Monday, July 23, 2007
A TRIBUTE TO HUMPBACK OAK
Back in 1994 I was a rather melancholic rebel in my teenagehood and sought refuge in the arts, particularly in music. I had a bunch of cliques jamming at the then Viva Studios near my school, and somewhere in the midst they were like talking about Humpback Oak and how great the band is. I heard the name long before, but never gave much attention to it because I always felt The Oddfellows was THE band. The very next day in class my friend lent me a copy of Humpback Oak “Pain-stained Morning” cassette tape (back then CD was a luxury) and when I heard the tape, I suddenly realize that local music can seriously rock better than the imported sounds on the radio. I kind of used Humpback Oak as a reference point and got interested in playing music (well, indie music to be exact, as I was very into death metal earlier on), and sought a bunch of my Boys' Town buddies to play in bands, influenced by the sounds of Humpback Oak. Because that was for the first time in my life, have I ever I chanced upon a local band that had such strong material, that even out rivalled most of the foreign acts. The bands music is like a rare occurence across the southern sky, an anomaly by chance and which will fizzle away like fireworks in the dull sky. This band strengthened the renaissance of Singaporean music of the 90s into its primes. From then on, I am always the fervent fanatic of Humpback Oak, haunting their gigs, bugging the band and now after three reviews of their Cds, writing up a tribute to THE GREATEST BAND IN SINGAPORE.
Early formative years of Humpback Oak circa 1991
Humpback Oak was formed in late December around 1988, with Leslie on drums, Vincent on guitars, Daniel on bass and Charles on vocals. This was like history unknown as it is understandably unimaginable these days to imagine the frontman Leslie Low relegated to the pounding kits, but he had actually been playing drums for quite a while already, back then in Twang Bar Kings. At around the same time, this cult hero had been secretly writing and performing his own material under the Jug moniker. Initially they played only covers, mostly Stills and Nash vein of country-style folk as well as the mandatory Bob Dylan. Charles however left a year later after joining to explore new musical dimensions, and hence Stanley was roped in to play drums while Leslie switched to handling guitars and vocals. With the classic lineup, they started doing original material around June 1991, with their very first demo “Mojo Sessions”. At that time, the Bob Dylan influence was strong in the band and the songs they sang were mostly about miners and hobos, until former bandmate Don Bosco Anthony (DBA) from Twang Bar Kings pointed out in his reviews in BigO. This prompted the band for an approach closer to local context and there is no stopping ever since (indeed they earn the title as the most local sounding local band). Around October in the same year 1991, they released second demo, “The Songs Will Always Be There”. The demo is essentially a progression from their first, with the appearance of such classic tracks like “Fear” and “Void”, touching into early Pink Floyd/Syd Barret territories. DBA in his review of this demo pointed out that “but it's about time they struck out and believe in themselves- even the inside sleeve message is a blatant piece of laziness”, but also admitted that “Humpback Oak have an interesting grasp on writing perspectives and an ability to sidestep mundane chordal cliches”.
1992 Gig/Moths & Bagpipes Demo 1992/The Songs Will Always Be There Demo 1991
The abovementioned demos are next to impossible to find as they were released in a batch of 20-30 copies but not so for the third demo “Moth And Bagpipes”, pressed to the exemplary of a 100 and released in June 1992. I had the good fortune to get my hands on this one thanks to the great help from Humpback Oak (when I discovered Humpback Oak in '94, the demo was long sold out from Skoobs). This demo is way much more professional both look and music wise. The cover is printed great for '92 standards and the music definitely sounds better than the old tape dubs I also have of the earlier demos. The Neil Young influence were big on the band before they gotten more depressed with Red House Painters. Tracks like Can You Find The Time, Deep Door Down, Trip To My Neighbourhood, Bull 1 and Bull 2, Moth, Circling Square and Oval are excellently performed and some of the songs made way to the debut.
