Friday, May 16, 2008

the indie music revolution in malaysia

There's quite a lot being written about this whole 'indie music revolution' currently taking place in Malaysia. From bloggers to newspaper writers, everyone's saying their piece. I'm not in the business of predicting which bands/acts will make it big this year or next year, so this piece will avoid all that. What I'm interested in is why it's taking place now, and not 2 years ago, and not next year.

If you ask me, I think it's a combination of a lot of things. People always say that a country's progress is always reflected by its arts scene. And I'm sure it's no mere coincidence that this whole indie revolution is happening just as the Malaysian political landscape is experiencing its own seismic shift in its make-up. In fact, one would have to be very naive to not want to draw parallels between the two.

For my money, this whole shift is a direct result of us everyday people having more options when it comes to access to information, thanks to increased easy access to the world wide web. Politics-wise we people have far more places to go to when it comes to getting our news. The mainstream newspapers/television/radio no longer have a monopoly on the opinions of us everyday people.

By that same analogy, us everyday music loving kids no longer have to depend on mainstream radio/television to tell us who to listen to or to like. There's Myspace, iMeem, Last FM and all sorts of social networking sites and file sharing sites where us kids can simply discover all sorts of music.

However, easy access alone is no cause for a revolution. Discontent is. For far too long we've been bombarded by average, unremarkable music, pushed down our throats through the radio & TV by the record companies in Malaysia. Full of A&R people who have totally lost touch with what the kids want from Malaysian acts, they stubbornly refuse to mix in with the grass roots and instead try to clone whatever Indonesian acts that make it big over here. People talk about how A&R people should have their finger on the pulse of the music scene. I doubt they even have that finger, let alone know where that pulse is.

We keep on hearing complaints by music industry people of how harmful this 'Indonesian invasion' is, but it's a problem they create themselves. Isn't it obvious by how successful the Indonesian bands are here that the public wants something fresh and different? Isn't it very obvious that Dewa, Sheila On 7, Padi, Peter Pan, Samsons and Nidji are obviously very different and obviously fresher-sounding than Search, Wings, Jinbara, Amuk, Spider, New Boys and the like? But why keep on pushing more rock kangkang and rock leleh Malaysian bands down our throats when it's so obvious that the public wants something else?

And no, don't tell me that there are no Malaysian bands that have that 'fresh' sound. Even before this whole indie music revolution we already have OAG, The Times and to a lesser extent Exists doing their own thing singing in Malay. Butterfingers also came up with a Malay album that's as un-rock kangkang and un-leleh as they come. With the exception of OAG and Exists, radio support for our own 'new school' bands are almost non-existent. So, it's not just the labels but also the radio that has to take their fair share of the blame.

What about the local awards like the AIM? Why is it that year after year, the nominees and winners never seem to involve this whole 'new school' Malaysian bands? The answer is simple, to enter your album to be considered for nomination in the AIM, one has to be a member of RIM first, and that my friends involve membership fees that are quite prohibitive (around RM3ooo, if I'm not mistaken) if you're an unsigned, struggling indie band. So in reality what the AIM does reflect is that portion of the Malaysian music industry that can afford to pay the RIM membership fees, which probably explains why the more 'urban' (i.e. more affluent) acts are the ones who usually get nominated and win. Which will also explain why non-urban acts like my band Couple will probably never ever get an AIM nomination. Hehehe.

And then there's the TV series Kami, and the meteoric rise of Meet Uncle Hussein and most importantly, Hujan. This small TV series and these 2 small bands basically destroyed all the safeguards and barriers previously put up by the major label cartel and the mainstream media in Malaysia. What basically happened was that a lot of denials and pride had to be swallowed, as these 3 phenomenons, no matter how 'budaya barat' they are (as the elders and the mainstream will always say whenever they don't understand something), are just too important and too big to be ignored. Ignore them and risk losing out on a lot of potential profits. Being the capitalists they are, of course the industry will embrace them.

All of the above factors might be small, but at the end of the day they do add up. Hence the discontent. Not just among the musicians/bands, but also among the listening public. There's only so much crap you can take before you finally say enough is enough, right? And if you ask me, that's exactly what's happened here in Malaysia. The last general election results powerfully demonstrated that a lot of us Malaysians have said exactly that, enough is enough.

