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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Joanna Wang

Start From Here

Review by Bruce Stringer

The modern Chinese musical renaissance, which began with the likes of Wu Bai and Faye Wong in the mid-1990s, has spread its influence to the further corners of the globe with incredible results. And, like an echo, many of the overseas Chinese have taken the westernized musical formulae and molded their unique sounds in response to their brothers and sisters of the homeland. Nowhere has this been more obvious than with Taiwanese goddess Faith Yang (who took the Australian pub-rock band format and created a “Monster” that was let loose on the Asian music scene) and with newcomer Joanna Wang (Wang Ruo-Lin) and her unique approach to her debut CD, Start From Here.

With a strong US production Wang manages to betray her mere 20 years experience on the planet to offer vocals that range from soft, balladic whispers to precise jazz modes with the earthiness of Ella Fitzgerald and phrasings of Sade combined. More than a milestone, Start From Here could very well be the signal that crossover language acts are the shape of things to come.

Without even a hint of Chinese accent, it would appear that the newer generations of expatriates manage to successfully walk between their own cultural and impress upon the western features with understanding and originality. Even Wang’s Mandarin is precise and continues to deliver the same passion and emotion that one would expect. Unlike the classic stereotypical image of attempts from Asian musical acts, there is no superficiality to be found here, nor the kitsch-element one might expect. With the world firmly in Joanna Wang’s young hands, this CD might actually indicate the birth of a brand new approach to the understanding of the collective western culture and how it is perceived by those very foreigners that visit our alien shores and attempt to immerse.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Let’s Start From Here
With its light contemporary style one might mistake this for the new Imogen Heep single. Joanna Wang’s vocals are breathy yet with a certain depth that could easily mistake her for a native of California. The sounds are crisp – particularly the arpeggiated acoustic guitars – and the mix is superbly handled. Although very stylized, there are thematic moments that are familiar yet uniquely conveyed. This is simplicity at its best.
Lost In Paradise
Sounding more like an early 90s Sade / Simply Red number, the light pop of “Lost In Paradise” delivers an upbeat commerciality with multiple vocal harmonies and slick production value. Co-written by Vincent Degiorgio, whose writing talents appear on many of the CD’s best tracks, the chord progression is highlighted by some retro Hammond sounding organ by David Leu. There is a hint of the Beatles-esque in the introduction, which may very well be an homage to one of Wang’s musical inspirations and influences. The brass work (also performed on synthesizer) is placed nicely hidden towards the back of the mix and counters the cool up front bass playing of Moses Tan.
As Love Begins To Mend
This would be the love ballad that the CD had to have as song 3! Again, the retro elements fall into place with electric piano and Leslie speaker effect on the electric guitar, whilst the sad descending pop takes the listener into Supertramp territory. This is no more obvious than on the saxophone solo, which is arranged over a major key. Much of the musicianship is thanks to co-writer Martin Tang, who also produced this track, and the cyclic nature of the number is both familiar, yet decidedly original in its arrangement.
Bada Bada
Composed solely by Wang, this upbeat, bouncy pop tune is great fun and quite unlike what one might expect as a composition from a vocalist. The descending chord progression is obviously influenced by the study of jazz arrangements yet the chorus is grand with brass and a very contemporary flavor. Wang’s lyrics are compact and filled with numerous images and an open ended-ness. The title is somewhat less of a meaning or message and more a phonetic play with words. 
Lost Taipei
Between the oddly placed bass notes, that are critical to the building of tension, and the slick jazz chords Wang ’s modal melody sees a creamy textured vocal structure that owes as much to Ella Fitzgerald as to the modern masters. There is a laid back time change from its taut, defined straightness to an almost sloppy blues, which is more than interesting for the listener. The slide guitar work buzzes and adds to the coffee bar atmosphere. Anybody who has ever stayed in Taipei would probably never link this type of music to the island’s magnificent capital but it seems that Wang  is redefining many musical cliches as she pushes the boundaries of her abilities and experiences, always taking chances and heading into uncharted waters.
The Best Mistake I’ve Ever Made
This is a more serious number and features the same musician line-up as the previous number. There are peripheral moments of Suzanne Vega in the mix and moods that one might find in Sandee Chen Shan Ni’s more solemn work. The orchestral themes are reminiscent of Faith Yang’s “Tomorrow” and “Fear” and the serious feeling might see it as a late night driving radio song. The chorus is filled with strength and a big production sound – thanks to her famous producer father, Wang Bing. This is definitely one of the moodier, more serious numbers on this CD.
I Love You