--sojourner at 3:12 AM
Thursday, July 05, 2007
THE ODDFELLOWS- Teenage Head CD(Tim Records/BMG 1991)
Humpback Oak "Pain-stained Morning" Era
Chris Ho got interested in the band and introduced them to Jimmy Wee of Pony Canyon. From then on its a progression through high history. In 1994, “Pain-stained Morning” was released, and Humpback Oak suddenly became very famous. For the first time people started paying attention to a local band, with admiration and respect and the radio had extensive radio plays of their songs. This debut promises and delivers alot. It has all the package and the flair of a truly legendary artpiece and the songs are indeed written and performed with an exceptional touch that defines classics. Of course I've professed enough love for this album so I'll leave it at that. Up next they came up with the second album “Ghostfather” in 1997. This album is perhaps the DARKEST point in Humpback Oak's career, both music wise and image wise. This album is widely regarded as an eulogy to Leslie Low's late father. At this point, Leslie had also attained a kind of metaphysical cult status with his style of poetic brooding troubadour that makes the image instantly appealing. Some time in 1999, they released “SideASideB” and decided to call it a day. At that time Springroll Music was also headed towards a downward spiral, hence this album did not make it to alot of people, becoming a great rarity in the local markets. Musically, there is some transformation that paves way for the jazz-infused rock happening in The Observatory. Subsequently Leslie ventured out into his solo projects and Humpback Oak became history.
Humpback Oak Discography
Well, for some sick reason I almost contracted the disease of Humpback Oak= Leslie syndrome which is inevitable some times because he managed to snatch most of the limelight during his days in Humpback Oak, which seriously did not do justice for Stanley, Daniel and Vincent, the underdogs of the band. They were truly underrated. One has to understand that without them, Humpback Oak would not even be where it is today. So thank you guys for giving us a great decade of the BEST SINGAPORE ROCKING.
--sojourner at 10:44 PM
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
HUMPBACK OAK- SideASideB CD(Springroll Music Pte Ltd 1999)
It is hard to put this legendary album into perspective now, but The Oddfellows laid blueprint for many Singaporean upstarts to come. When it was released, no other band combined such uncompromising power of pop into the unbridled spirit of melodic rock, the sheer ethos of the rocking screaming eager for life, youth and idealism. Time plays a strange relativity, the good rocking from these guys seemed as refreshing as yesterday but it had been a good 16 years. But the mountain stays the same and the moonglow hasn't changed, “Teenage Head” will forever remain as the touchstone of Singaporean indie for generations to come. It only seemed like yesterday I was this impressionable youth confounded by Patrick Chng and gang rocking away in Boys' Town back in the vague misty recollection of 1990. I was by then of course familiar with most abandoned rock against establishment and a handful of Singaporean namedroppings, but the sheer energy of that performance took my breath away. The way Patrick commanded his presence was almost metaphysical and cult-like, yet at the same time brash and earnest in a very personal heartlander way. The music literally goes straight into my Teenage Head and captivates me like never before, a bit of surprise and a bit of envy. Life becomes hopeful at that point, what with after witnessing the proficiency of this local unit, I became eager to play a part in the good rocking. It never turned out the way I wanted but this story of failure is not laden with regret.
Undoubtedly when “Teenage Head” came out it brought along a whole new dimension of possibilities. It had been quite a while since local indie musicians had an album to call their own, the very last being Zircon Lounge's “Regal Vigor” LP released in 1983. Those lost periods in between consisted of a smattering of Gingerbread, Tokyo Square and the ubiquitous Dick Lee. Before things seemed too unbearable, BigO appeared from nowhere to simmer off the elevated heat of our tropical shithole and heralded a new wave of Singaporean music movement which played a part in propelling The Oddfellows into limelight. This dimension of possibilities became known as the great renaissance of Singaporean indie back in the not so distant '90s. Over that period there had been extensive airplay over radio of songs like “So Happy” and of course that asshole song promptly removed called “Song About Caroline”. After having witnessed how good The Oddfellows is, I was the first few lucky bastards to actually score for myself the very rare “Teenage Head” CD, and is a fervent follower of this band ever since, tracking down every offerings in their discography.
“Teenage Head” featuring a young Elvis Presley on the cover encapsulated the very spirit of the movement with all its raw energy and sincerity. Here, Patrick Chng ropes in long time member Wai Cheong and Abdul Nizam of The NoNames on this record, and put together the unique adolescent anthems greatly inspired by legends The Replacements, specifically on their second effort “Tim” (which is incidentally Pat's fledging label as well). The yearning melody belies its despairing, wistful lyric of teenage futility, the way it speaks to me is not partial nor approximate, but spot on, the teenage poetry belies great wisdom from the brains of Pat. The college rock quality ala The Replacements and REM is tampered with an overwhelming “Singaporean touch” which adds to the sheer appeal of this album.
