By Matt Taylor
It’s almost surprising that Cyndi Wang 王心凌 has been a staple of the Taiwanese music scene for sixteen years and that at one point, she was one of the top female popstars in Asia, regularly selling over a million copies of her albums across the continent. Whilst nobody would argue with her commercial success, it’s less difficult to pick at the records themselves, which in recent times have been patchy at best, and dated on arrival at their worst. Plagued by criticism, rumours of cosmetic surgery and tabloid gossip, it has felt as if the sun had begun to set on Cyndi Wang the popstar.
Coming three years after her last record, CYNDILOVES2SING 愛·心凌 is Cyndi’s twelfth record, and it seems as if she has something to prove. A ten track affair, the aim of the record is to express the personality of Cyndi, offering listeners an insight into her feelings and characteristics, be it strong, vulnerable, care-free or spontaneous. She’s also brought in a top team of producers and songwriters, including Mandopop icon Sandee Chan 陳珊妮, producer and guitarist Jerry C 張逸帆 (S.H.E, Lala Hsu 徐佳瑩) and American producer CJ Baran (Britney Spears, Carly Rae Jepsen) to help bring this project to fruition, signalling that this time, Cyndi’s taking this seriously. Can she reverse her dwindling fortune?
The answer is an emphatic yes. From the offset, listeners are greeted by an altogether more sonically mature Cyndi. Album opener The Coffee Shop Lost in Youth在青春迷失的咖啡館 is a wonderfully textured and understated indie-pop-esque ballad, presenting a never before seen, more mature Cyndi, whose voice flutters lightly over the melody whilst delivering some of the most grown-up lyrics we’ve ever heard from her (the most painful feelings are the most profound lies.. /.. love is not necessarily true).
Absolute standout of the album is The Thunder on your Road劈你的雷正在路上. Delightfully bizarre, production wise the song features elements of multiple genres as wide-ranging as reggae, dance and electric guitar, whilst the most memorable musical aspect is what can best be described as a cowboy whistle. Cyndi surprisingly isn’t overshadowed by the stellar production, and instead commands it, sounding confident yet laidback in her delivery, singing about the mess and ridiculousness of current affairs. Not only is it one of Cyndi’s most innovative tracks, it is arguably also one of her best.
The acoustic I Don’t Exist Anywhere到處不存在的我 is not only memorable because of its stripped back production values which have a sense of rawness and vulnerability, but also because Cyndi actually sings parts of the chorus in Taiwanese, perhaps a hint at the personal value and attachment to the song (is it right to leave? / my heart has no answer yet).
Truthfully speaking, CYNDILOVES2SING is surprisingly filled with memorable moments. From a ballad perspective, the melodic Life’s Most Beautiful Imperfection生命中的美好缺憾 has an emotional and powerful stadium-ready singalong chorus, whilst The Big Sleep大眠 wouldn’t sound out of place on a Li Ronghao 李榮浩 album, lyrically presenting a unique narrative, touching upon emotional abduction, moral blackmail, and the role of each person in a relationship.
It wouldn’t be a Cyndi Wang album without some up-tempo bangers, and this album certainly delivers. Whilst Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing 披著狼皮的羊 doesn’t tread unfamiliar territory, with elements of progressive 90s house in the verses before a tropi-pop beat drop, Cyndi stays away from outdated production and helium-esque vocals. Whilst it would be easy to brush this off as potential filler, its tracks like this that are the most visible aspects of the jump in quality on this record compared to dance-pop tracks on her other recent records. Similarly, album closer Sleeping Forest沈睡的森林 doesn’t feel tacky at all, instead being a wonderfully layered and softly detailed mid-tempo EDM track.
Alas it’s not all smooth sailing: one song that breaks away from this welcome jump in quality is Cat Teaching a Seagull to Fly教海鷗飛行的貓. That someone thought sampling Old MacDonald had a Farm was okay makes us seriously debate the taste level of Cyndi and her team, unfortunately cheapens the overall album, and is a reminder that as much work Cyndi has done to elevate her sound on this record, old habits die hard.
