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Sach O kills at Chinese 4AD karaoke and still prefers reverb on his vocals to autotune.

So I’m trading music and talking shit with Douglas “No one on the corner got Fresh Cherries like Us” Martin and the subject of 4AD came up. To me, one of the lazier cliches in music writing last year was the comparing of any reverb heavy band to 4AD artists, particularly the label’s flagship act The Cocteau Twins. Thing is, anyone with a set of ears knows that NO ONE sounds like the Cocteaus. Granted, Elizabeth Fraser kicked down the door for alternative female singers to fully explore the studio space and is quasi-responsible for everyone from Bjork and Cranes (yay!) to Enya and that Deerhoof chick (ugh!). But all ground breaking influence aside, none of Frasier’s successors sound remotely like her and the early digital sheen which formed the soundscapes she worked with is totally absent from any of these new releases. It’s like comparing Neyo to Marvin Gaye: sure there’s an obvious debt but no one’s going to confuse one with the other. I’ll go as far as to say the only person whose music ever sounded remotely like the Twins is Faye Wong, a 39 year old Queen of Canto-pop who’s best known as “the Celine Dion of Asia”.

Bear with me here, it’s going to take a few paragraphs to sell you on this.

Faye Wong is a huge star in places where the music industry is a disturbing mix of b-grade MTV dance-pop and 1940’s style celebrity glamour. If you’re a 20 something male (read: the target audience) you’ve probably heard her unbearably maudlin theme to Final Fantasy VIII and based on that, there’s nothing that hints at anything beyond “middle of the road foreign pop star”. But there’s more to Faye Wong than meets the intro to her wikipedia profile. For one thing, she made Restless.

Released as a contract ending experimental “fuck it” in 97, Restless is the rare art record from a traditional pop star that works. Having already covered the Cocteau Twins’ work earlier in her career, Wong collaborated with them on new songs capturing the ethereal (I know…) sound the group mastered on Heaven and Las Vegas without ever sounding second rate or plagiaristic. Ranging from giddy guitar pop to digital torch-blues to post-electro film music, Restless manages to merge disparate genres into a cohesive whole and remains surprisingly accessible to western audiences. While more lyrical than the Cocteaus’ early work (topics touched upon include Buddhism, death, happiness and other “big” issues), Faye Wong matches Elizabeth Frasier by conveying the full emotion of the song solely through her vocal tone. You get the gist of it without understanding a word of Chinese. Standout Cocteau collabo Repressing Happiness somehow manages to split the difference between achingly slow blues and cheap casio synthesizers without losing the earth and grit of the former or the modern sheen of the later. Instrumentals Uneasy and Wild Three Hills sound like Low-era Bowie in an alternate reality where post-punk was a mid 90’s reaction to Tiananmen-square. Meanwhile on the lighter side, pop songs like Where come closest the Cocteau sound with digital funk and airy vocals that are perfect for sunny days.

Not that I’m complaining, but with all the shallow international influence-jocking going on, you’d think that more people would name-drop this album. While the studio-sheen isn’t indie-ready and there’s a sense of professionalism that separates it from alternative music proper, Restless is also one of those rare instances where a big budget star goes left and delivers a meditative, personal album that experiments with the boundaries of the pop-format. It’s certainly more radical in the conservative context in which it was conceived, but like all good music it manages to transcend its story to exist solely as sound. Plus it totally sounds like 4AD.

Download:

MP3: Faye Wong-“Repressing Happiness”
MP3: Faye Wong-“Where”

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