When “More of You” rolls on the modest, heartfelt approach grabbed me by the balls and never let go. With the lines, “sweet as the wine, cold as the night...”, Pat speaks of the beautiful memories and spirit of '87 as old friendship is revisited, the nostalgia creeps in and he made an album. “Riding In Your Car” is a rather sad melancholy ballad about teenage confusion, loneliness and impossible love, very much in the spirit of The Replacement's “Swingin' Party”. Here one never gets enough of Pat's nasal whining, because the dripping pain is so perfect. “Your Smiling Face” was a hit back then and I remember they had a video with the late Bonnie Hicks. This is a gutwrenching song about infatuation, simple, naive and wide-eyed like the young Elvis or Patrick at his most dumbfounded. “Merry Go Round” is upbeat, snotty and brash, rearing the raucuous spirit of punk with a good smearing of teenage angst. “World of Annie” has got nothing to do with John Denver. This song is played entirely on acoustic guitar, an earthly earnest number waxing the misunderstood teenage outsider even alienated by her parents “and her mama couldn't understand 'cos she just talks and talks and talks, and her papa couldn't comprehend why she is happy to be sad...” Very simple and beautiful. “20 Years” is perhaps written specifically for us old fogeys who still find joy typing away nostalgia on the internet. It laments the inevitable fate of growing old, which Patrick was probably facing through in his mid-20s crisis, the bitter number makes me equally sad and submitted to the fact that this Teenage Head is just as historical as my youth. Even the young at heart is waning abit. “So Happy”, is a highlight of the album, and it even made its way to a single put out by the band (which of course has its place in my collection). This time round, instead of a beautiful melody that belies sad lyrics, this is the other way round. The bitter irony of a happy prose is performed with the regressive incendiary strings downcasting low fire. “Here I Fall Again” is a slow ballad about lost innocence and the losing end of a loser youth, miraculously soaring and uplifting in its own sad way. “Lost My Head” is the song where I lost my head to The Oddfellows! This is the potent “devil may care” anthem of idealistic youthful punk rocking, coupled with its catchy chorus and wicked jangles, head bobbing recklessness that is so captivating at the same time. “Two Trains” is a goofy ballad played entirely on acoustic guitars again, but in a drunken way like hillbillies doing folkmeister. And of course hearing Pat whistles after some whinings is as refreshing as a detox after a meaty diet. And last but not least, this is mandatory listen. This is THE Oddfellows song. Here it is “Song About Caroline”. This is the infamous asshole song that incensed some conservative squarepants in the early '90s. And yet the radio did play this song much to my surprise, given the rather closed climate back then. This song is of course really about Caroline being the asshole, she caused much dismay to the music fan Pat as he questioned “where is my Big Black tape and Sonic Youth? She lost that too...”. But here he rounded up in a self depreciatory manner... “Caroline is an asshole and I'm a fool.” Of course this is made solely for the sake of good rocking and all is forgiven I believe.
Nevertheless despite the fact that I am the only one now painstakingly doing a writeup on this album (siew kum hong aka limabean is another big fan who used to do big tribute to The Oddfellows with reviews and articles, etc, but I bet he have better things to do these days as an MP), the sheer impact of this album on the whole of the local indie scene is immeasurable because without this bold gesture back then in the climate of prudish plebeians, we would probably still be rocking to some Dick Lees and Tokyo Squares. Interesting enough, Pat asked “will I ever have a place...will they just forget my name?” in “20 Years”. Oh well to answer that, it's been 16 years and yes, we still do remember your name. Thank you very much for all the best in Singapore rocking.
--sojourner at 11:32 PM
ZIRCON GOV.PAWN STARZ- Follywood CD(XY Recordings/Universal 2004)
I've been particularly enthusiastic hence prolific in writing reviews these days so here I take this opportunity to round up the much awaited last in Humpback Oak's discography, the ever elusive “SideASideB”. However, from this point onward much of the mojo cannot be relieved because Humpback Oak is truly dead. I lamented how much magic was lost with the band's tiresome reunion on Rock for Wayne concert, and I wasn't even that interested in The Observatory or even Leslie Low's solo projects for that matter anymore. Much of the better memories were etched in the past and the name Humpback Oak is forever associated with the mystifying allure of "Pain-stained Morning", "Ghostfather" and "SideASideB". Humpback Oak, not just Leslie Low, but as a band will never be replicated, replaced or reunited. “SideASideB” is the genuine swansong, elegy and tombstone for, in my humble opinion, the greatest band in Singapore. And yet this release is not heard by many, including fans of Humpback Oak because Springroll folded up soon after the CD was pressed, which really trickles down to little exemplaries on this small island.
