tremble clef

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sandy Lam (林忆莲), "Original Colors (本色)" (2005)

Sandy Lam's new album is produced by Mark Lui! That's sort of exciting! And probably zero of you know what the hell I'm talking about!

So let's back up. Nowadays I don't listen to much Chinese pop, but I retain a soft spot for Sandy Lam. For a time Sandy was one of the undisputed queens of Cantopop; although her first few albums didn't cause many ripples, beginning in the late 80s she released a series of records -- all loosely revolving around a "life in the big city" theme, and containing lightly r 'n' b-influenced songs that she danced the hell out of in performance -- that launched her into the Cantopop stratosphere. In 1990 she came out with a Chinese album, Loving Someone Who Never Comes Home, which extended that popularity into Chinese-speaking territories like Taiwan. These were her commercial glory years, but they were artistically also quite adventurous: her 1991 Cantonese album Wildflower, for example, was an unusual jazzy record that's now often regarded as her artistic peak.

As the 90s wore on, Sandy concentrated more on the Chinese market, joining Rock Records and releasing a number of huge selling albums on which she downplayed her funky Canto dance numbers in favor of Chinese ballads. In 1995, you couldn't budge without hearing her huge hit "Scars," for instance. But I lapped it up, why? Because I'm a huge sentimental sap. To this day, a couple of the songs on It Doesn't Matter Who I Am (1993) -- the title track, on which she's totally bruised about how incompatible fame and love are, or "Bygone Love," a dramatic tearjerker of a song that was used in the end credits of Farewell, My Concubine -- still kill me dead (listen to how the music stops at the end of "Bygone Love," and Sandy hits that high note -- if you can hear it over THE SOUND OF MY HEART BREAKING). The man with whom she duets on the latter song, Jonathan Li, a uber-record producer who practically ran Rock Records, would become her husband at the end of the 90s. Aww, fairy tale! (Bitches meaner than I would say a specific tale: Beauty and the Beast, since he's rather a lumbering hulk of a man.)

Of course, there are never happy endings. Although after a few years of silence Sandy stormed back in 2000-1 with more Chinese hits (like "At Least There's Still You," still routinely murdered in karaoke joints) and some quite interesting covers (she's sung Chinese versions of Robbie Williams' "Better Man" and Lene Marlin's "Sitting Down Here"), albeit less-fine voice, her star was never as bright as it was in the 90s. And last year she and Jonathan got divorced after six years of marriage.

While she's often included some Cantonese numbers on her Chinese records, Sandy has actually not released an all-Cantonese record for nine years. So this month's new Original Colors album is being seen as a bit of comeback, which is especially understandable given that she has in fact moved back to Hong Kong after some years living in Vancouver and elsewhere. And the new album is produced by Mark Lui -- by most estimates, Cantopop's most interesting producer. His records tend to have little experimental touches that lift them above the norm.

Given that, the album is a little more ballad-heavy and slightly more conventional than I expected. But don't take that as my final verdict, and instead sample the title track and first single, which, while not composed by Mark, is fabulously produced and arranged by him. The most immediate feature of this upbeat ditty is the riff you hear right at the start, which is played alternately by synthesized strings, and as a funky bassline. It reminds me a little of "Out Of My System," the Pet Shop Boys composition that was in their Closer To Heaven stage show, and which they obviously meant as a kind of Destiny's Child pastiche. While listening to this you should also feel free to peruse this site: though it's largely in Chinese, you'll get to see the album sleeves, as well as pretty pictures -- including a photo from the inner sleeve, where Sandy is totally rocking a Christian Dior leather coat that I crave. Crave. I don't care if it's cut for hips more womanly than mine.