R&B track which makes the most of Charlie’s soothing, intimate vocals. Again, Lim’s lyrics are filled with striking imagery and themes of heady hopelessness but this time with a throbbing backbeat that belies a desire to keep pushing forth in the face of change.
‘Better Dead Than A Damsel’ and ‘Premonition’ are two outstanding tracks that I’ll leave listeners to mostly discover on their own, but I will say that in ‘Better Dead Than A Damsel’, rappers Fariz Jabba and Yung Raja did a great job with creating a seamless flow that added another layer of texture to the song’s soundscape, but their delivery was a little too lo-fi and not dynamic enough for my tastes. As for Weish on ‘Premonition’, things took a dark, gothic turn when she entered the track, making a striking and honestly quite scary entrance with low, gravelly vocals and a hint of cloying sweetness. A striking collaboration I will not soon forget.
Religious references are scattered throughout the album in a tasteful, organic manner, reflecting the huge influence of Lim’s faith on his works; but on the albums last track ‘Unconditional’ the message here is unmistakable. Constructing a lighter, more airy soundscape than found on the other tracks, if ‘Premonition’ was Charlie’s take on death, then ‘Unconditional’ must be his take on what comes next. Referencing from traditional hymns, the lyrics on this track are steadfast in representing Lim’s faith, while the increasingly complex cacophony of sounds and textures belie a powerful sense of unwavering faith even until the end.
In short, CHECK-HOOK is a musical unpacking of Lim’s attitudes and ideas on life, cleverly relayed through a boxing metaphor. To Charlie, it seems that life does not have to be an uphill battle, or a struggle. It is a dance of give or take; an exchange of words, actions, emotions. Sure, it’ll always be a fight to the finish, but the question is who your opponent is, and what strategy you’ll use to close out the match. Clever, intimate, yet a move outside his comfort zone, this sparkling gem of an album was very certainly worth the wait.
By Matt Taylor
Despite only just releasing her debut album, Malaysian-born Evangeline王艷薇 has already built herself a formidable reputation on the mandopop scene both at home and across Asia. After being discovered by none other than masterful producer Skot Suyama陶山 after uploading self-recorded performances to Youtube, he brought her to Taiwan to study under his wing, where she has not only flexed her song-writing talents (writing for Claire Kuo 郭靜 and the title song for the Transformers 4 OST), or proven her ability to hold her own ground with artists such as R-chord 謝和弦 and Kimberly Chen 陳芳語 by featuring on their records (搖滾沒有死掉 and 分手說愛你 respectively), but has also stood on her own two feet, singing the title track (Touch the Sky 碰到藍天) for hit Hong Kong film ‘Special Female Force’ 辣警霸王花.
The time has finally come to introduce the talent that many of the most respected players in behind-the-scenes Mandopop see as a formidable talent to the general public at large. Expectations for Evangeline’s debut album are high – can the 24 year old deliver?
The title of the album, Wilder 框不住的愛, in many ways feels like a mission statement. In Evangeline’s words herself, the things which people long for – freedom, liberation and happiness – are often crushed under the pressure of the reality. However, Evangeline chooses to continue to explore herself, the world around her, and the emotional experiences that these all bring, choosing to be the owner of a curious and imaginative spirit that is always ready for new experiences in life – no matter good or bad – because curiosity is the key for growth and the pursuit of a love of live – an unlimited love of life to be exact.
The vibrant and eye catching album art attempts to visually manifest a celebration of difference alongside Evangeline’s free spirit, with bright colours, flowers and Evangeline with her trademark purple hair, inviting the listener in for what is seemingly promising a unique experience.
If any song is a testament to the above, it is the title track itself. Opening song Unlimited Love框不住的愛 is a beautiful song with painful origins, which has already become a favourite of the LGBT community, seen by some a new edition to the canon of mandopop gay anthems. The emotion heavy in Evangeline’s husky vocals, she describes someone blocking away the world around them, but camouflage isn’t neither a show of strength nor is it the life you want to lead. Instead, embrace life and love with pride because love – whether it’s for someone else or for yourself – is an unstoppable positive force, and to understand and be loved for who you are is as if you’ve come into the sunshine after a heavy rain. A powerful opener, it’s hard to not hit replay constantly. Although the song fading out at the end gives the impression that this celebration of love and diversity carries on into the rest of the album, as a standalone song, fading out a song feels a little lazy. However, the sentiment works in the concept of the record.