And this whole indie music revolution currently happening in Malaysia is also that, kids finally saying enough is enough. Kids slowly making their voices heard loud and clear. They're saying this is what we want. These are the bands we like. You media people might want to push such and such bands as the next big things, but we know better what we want and what we like. The days of the media trying to push their friends' bands as 'geniuses' or next big things will very soon be over, if not over already. The kids now have far more options to choose from. And choose they will. Ah, how beautiful that is, democracy!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

my CD reviews in Junk magazine (part 1)

With everyone competing to be THE tastemaker in this huge blogosphere, here's my own little attempt at pointing the way to great music, or warning people to tread with caution on some albums. So if you have a CD you think I might review favourably (just check out all the reviews I've written here to see the kind of stuff I might appreciate), do get in touch, 'cause I love freebies... hehehe. All the reviews here have been previously published in various issues of Junk magazine from last year to this year:

Nada Melankolik Malaya
(Clockwork Records)

Promises are not easy to keep. When most of us first heard OAG’s Satelit Ink album, I’m sure most had really high hopes for the kind of brilliance that might come next. But then all of a sudden, that OAG line-up splintered into 2, leaving Radhi alone to soldier on as OAG, and with Naza & Alim forming The Times.

Suddenly we’re left with the possibility that the promise might not be fulfilled after all. And after both The Times’ debut album and OAG’s new one, it does seem that such a bleak proposition, after so much wonderful promise, might turn out to be true after all.

Sometimes the best things come when you least expect them to. Take this second album by The Times for example. It must’ve been real easy to dismiss them after what was at best a patchy debut album.

But real artists strive to improve, and long to create something worthwhile that will touch other people’s lives. And artists The Times have proven themselves to be with this album. To give you an idea, if your favourite songs from Satelit Ink include “Konspirasi Bising Internasional” and “Venusia”, then you NEED to have this album in your life, because it’s full of tunes of that quality.

Not only did they bother to fill the album with all these sweet, mid-tempo melancholic pop-rockers like “Wilayah Strawberi Selamanya” and “Konspirasi Primadona 1965”, they even had the balls to give us what is, for my money, one of the greatest love songs I’ve ever encountered by a Malaysian act, an achingly beautiful little song called “Infra Merah”, with a gorgeous vocal performance by Naza that I guarantee will melt even the coldest of hearts.

And “beautiful” is a very apt word to describe this album, which is a huge surprise if you think about their supposedly rock n roll reputation. But credit where credit’s due. This IS a beautiful album, unexpectedly so, maybe, but beautiful all the same. I’m just happy that somebody kept their promise. And in doing so, have also signalled, that The Times have finally arrived.

**** stars

Alpacas Orgling
(Cheap Lullaby Records)

I’m a pop geek. Add to that the fact that this CD is one of the most hyped and highly anticipated releases in the pop underground, coupled with the band’s impeccable pedigree in having people like Mike Viola and Andy Sturmer involved, consider me sold!

However, as great as most of the tunes are in here, I can’t praise this too much, considering the high ambitions of this project - a tribute to the style & spirit of Electric Light Orchestra (“ELO”).

Taken out of the ELO context, all the songs here are wonderful, but when you bring ELO into the picture, only a few can hold up like “Ya Had Me Going” and “Make Me”. The financial constraints of an indie project surely made it impossible to reproduce the ridiculous but magical bombast of all the classic 70’s ELO recordings.

And that’s exactly what’s missing here.

*** stars

Never Hear The End Of It
(Murderecords/Yep Roc Records)

This might be a strange way to recommend an album, but if you find yourself not so impressed with this album upon the first quick listen (i.e. skipping tracks), I urge you to actually sit down and listen to this CD the whole way through.

That’s exactly how I unlocked the mysteries of this latest album by Canada’s power pop heroes, Sloan. I went in looking for the usual quick fix of great “singles” and a few above average fillers, but found something else instead, an old fashioned, Abbey Road style “album”.

Not that this sounds like Abbey Road, but more in the same spirit, in which the sum is greater than its parts. Yes, songs like “Set In Motion” sound like a monster hit in waiting, but the real beauty & genius here is how the album gently works its way into your soul. God bless you, Sloan.

**** stars

(Big3 Records)

Old rockers soldiering on can sometimes be an embarrassing sight, they say. And I’m sure it’s safe to call the Cheap Trick dudes old too. But embarrassing they surely aren’t.

This new album by them is probably the freshest non-70’s Cheap Trick album I’ve heard in a long time. It’s amazing how young everyone in the band sounds. The songs, oh my God, almost all of them have a vitality, freshness and excitement as if they’re written for a first album, not what you’d expect from an album 30 years down the line!