As the song starts, it might appear to be about as obvious as you might expect.  But there are some strong thematic devices and softly arranged intricacies that remove “I Love You” from the drivel that can be found in the deliberate, oh-so-formulaic fodder that spews forth from car radios everyday, worldwide. Wang delivers in the areas that others fall flat on and her magnetic composure oozes the confidence of somebody double her age. The piece is slowly paced and has a circular descending pattern, highlighted by strains of orchestral countenance and some coolly underplayed guitar from Bruce Watson, who pulls out some great blues tones within his short solo spot.  The track continues on for 5:16 and is one of the longer songs on Start From Here.
For No Reason
With fun as the central theme, this has a light, 1970s-ish, country stomp that could well have been dredged up from Dolly Parton or Linda Ronstadt’s catalogue. The difference here is the use of trombone, trumpet and sax, which, again, pays forward the lighter side of Supertramp. It’s great, self-indulgent fun and takes itself no more seriously than a happily drunk in-law at a wedding. Again, Wang’s father produces and manages an intricately crafted piece with loads of subtle nuances for the keener listener.
Stages Of Flying
“Stages Of Flying” manages to glide between the straight and the triplet with a twist on some jazzier momentum and, what appears to be, a tip of the hat to Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” The lyrics are minimal but hold significant storytelling charm. This is another of the non-serious tunes, as the decidedly country blues time change denotes. As with much of the sound of the album, there is an emphasis on brush strokes and archtop acoustic guitar sounds. “Stages Of Flying” feels quite shorter than its 4:00 time span and is the second in a couplet of humorous anecdotes.
Now
This is one of the strongest numbers on Start From Here: all of the thematic elements are in place and the moods range from the seriously solemn to the quietly optimistic to the wondering lonesome. The vocal harmonies are excellent mixed alongside Wang ’s main voice. Harking back to the moodiness of Faith Yang, yet with an 80s sensibility plucking at the heartstrings, the song seems to build with the arrangement constantly shifting with slight inflections or the addition or removal of an instrument. Whether intentional or not, there seems to be a veiled reference to Hendrix in the lyrics which is as intelligent as it is filled with the complexities of such simplicity. 
True
This being the re-telling of the classic 80s hit from Spandau Ballet, Wang manages to bring the piece to its naked musical state and re-dress it as an ultra soft jazz number. The harmonica brings moments of “Midnight Cowboy” to the forefront, while the pauses work so well in allowing the listener to fill in the anticipated gaps. The percussion is very basic and lends itself to the Sade school of smoky bar jazz. I would expect that the members of Spandau Ballet would be impressed with Wang ’s re-working of their hit as it brings out a totally different tonal quality to the unforgettable passages that make “True” what it is: a classic.
New York State Of Mind
Billy Joel should be proud of this arrangement, also, because this version makes his brilliant homage to life in New York a more soulful jazz-tinged anthem, thanks to Wang’s softly-softly approach to the voice. The harmonica solo, by Burt Wang, is filled with feeling and creates a diversion from the fact that this song is very simply arranged with just vocals and piano (by Wang’s father). It’s short and sweet and very pleasant.
Let’s Start From Here (Mandarin version)
Although her first language is Mandarin, it seems a little odd to hear her expertly crafted, airy vocal chords sound so perfectly non-foreign in this version. There are a few lines that are sung in English but the Chinese works so well that you forget that she isn’t wording with a western tongue. Obviously, the music is exactly the same as track 1 but it is an interesting move for Wang to cover both bases, language-wise.
Lost In Paradise (Mandarin version)
Where many crossover acts have failed – mainly because of the oddity of accent or the listener experiencing an alienation of sorts – Wang  manages to bring the exact mood and sensuous voice to the recording. Coco Lee, who was a brilliant candidate for multi-national impact, failed in the West and her counterparts, Australia’s Human Nature, fared little better in the East due to this fact.  There are points where one might simply forget that it is in any other language other than English and I feel that this is the proof of a great language crossover.
Now (Mandarin version)
Of the Chinese tracks I found this to be the most obviously Chinese phrased, vocally. I found that there was a different quality to this, which I felt quite at home with, after many years of listening to the likes of Faye Wong, Faith Yang, et al. It’s great and I am in two minds as to which version I prefer.
As Love Begins To Mend (Mandarin version)
Again, with this track, the Mandarin works better to my non-Eastern ears as I found that I was concentrating more on the melodies than the words. With my minimal Chinese skills it appears that the lyrics are consistent with the original version. Although quite subconscious, it feels that there is a smoother momentum in the lyrical phrasing.
For No Reason (Mandarin version)
The novelty nature of “For No Reason” sounds a little odd considering I can’t recall too many Chinese language acts that play this style of music. The retention of a few key English phrases stands out but never affects the mood of the piece in the negative. The cool guitar solo marks territory in a differing manner, though this is purely psychological phenomena. This is not a personal favorite but is definitely a fun way to end the album.
 
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