Seemingly Halloween inspired WHO is perhaps the most sonically unique song on the album. An amalgamation of tempos and genres, the song doesn’t let the listener rest long before switching it up entirely. With WHO representative of Evangeline’s fear of being herself as a result of ridicule, the listener is seemingly transported on this journey of self-doubt and uncomfortableness with her. This angry and dark rock/hip hop song is an uneasy reminder of similar times that we may have experienced, and a testament to both Evangeline & Skot that they can take the listener on this journey. Reminiscent of Japanese icon Tomoko Kawase’s gothic alter ego tommy heavenly6, it’s great at highlighting Evangeline’s versatility and willingness to experiment with differing styles and themes
Whilst it would be easy to label ballad Expiration Date 保存期限 strikingly simple, for a first composition, it is an admirable attempt, and doesn’t come across amateurish, and easily punches its own weight against the Skot Suyama produced tracks. Lyrically Evangeline takes a relationship and views it as having an expiration date, and that despite the pain that this involves, the time is simply up, and rather than be said, both parties involved should move onto the next stage in their lives, in turn playing with the concept of countdown and the finite life of everything. Not only this though, the song is reflective of her life and the four year time period she gave herself to make it in the music business. To take a sentiment unique to her and establish a trope that others can relate to en-masse is a testament to her lyricism and understanding of how to connect music to the general public (check out the English translation of the song here).
The complexity of this ballad comes in contrast to probably the weakest link on the record Breathing 深呼吸. Not bad by any means, but in comparison to lyrical variety and musical strengths exerted over the rest of the record (notably the only song which doesn’t in some way come under Skot Suyama’s jurisdiction), it’s a little mandopop by numbers.
Angel's Voice 天使親吻過的聲音 has a distinctly autumnal atmosphere about it. Whilst a song that describes how you love your parents could very easily come across as corny or trite (As long as you shout my name, I have strength / As long as I can see your smile, I have a yearning), Evangeline’s lyrical interpretation of this sentiment elevates it to a rather beautiful song, enhanced by some of the best and most layered production on the album.
Whilst it’s difficult to choose a highlight on an album filled with many wonderful melodies and strong lyrics, a personal favourite is ‘Bye Bye’ 拜拜. As with other songs, the lyrics come from a place of pain – namely a non-consensual break-up. Yet again however, Evangeline is the poster child of optimism: thanking her ex for looking after her, she instead turns the table, and affirms that actually, their love was superficial, and that tomorrow will offer better. Infusing elements of rap with euphoric pop choruses, The 10/10 status of the song is certified at the unexpected but very welcome key change post middle-eight which won’t fail to bring a smile to the listeners face. Getting in a final insult which reflects the bitter taste of any broken relationship, to be so verbally free is to be free from the shackles, and, reminding them once more that ’there’s nothing about you.‘
Album closer Dreams 夢見 is stark and powerful in its simplicity. Evangeline’s voice soars across the piano led ballad, carrying with it the pain caused by death and the feeling of helplessness. The inspiration behind the track – being denied the ability to say goodbye when someone passes way – sees her try to get closure and let out her frustrations at the situation by communicating with her lost one through a dream, trying to balance the relief that death can bring of pain whilst also cursing that those we love can’t exist forever with us.
Though the star of the album is of course Evangeline, we can’t review the record without praising Skot Suyama’s production credits. Clearly understanding the depth and complexity of Evangeline’s vocals, her unique style of vocal delivery and indeed the words themselves, Skot provides emotional yet accessible production that lets Evangeline shine, yet is able to assist the listener in becoming more emotionally attached to the record without relying on tired mandopop tropes. It doesn’t matter whether Skot is producing for Evangeline, Diana Wang 王詩安, Men Envy Children 小男孩樂團 (or one of the dozens of other artists he was worked for), his ability to adapt his sound to the artist whilst keeping his own unique style consistently present is a testament to his capabilities as a producer. Even when the record invites other producers to the helm, their works compliment the soundscape of the record, rather than feeling out of place,
At nine original tracks, it feels as if an extra couple could have been added if only to pad out slightly. But quality always trumps quantity, and for a debut record, there's very little to grumble about here. Sincere, moving and joyful, Evangeline’s delivered a masterclass in how a debut album should be done, and not only delivers carefully crafted pop songs, but establishes herself as a writer and producer in her own right. However she chooses to utilise and her develop her talents, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Evangeline – and once you listen to Wilder – neither will you.