It’s hard to not view the title CYNDILOVES2SING as a mission statement. After years of dwindling returns, it seems that Cyndi Wang realised that if she wants to maintain relevance, she would have to prove to the audience that she was worth once more investing in, indeed proving that she loved to sing. Cyndi has done much more than that on this record; evidencing a level of maturity and artistic growth that many thought was beyond her, whilst still staying true to her authentic musical self. A watershed album in Cyndi’s career, whilst it’s not going to change the pop landscape, only a fool would see this album as any less than a triumph.
By Matt Taylor
Sandy Lam林憶蓮 has never been one for complacency. Throughout her 33 year career, she has cemented herself as one of the most revered and universally loved figures in Chinese-language music not by following trends or being fixated on growing her career, but instead by focusing on making music that makes her artistically content and - most of all - happy.
Three years in the making, 0 is Sandy’s first original album since 2012’s Gaia 蓋亞, a forward-thinking and ground-breaking record that stormed the 24th Golden Melody awards, praised by judges as a landmark release in Mandopop. Released under negligible promotional-fanfare, new album 0 became an unexpected hit at the end of 2018, perhaps in part due to Sandy announcing her retirement. If this is her last release, is Sandy going out on a high note?
0 is a concept record that takes on several meanings. Zero can be seen as the beginning and as the end. Everything, from ourselves to the universe started from nothing, and will one day become nothing again. Zero is a unique idea which can somehow express the freshness and excitement of a new beginning, whilst also representing absolute finality. Whilst this feels somewhat bleak, new endings provide new opportunities - perhaps evidencing that her retirement is something that she wants to address.
It is also interesting that the album has no physical copy available to purchase, and exists solely on the internet. Does the lack of a physical existence imply a lack of being?
By Matt Taylor
Ten years strong into her career, Ball Chuang (莊鵑瑛, or 小球 to her fans), is ready to impress audiences once more with her sophomore solo record, the curiously titled Best Ear 巴斯特耳朵, the follow up to her 2017 solo debut, the generally subdued yet endearingly optimistic Towards the Stars 星之所向.
Ball rose to fame through being half of indie-pop duo katnkandix2, whose guitar driven melodies, anthemic sing-a-long choruses and often unique takes on typical song structure earned them not only nominations for Best Vocal Duo at the 21st & 24th Golden Melody Awards and the award of Best Album of 2010 by INDIEVOX respectively, but an army of devoted fans who ensured that they became the international poster child of Taiwan’s indie scene at the turn of the decade.
What exactly is the meaning of the title Best Ear? On the most superficial level, the title is a play on award-winning 2006 book Buster’s Ears by Swedish author Marie Ernestam: a bitter-sweet love story filled with love and deceit. Scratching the surface further reveals a more significant meaning, with Ball deciding to take this title and reinterpret it from her own viewpoint. She has often said about her work that she sometimes can’t tell whether she is listening to her own songs, or to her own voice. She therefore wants to use this album as an opportunity to speak to the listener, acting somewhat as a tour guide and interpreter. Life, like the novel, is an onslaught of bitter-sweet stories, deceit and lies; something that Ball is all too familiar with, and wants to help the listener navigate through via her own experiences.
As soon as the play button is pressed, the listener is gently welcomed into Ball’s world, with a haunting introduction Dream Song 夢中歌 intended to symbolize the fall into a dream, where we are no longer in control, but rather at the mercy of our own minds, or in this case, Ball’s words and stories.
Best Ear picks up where – quite literally – her debut solo record left us. The first full track is titled Freedom 續, and is based on the outro of her debut (titled to be continued…). Between the first and second record, Ball decided she wanted to employ this tactic so as to imply that no story stands alone, and even when accidental, everything is inter-connected. What she didn’t know however is what the final iteration would sound like. From the bare bones near-acapella outro, the eventual result is subtle verses flowing naturally into crashing choruses where her vocals soar with ease, representing that after every action and feeling, regardless good or bad, that life ultimately goes on.
