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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Faith Yang (Yang Nai Wen)

Continuation

Review by Bruce Stringer

Australian-Taiwanese songstress, Yang Nai Wen (known in the west as Faith Yang) continues to evolve, breaking new ground with the release of her fifth album. Now signed to Silverfish Music, Yang decided against re-signing her contract with illustrious Taiwanese label, Magic Stone, to pursue a lighter, moodier, creative approach away from her heavier, angst-driven works from the One and Silence albums. Continuation is less accessible than her heavier material but contains some of her more mature, production-oriented, experimental selections.

The first thing to be noticed with Continuation is the impressive packaging and booklet, looking more like a DVD release than a simple jewel case CD. Yang’s staring eyes are invasive and all-seeing, her beauty matched by her dark brooding nature – quite the contrast to the Asiatic, Canto-Pop princesses grinning with insincerity in loopy costume mode. The 24-page booklet includes some dark, solitary pictures more along the lines of Hipgnosis’ shots for Pink Floyd than the typical middle of the road release. (The clue to the location of the shots might be in a hand written Espana poster on a wall…). One of my all-time favorite composers, Chen Shan Ni, has her material covered on this CD, which – although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of One and Silence – is as listen-able as it is impressive in its packaging. Please note: as my Mandarin skills are so limited I have not offered insight into the lyrics, so have viewed Faith’s unique voice as an instrument in the compositional sense.