Since her debut, Korean-Taiwanese Shi Shi Sun 孫盛希 has always been touted as one of the most promising artists on the scene. Known for her signature fluid, silken vocals, the R&B artist has always been praised for her increasingly skilled abilities as a singer and songwriter over the length of her career. Yet with her self-produced third album ‘女人Woman’ (a reference to her first debut album titled ‘Girls’), the 10-track album has left me wondering whether Shi Shi is truly ready to take on full control of her works as a singer, songwriter, and producer.
The album cover; which sees Sun sporting a head full of pink hair and features an abstract mix of pastel colours reminds me strongly of Zooey Wonder’s album ‘Wonderland’ released last year, whereas the pink hair takes me back to yet another indie artist Bai An’s second album ‘What’s Next’. Already, kind of starting off the whole ‘album differentiation’ thing on the wrong foot for me.
The album itself is thankfully a solid and well-meaning stab at bringing something different to the contemporary Mandopop scene; featuring Shi Shi’s self-penned tracks-unique in their fluid, subtly ‘it’s complicated’ vibes -against a mesh of experimental EDM, R&B, hip hop and pop. Certainly fresh, and a healthy addition to a scene which is struggling to break free from its balladic clutter. But it is clear at several points throughout the progression of the album that the singer is not well-equipped enough to take the reins fully, something that shows in the songwriting technique and overall vision for the album.
“Chaos分裂” is a song with a mysterious melody that is lilting and haunting; written in a non-conventional form, the play between hardness and softness is intriguing. Yet coupled together with a non-immersive set of backing vocals and an experimental electronic arrangement that seems a little too calculated to truly pull off chaos, Shi Shi’s voice is lost amongst the madness.
By Matt Taylor
Since her Cantonese debut in 1993, Karen Mok 莫文蔚 has not only remained on the top tier of Chinese language musicians, but pushed the boundaries of what is expected of female performers. From her early covers and photo shoots where she is mid-way through eating a hot dog, wrapped in see-through cling film, shaving her head and appearing fully nude, Karen Mok has spent her career challenging standards of beauty and women’s status and capabilities in the entertainment industry, all whilst delivering songs which have become mandopop canon, such as He Doesn’t Love Me 他不愛我 (1997) If I Don’t Have You 如果沒有你(2006), and Baby 寶貝 (2010), in turn making her an icon for an independent modern day woman, and putting her in a bracket of icon that few can only dream of reaching.
On her seventeenth album Halftime 我們在中場相遇 Karen maintains the consistent high quality that she is renowned for. For this seminal release, Karen brought in an army of over twenty of the biggest names in Mandopop today, including Li Ronghao 李荣浩, Khalil Fong 方大同, JJ Lin林俊傑 and 2018 singer entrant Hua Chen-yu 華晨宇, with long-term collaborator Arai Soichiro 荒井十一 present as executive producer. She mentioned in an interview that she felt honoured that so many producers and writers wanted to work on the project, and that inviting so many artists and musicians that she has worked with over the years to collaborate with her on a record which has deep significance to her acts as an expression of her gratitude.
The album is split into two halves. The first half is compiled of songs that are meant to feel classic and are composed by her long time collaborators, whilst the second half is meant to evidence Karen’s versatility and innovative capabilities as a performer via production and lyrics being provided by new collaborators.
From the word go, we have classic Karen in action. Let There be Light如初之光 is a stunning ballad with an anthemic chorus, is a song blooming with positivity, and acts as a great introduction track for the album. Produced by Singaporean legend Lee Shih-shiong 李偲菘, the track feels instantly contemporary, yet rooted in traditional mandopop balladry. With lyrics provided by prolific Taiwanese lyricist Yiu Him姚謙, the song is contemplative, and is a fascinating combination of imagery and interaction on a micro-level whilst interconnecting with images and notions of mountains and galaxies.
I Do is a surprising number, interchanging instruments and styles to make a unique yet accessible track. Whilst the song switches between being guitar and piano led, it is the introduction of the waltz at several intervals which is truly surprising, and feels effortlessly beautiful. Such a complex song is followed by polar opposite Fly 飛, a perfectly serviceable and simplistic folk-lite song which would actually make a great album closer, but is oddly placed as track four, and is somewhat of a wet towel after such a great start.
Taking it out of the context of the record however, the track has a multitude of fascinating layers. For the track, Mok worked with Jonathan Lee Chung-shan 李宗盛, who has been working with her since 1996 and was awarded best producer at the 12th Golden Melody Awards for his production on Karen’s 2001 album On the Twelfth Floor 十二樓的莫文蔚. For Fly, Lee delved into his rich back catalogue and re-arranged a song he wrote in the 1980s for Taiwanese singer Michelle Pan Yueh-yun 潘越雲.