The title “SideASideB” holds multiple meanings to it. Some material here can be regarded as the B-sides from the Ngee Ann Poly/Ghostfather sessions. These songs are cleaned up efforts from their last outings and are largely acoustic guitar driven and based. These songs ironically are grouped in the “SideA” of this album labelled under “Here Comes The Nausea”. On the flipside “SideB” are experimental tracks to be consumed separately. These songs are made to sound like an avantgardish transcendance from the normal “oaksongs”. They are a natural progression steer headed into Soft Machine-like psych/jazz-folk fusion that led to the formation of The Observatory. Frankly speaking, this album does fall short of the kind of “atmosphere” found in the epics of “Pain-stained Morning” and “Ghostfather”, but it is good enough to conjure up the last visions of a world weary band intent to call it a last. And for the first time in the history of Humpback Oak, this album has protest songs.
SideA kicks off with “Kingdom”, with that familiar acoustical lure into its protest folk allure. This song sings of the very kingdom we are too familiar with, in a typical Dylan-esque twist that makes reference to alot of time the “seeds sown in disarray” and “bound for an island far away”. The highlight, in the good haunting way we know of Humpback Oak takes form in “Judas & I”, a very brooding and unsettling track that melds lost faith, betrayal and hurt into a wonderful concoction of really depressing passage like their earlier hauntings with “Deep Door Down”. Dejected folk crawl, through the darkest of Labrador Parks, Changi and Fort Cannings. “The Mist” is a gentler folk passage backed by the misty backing vocals of Meow, making the song a rather trippy experience to headswim. “Game For Blues” and “The Last Homegrown Lost Boy” are almost reminescent of “Ghostfather”, the carryover feeling of emotional folk rock experienced in the “Christ In Black”, delivering the same tortured cries of despair where we find the normally mild Leslie howling. “One Hell of A Country” is one funny track. The familiar folk instrumentation is there, but the vocals do some wicked rapping here, which even goes into X'Ho territory at his "rappiest". The simpler life ends and then comes a disjointed interlude to a whole new experience.
Here on, SideB has the acoustic guitar replaced by tweaking Fender Rhodes, creating a multi-dimensional soundpicture with experimentations in textures and most of the songs have a more upbeat nature than those on the SideA. SideB begins with “Lost Boy Or Girl”, a bluesy androgynous number that speaks and plays the confusing uncertainty, undecisiveness and irony of existence. “The Recycler” and “Technohuman” are two harshly modulated tracks with murky gains, the experience uplifted by the strong pulsing presence of the bass guitar. On “Modelcitizen”, the vocals was processed through harmonization and sounded muffled, perhaps to fit in to the repressed image created for this song. Another highlight track of this album, this song is an angst-ridden track voicing repression, “sure I'll like to be sexual, but I am a modelcitizen, good job and pay” and “I am a product of an experiment”. “Any Last Words” waltzes its way through with the passive progressive vibe of Pink Floyd, before the band made their final offering “One Big Happy Family”. An intense political rocking with such catchy chorus, “One pretty government, one big happy family”, making a witty closure to the whole Humpback Oak affair.
I believe this is pretty much the end, the journey's end for this bunch who would like to go down in history as felons united. I think the only misdemeanour of this band is the refusal to go on and make more albums. But alas all better things in life have shelf lifes, and maybe this should be more or less expected when they asked the fans in return, “any last words before expiration?” They heaved a last bit of consolation, patting us in the shoulders “take a deep breath, you deserve it”, and gracefully closed up the last good chapter of Singapore rocking, and when you look back you'll find yourself acquainted with a worthy force to reckon with, the last bastion of hope for local music. 1999, a thin filament over the millenium and changes beckon, and what we are left with are memories of the past. One might even count the end of Humpback Oak as the demise of Singaporean indie music. But life goes on. Thus since, the members ventured out into the wilderness of the real world and Leslie Low moved on with The Observatory and his solo projects. What's rest is history yet to be known.
--sojourner at 9:30 PM
Monday, July 02, 2007
ANESTHESIA- Anesthesia CD(Tim Records 1993)
This is good stuff so I have to review it. This is not your average new run-of-the-mill fucked up local darlings with emo penchant; this is the unholy reincarnate that used to shock people with their scary cover of Tokyo Square's cover of Chyna's “Within You'll Remain” done with deadpan vocals . Surprise surprise let me present to you Zircon Gov.Pawn Starz! Finally they had landed, trespassing onto Singaporean shores after nearly two decades of hiatus from their time as great pioneers of underground music in the form of Zircon Lounge. And what a fucking great debut this is. Long time members Chris Ho (X'Ho) and Yeow teamed up with Suzanne Walker (as Sue Sue Law) to come up with throbbing gristle of “art-punk/electro-enfant” audial terrorism. This “art-punk” sounded nothing like the new wave of “Regal Vigor”, but its a fucking cold industrial heavy duty electroclash for generation alienated, the signs of any life being the flowing stream of social conscience. OK, this is quite a mouthful... the album features Chicks on Speed, Peter of Coil, MIA and remixes by Futon, Ashidiq & Kiat, Case and Eastward Project. Not of much importance though besides garnering international recognition, the covers of Motorhead and The Queers will suffice.