Those lucky enough to obtain the Hong Kong version of Continuation will be blessed with a bonus promo DVD featuring Yang in the studio with her band, an excellent assortment of images taken from the album photo shoot and the video clip for "Female Nobility." Continuation may be more Faith Yang in sound than her last album, Ought To, but still contains some of the quieter moments that I found less interesting (than on Silence, for example), but significant to her maturing as one of the Chinese speaking world’s greatest vocalists. That said, the production and direction of this compilation of self-penned tracks alongside those by the eclectic Chen Shan Ni, Greeny Wu, Eason Chen, et al are impeccable and more in line with a concept album. I am looking forward to her next album and hope that her new company sees fit to release a live album and DVD. Rarely is an album this good after such a long wait.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Female Nobility (Mandarin: Nu Jue)
“Female Nobility” has a spacious, full sound complete with pseudo orchestral overtones and crisp production. Yang’s effortless vocal passages create a familiar, almost emotional assurance in the music that contrasts the intricate piano work that so holds the piece together. Her vocals are so good yet she never spoils the atmosphere by overstating the vowels she sensually squeezes from her vocal chords. This is better than most Chinese piano pop ballads and proof that the Taiwanese can do it as good as the Hong Kongese.
Separated From Myself (Wo Li Kai Wo Zi Ji)
As per many Canto-pop artists, many mainstream Chinese artists attempt the emotional piano ballad with fake sincerity, however Yang Nai Wen has vocal talents unique to her fellow Mandarin (and Cantonese) speaking brethren. Maybe it is due to her upbringing in the West and exposure to more Westernized music that allows her the launch pad that she elevates herself from, with an almost Toni Childs timbre melded with the lower-register of Imani Coppola. Any way that one looks at it, Yang’s voice is natural and her vibrato is controlled and her utilization in “Separated From Myself” is pure artistry.
Separation (Fen Kai)
Following on with an acoustic guitar ballad, this track emphasizes the string arrangement and has a grandeur that flows along yet has a pulse thanks (again) to the excellent production and mix on the drum tracks. The tune is obviously an emotional one so tendency to underscore the music is evident (though I can make no comment on the lyrics). It's a nice piece.
Do You Know? (Dong Hai Shi Bu Dong)
Sounding at moments like an upbeat, rockier version of Faye Wong, Yang delves into some interesting backing vocals. The production is pillow-soft, yet punchy. The poppy-ness has a distinct radio friendly nature but it is the real drums and guitar that ground the music on terra firma (much like Charlotte Church’s debut album).
Early This Morning (Jin Tian Qing Chen)
Returning to the soft ballad style, “Early This Morning” has an understated rhythmic quality, emphasized by the solid bass guitar work as opposed to guitar. Composed by Taiwanese songwriting genius, Chen Shan Ni (whose softer ballad-type material has been used by Yang to great effect on her Ought To CD), the song launches into cloud 9 and softly drifts off.
Smiling & Waving Goodbye (Wei Xiao Zhe Hui Shou)
Another Chen Shan Ni (Sandee Chan) composition follows with some interesting woodwind arrangements. As a song, this is far removed from Chen’s earlier folk-punk-pop music and tends to drift off a little towards the end but is nonetheless beautifully mixed and produced.
Before (Zhi Qian)
With crisp, tight drums and luscious acoustic guitar (by Tiger Chung) “Before” has a slightly harder edge to it but not as hard as can be heard on Yang’s first two albums. The arrangement is fat and relies on the band sound over any electronic abuse, which works in the best interest of this CD. Yang’s vocals, again, are relaxed yet precise in their execution.
Television (Dian Shi Ji)
Sounding somewhat on the edge of The Cardigans rockier work (“My Favorite Game,” etc), “Television” has a cool layered guitar sound and male backing vocals that match Yang’s lower register quite well, indeed. Composed by Convenient Store, with MIDI programming by HS2, the track does feel like it wants to burst out but never quite reaches the gate to do so.
Sand Castle (Sha Chen Bao)
Possibly my favorite track from Continuation, “Sand Castle” sounds like a lost Cure tracks with a great high register bass line and chorused / flanged clean guitars. The third of Chen Shan Ni’s compositions (this time co-written with Lee Yu Huan), her genius is evident in the key changes and keyboard line which states the altered chordal theme. Ripping up with some wah guitar adds to the up tempo excitement, but never overindulges with any acrobatics, remaining firmly within the magical borders of a Goth-pop format. Yang’s voice is pure bliss as she patiently words with perfect intonation. Definitely a top ten Faith Yang track, this is proof that Faye Wong’s work with The Cocteau Twins didn’t go unheard in South East Asia. Since the decline of the 80’s Goth-pop styling of The Cure, Cocteau Twins, et al there may be a resurgence of interest thanks to the more experimental Chinese artists like Yang.
Continuation (Ji Xu)
Returning to the acoustic / piano up-tempo ballad, this track probably overindulges the luscious production but fits in with the continuity of the softer-edged production and lighter compositional work. It's interesting that this is the title song as it is not the single and does not seem to elevate itself above any of the other tracks with regard to dynamics or energy. This may be where I am blind to the lyrical perspective of Yang’s incredible performances.
Be In Love
“Be In Love” is an odd excursion, along the lines of “So Beautiful” (from One and Silence’s 9th track). There is an element of madness in the lyrics, which are the only English language lyrics on the album: a kind of strangeness not normally found in Chinese mainstream music. Yang’s vocals are incredible – her ability to overdub her own harmonies and seamlessly move through key changes is outstanding. The track, penned by Yang, is (whether intended or not) musical homage to Portishead with choruses hinting at a layered Spandau Ballet - strange but true!
The Royal Edition (Nu Jue – Gong Jing Ban)
A re-dressed version of “Female Nobility” – labeled “The Royal Edition (Nu Jue – Gong Jing Ban)” appears as a bonus 12th song (hidden after “Be In Love,” beginning at 9:25) and is more in line with Yang’s darker mood. Her voice has a filter on it (that recedes before the chorus) and a Cure style guitar sound behind the operatic chorus vocals. Some weird synth / guitar bits highlight the nature of the oddity in a kind of 1950’s sci-fi sort of way – think the original Star Trek series title music meets The Cure. I prefer this version to the original one. An impressive trumpet solo ensues, thanks to Stacey Wei, and is not out of place thanks to great arranging and superior production techniques.
 
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