One thing Karen is known for is her ability to not only hop across genres, but do so meaningfully and convincingly. Whilst plenty of artists incorporate a variety of styles onto their records to give it as much of a reach as possible, Karen does it in a way that doesn’t feel forced, but rather as a genuine statement of artistic expression. Whilst she is successful for the most part, No Intermission 中場沒有休息, despite being written by the legendary China Blue, comes across flat. Whilst it captures that feeling of urgency and is a welcome break after a slew of ballads, Karen sounds rushed and the production tinny, making for an underwhelming track which theoretically is the base of the album.
Growing Fond of You 慢慢喜歡你 is arguably the best ballad on the record. Written by Li Ronghao 李荣浩, The concept of the song is rather than being overwhelmed by a fast romance, falling slowly in love with someone is more romantic, and allows for greater time to appreciate the intricate details of each other, in turn allowing for a deeper love. By taking our time, we can savour the time with our loved ones, walking together into old age. It’s popularity is a testament to its quality – the song has become somewhat of a viral sensation, inspiring countless cover versions online, some even taking the song down a humours route, and one cover even uses the erhu. The versatility of the covers evidences the songs strong backbone, and a truly well written song with song production credits can become any genre.
Khalil Fong 方大同 works his magic on standout track Ultimate 絕. Fresh, confident and joyous, Ultimate is four minutes of unadulterated 70s inspired disco/funk and a perfect addition for any summertime playlist. The spoken middle-eight is a little like watching your mum try to rap, but it won’t fail to bring a smile to your face. The song is a self-empowerment anthem: whether your past was filled with bad times or good times, we have to feel everything, because our experiences as a whole make us into who we are.
Following track Dancing in the Rain is also an obvious highlight. The track is not only a mild stylistic departure for Mok, but also for Taiwanese aboriginal band and producer of the track Matzka, who stray from their usual reggae sound to deliver something special. An exquisitely layered mid-tempo, the song is a lesson which teaches that rather than avoiding adversity, we should instead fully embrace it so we can move onto brighter days.
Not to be Continued 不待續 oozes sex and sexual liberation. The guzheng is used in a similar style to a guitar, and is combined with an R&B-esque beat whilst Karen provides deliciously sultry vocals over sexual lyrics (This snack should be eaten now, don’t take-away and wait until later). The chorus, despite breaking with the melodic verses, is a stunning show of Karen’s falsetto, and is fantastic at bringing the audience into the atmosphere of the song.
Halftime as a concept is interesting due to the number of ways it can be perceived, outside the obvious musical differences between the first and second halves of the album. Firstly, a halftime show in a sporting event is meant to offer respite – to the players and to the audience. Taking this context, the halftime show isn’t meant to challenge or excite, but rather be a distraction. The other concept is something that we have seen in recent years, where it seems that the halftime show eclipses the show itself. Super Bowl performances by acts such as Beyonce, Katy Perry & Madonna, for instance, have redefined the role of the halftime show in entertainment, making them a must-not-miss unveiling of an artist at their absolute peak, unleashing a flurry of hits, dance routines and awe-inspiring staging that become the subject of water cooler discussion at their meekest, and make an undeniable dent on popular culture at their most impressive.
With Karen’s halftime show, it unfortunately leans more towards the former interpretation than the latter. Whilst every song on the album is at least good, it’s difficult to say that more than a small handful are truly great. When the songs are deconstructed, and we look at the quality of musicianship, Karen’s vocal performance and the lyricism, it’s difficult to find any complaints. The problem is however, that it lacks the freshness and innovation which Karen is renowned for. Her unique radiance and ability to truly sell the song to the audience masks this to an extent. It seems though that where the strength of the album is its understated charm and elegance, this is also its biggest shortfall. Whilst preceding album Departure may not have been as heartfelt lyrically or as carefully constructed, with songs such as Regardez 看看, it was an album that demanded the listeners attention.
For an artist 25 years into a career, Halftime is somewhat of a triumph – a victory lap around the stadium and a celebration of Karen’s achievements with those that helped her get there. It’s easily accessible enough for new fans and Karen enough for veteran supporters. We hope that in the future however, the second half of Karen’s career is a closer resemblance to the first half, rather than a continuation of the halftime show. It’s impossible to not be endeared by Karen however, and even when she’s not performing at her best, she’s still in a league of her own.