It’s depressing, however, to think about how this fantastic album will be ignored by the younger crowd, simply because of how unhip it is to listen to Cheap Trick now. But this is a great record, that very rare combination of melody and power. So please, don’t let yourself make that mistake. Get it now!

**** stars

Visible Idea of Perfection
(FFWD Records)

Let me put the record straight now. The S.I.G.I.T is a great rock n roll band. Songwriting-wise, they can easily kick Wolfmother’s behinds anytime. And they’re also reputedly kickass live performers.

However, I have a bit of a problem with this album. It’s full of solid, and sometimes great bluesy rock n roll tunes, in the vein of Led Zeppelin and the aforementioned Wolfmother (if you want a recent reference).

It’s no coincidence that people associate rock n roll with dirt, filth, sweat, rawness and the like, as it’s that primitive instinct that makes rock n roll so special and durable. Make no mistake, The S.I.G.I.T is rock n roll, but this album isn’t. It’s just too well produced, and sounds tame next to the primal sounds of their earlier demos & cassette only EP. I really wanted to love this album, but I love dirt more, I guess.

*** stars

i'm back, and isn't it pretty odd?

Wow, it's almost 2 years since I last updated this blog! Assuming that anyone's reading this (haha), I do have a good explanation though. I've been busy with work (as always), but my band Couple has been very, very busy playing live shows week in, week out and trying to win a place in the Malaysian Book of Records as "The hardest gigging band aka Road Dogs of All Time". Hehe, wow, lame try at being sarcastic!
I've also been writing music reviews for a KL-based music magazine (with regional ambitions) called Junk, so my 'writing' time's been taken up too. But finally I'm taking a huge step to living the true 'punk' dream, i.e. to be 'free' to do whatever the hell I want, by starting out on my own (my own law firm and a music-related business), which therefore will also enable me to manage my own time when it comes to my band Couple, and my writing aspirations...
Anyways, after 2 years, so many possibly good things have happened, both to me personally and to our beloved country Malaysia, so I'll definitely be blogging on these soon, but first I'll be putting up some of the reviews I've written for Junk magazine here for your reading pleasure, starting with the latest one published, which is a review of Panic At The Disco's 2nd album, Pretty Odd, which nicely coincides with this blog post's title...
Pretty Odd

(Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen)

Second albums can be a really funny thing. It’s been made such a big deal of by music critics everywhere that even the thought of having to make a second album can sometimes induce a panic attack on an artist.

With this second album by Panic At The Disco (they’ve dropped the exclamation mark from their name for this album – don’t ask!), even a cursory listen will make you deduce that the Panic boys have taken a step rarely taken when it comes to second albums, that is they’ve made a 180-degree turn and made a completely different record from their debut. Whilst their debut can be squarely pegged in with the emo brigade, this new album is simply a flat out pop record. Heck, you can even call it a power pop album, filed under the Jellyfish school of power pop. Now that’s what I call pretty odd!

Opening with the type of intro song that almost always opens a ‘serious’ album from the psychedelic 60s, it’s with the second song, “Nine In The Afternoon” that they fully announce the splendour of their ambitions. Copping all the right moves from the equally ambitious second album by Jellyfish called Spilt Milk, the only thing that could’ve made the song even better would be some Queen-style harmonies, an element that’s strangely and sorely missing from the whole album.

It’s during the middle that the album loses a bit of steam, with loads of ballads and a few decent but unremarkable mid-tempo numbers, until we reach the song “The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know”, another wonder of a song that again brings to mind the much underrated and criminally forgotten Jellyfish, sounding like something that might come out of mid-period Beatles, specifically circa Rubber Soul and Sgt Pepper’s.

Then onwards things start to pick up again and we’re treated to 2 more incredible songs in “Behind The Sea”, and the absolutely majestic “She Had The World”, in my humble opinion the undisputed crown jewel of the album. In fact, it’s so good, I can probably write a whole essay just on it!

Which now brings me to the problems I have with the album. As an album, it’s simply uneven, despite the respectable number of stunning songs on it. I kind of understand their ambitions and need to prove their musical craftsmanship to the world. It may only just be pop music after all, but there’s more to it than just being a great craftsman. You also gotta have soul, son. And for much of the album, that’s exactly what’s lacking.

Rating: 6/10