Delving further into the concept of the record, Why Remember 何必記念 and Private Attraction私房景點 work as companion pieces, offering different experiences on the topic of death. Why Remember 何必記念 is a piano led ballad evoking feelings of nostalgia, written seemingly from the part of the deceased, begging to not be forgotten, whilst the song itself has an overarching sense of finality. Private Attraction 私房景點 on the other hand takes the perspective of those who have lost someone, which despite still being achingly sad, offers hope that someday in the future, they will be re-united (Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.. / the story that was last told is not finished yet / I will wait patiently, wait for you to appear).
Ball’s intelligence as a musician and capability as both a songwriter and a storyteller truly come alive on these two songs. Whilst it could come across overwrought or saccharine in the wrong hands, Ball displays profound skill in exploring differing views of the same theme, and her attention to the small intricacies in both tracks are strikingly human: it was always the small things that we remember the most fondly.
Jigsaw Diary 拼圖日記 is the closest we get to a fun, truly joyful moment on the record. A simple clap-drum and piano intro leads us into a luxuriously layered track brimming with joy and warmth, where she compares life and this relationship to a jigsaw: whilst it may be frustrating and time consuming to find the right piece and try to make them fit, to create something whole is a wonderful thing. Once again we see Ball’s meticulous attention to detail on display, and she is able to ingeniously connect this song with the overall concept of the record itself (I understand I will be your best ear / just tell me, don’t be shy.. there is no right or wrong), that life itself is a jigsaw. What could be heavy-handed, Ball does so subtly that it’s barely even noticeable, a truly remarkable achievement.
Abnormal Normal 不正常的正常 is a sharply delivered mid-tempo, almost Irish in its execution, employing instruments in ways rarely used in Mandopop. A perky instrumental coupled with bleak lyricism, Ball laments her imperfections, and hopes that someone can love her for who she is, and highlights that although we all feel not normal at times, that this is actually normal, so not to worry.
Outro track Unfinished like the beginning of both a new chapter and ultimately our own journey as Ball disappears and tells us to work hard. A surprising addition which doesn’t often appear on contemporary albums, waiting patiently after the outro will give the listener a beautiful acoustic bonus track not listed as part of the track list, its simplicity and directness so different to the complexity on display on the rest of the album.
There’s very little on the record which even the most ardent critic couldn’t appreciate. The song after which the album is named is a gloriously dramatic James Bond-esque slow-tempo, employing what seems like an entire orchestra and mixes tempos and uses the same instruments in a variety of means, showing a side of Ball we’ve never seen. Bored When Fun無聊當有趣 is a playful number, reminding us that sometimes it’s okay to vent our frustrations. Final track on the album, the understated yet sweet Answer答案 is a reminder that it is the scars we hold from our own stories that make us our own storyteller.
It’s clear on this record that Ball – without sacrificing melody or songwriting quality – is testing the limits and capabilities of her artistry, in turn truly establishing herself as a mature and wholly capable solo artist. An admirable feat, we can’t help but mourn the lack of a high energy blast of pop-rock which would frequent katnkandix2 records, or appeared briefly yet brilliantly as At This Moment 此時此刻 on her debut. Whilst aggressive, grunge inspired Hedgehog刺蝟 comes close, it’s slightly too aggressive to be placed alongside this style in her canon.
Ball’s distinct tone has long set her apart from peers. Affectionately described as having a voice that feels like a hug from a stranger, her tone emits a distinct familiarity and warmth that is instantly capable of enveloping even the most hardened listener. This unique skill doesn’t limit the scope of her artistry to ballads however, neither does it limit the authenticity of when she dabbles in other genres.
Simultaneously sweet yet assertive, familiar yet refreshingly new, fascinatingly detailed and complex yet also an easy listen, on Best Ear Ball displays a level of artistry and maturity that arguably puts her miles ahead of her contemporaries. Ball successfully executes a complex concept to create a united body of work; a piece of work that despite every aspect feeling necessary, each part can be enjoyed individually
As winter arrives and the weather is getting colder, this record is a perfect chilly morning accompaniment, either wrapped up whilst outside or enjoying a warm drink observing the melancholic sky and the people walk past. Filled with strong melodies and impressive & emotive vocal performances, Ball Chuang has entrenched herself as a vital part of the contemporary Mandopop landscape.
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.