“Follywood” is the obvious wordplay of Hollywood (or Bollywood) but this actually meant something much closer to home. Where else but our own Mediacorps? The album is the catharsis of the forever opinionated X'Ho's favourite pastime, that is bashing our grand media monopoly (a creation by this “farce-ist regime”) and the installed kings and queens of Caldecott Hills. And not forgetting meaningful political diatribes. Also please do check out his “X with an X (Me All Good No Bad)” CD with what is really the genius political sartire if you cannot get enough of his sexy radiotime persona.
“Mouthless Fish” is really mocking fun at us and our subservient attitude and how we “barely breathed, get armlocked, gripped and squeezed and we still live”. Well, yes Mr Ho indeed vampires are aplenty here on this democratic republic island but we are actually quite good at complaining so how about calling us “Ball-less Fish” instead? Musically a coldwave almost too totalitarian assault upon our sour kana face. Sue Sue Law told off all the Fann Wongs and Zoe Tays on the electronic cover of The Queer's “Drop The Attitude, Fucker”. Oh and how can I forget the “so bad so sad” Christopher Lee, this is a middle finger salute for our beloved national highway star and his heroic saga. “Media Whore” is another parody on the products of mediacorps and it's about the same old story but let's shove this into the face of dear Chris (the Lee one not Ho) again. Squeaky clinical robot disco rocks “Digit Nation” like Kraftwerk's “Computer World”, hip swaying to “keep on swinging” as the dreamland utopia is transmitted into human literacy but this is but a dream. Oh and they did a cover of Motorhead's “Nightmare/Dreamtime” which in the good tradition of X'Ho had it made into “Nightmare (On 8 & 5)” with predictable but fun content.
Highly idealistic with an equally futile cause, this can be treated like a guerilla insurgency in music, where the terrorism strikes fear in our hearts not for the sheer terror of it, but it instills and warns of bleak, terrifying possibilities. But they had a vision, “Zircon-nation is the betta Utopia: a beautiful and humanistic digital future”. For me, my vision is “we are but our own follies”. 66.6 rock n'roll.
--sojourner at 11:05 PM
Low crass rotten youths eat into the underbellies of the fine city, and in every putrid corners we had some racket of subversion ready to spread dissent. In the name of good fun, Anesthesia is the obscure punk experiment that made some quiet noise in a small part of early '90s. Maybe all was forgotten save for the few nuclear ghosts left behind in the shadows of Singapore rock n'roll. Not many people take some bunch of young punks singing about AIDS seriously, particularly in Singapore that's it. But they were given a brief lease of life with their debut album put out by who else but Patrick Chng of Tim/Oddfellows fame.
They were ready to convince you about the ills of this society, with what could be seen as an idiot savant measure to talk sartire. Maybe it is because of this simple beauty in amateurism that this punk CD could be enjoyed. This is not good enough to start an anarchy, which is really not their intention with this release. They went the anti-fashion punk pathetique making silly references to everything from trying to sound smutty on the alphabet songs “My A2Z”, preaching safe sex on “Aids” and discussing street brutality with “I Shot The Sergeant”, all with their funny accentuation or bad pronunciation. They traversed the lofi puke punk sounds of Subhumans and sometimes even Red Hot Chilli Peppers funk, not to the same effects like Stompin' Ground or ESP though.
This release has not much redeeming values for the average non-punk listener, and it is also not the best in its genre in our local arena. However, the band can be appreciated as an obscure piece of Singaporean music antiquity to be checked out due to the rarity of this CD. But even coming from a person with non-punk background like me, one can get an important rare insight into the clandestine underground of Singapore, rearing its true raw self; sincere, rebellious and ugly.
SEPIA MEMORIES (Page 2)
The Oddfellows /Do Not Ask! (pre-Radioactive)
Band of Slaves /The Black Suns
--sojourner at 9:37 PM
Krush/Corporate Toil (Joe Ng)
Humpback Oak/The Padres (1st Lineup)
Zircon Lounge (w/ Chris Ho)/Abhorer