Tue, Jan 31, 2012 - Page 16 News List

CD reviews: Taiwan

Neptune (海王星), by Enno Cheng (鄭宜農); We Will Be Better (我們會更好的), by A-Lin (黃麗玲); Lost ‘n’ Found (學不會), by JJ Lin (林俊傑)

By David Chen and Andrew C.C. Huang  /  Staff Reporter

Neptune (海王星), by Enno Cheng (鄭宜農).

Enno Cheng (鄭宜農), Neptune (海王星), White Wabbit Records (小白兔唱片)

In many ways, Enno Cheng (鄭宜農) is the picture-perfect Taiwanese indie star. The 24-year-old first made a splash as a co-screenwriter and lead actress in the 2007 film Summer’s Tail (夏天的尾巴), a coming-of-age teen drama that earned her a Golden Horse Award nomination for best new performer.

At the same time, Cheng garnered favorable attention for her contribution to the film’s soundtrack, which consisted of a handful of catchy acoustic folk-rock numbers. She has a whispery sweet, pitch-perfect voice, and her songs, mostly sung in Mandarin, dwell on youthful love and relationships. Cheng further bolstered her hipster credentials when she joined Broken Social Scene on stage as a guest singer at the Canadian group’s appearances in Taipei in 2008, and again in 2010.

Neptune (海王星), a mix of acoustic ballads and slowcore rock, is Cheng’s first full-length album. She received production assistance from her friends and labelmates at White Wabbit Records, which include the members of post-rock band Aphasia (阿飛西雅), the chamber quartet-cum-post-rock group Cicada and indie rock trio Windmill (風籟坊). Aphasia’s guitarist Wu Yih-chun (吳逸駿) served as the producer, and his contribution and direction greatly benefit this work.

Cheng’s lyrics tend towards a poetic simplicity, best captured by the album opener, Your Sun (太陽): “These big blue skies / bring out all of me to shine for you / and be your sun” (大大的藍色的天/就讓我用全部的自己為你發光/當你的太陽). Cheng gets away with her heart-on-sleeve and somewhat cutesy manner because the song is grounded in a sense of solitary sadness. She picks a gentle and steady accompaniment on a nylon-string guitar, and her voice is marked with a plaintive strain, echoed by the restrained whines of electric guitar feedback, provided by Wu.

That looking-out-the-bedroom-window-on-a-rainy-day feel extends to tracks like The Long Road (路) and Still Afraid (還是會害怕失去你), which are nicely dramatized by the cello, violin and piano instrumentation by Cicada. Cheng is happy-go-lucky on the 1960s-ish pop number Spring Love (春天) and indulges in youthful innocence on Beautiful Song, which gets a little too sappy. The English refrain, “So I wanna sing a beautiful song / just like I love you,” perhaps won’t feel as moving to native speakers as it might to Taiwanese listeners.

The album’s best moments are when Cheng leaves the comfort zone of acoustic pop on tracks like the City of Rain (大雨城市). The song builds tension within a strange, dreamy soundscape, laden with beautifully icy synth tones, and the mood segues into a discomforting realization in the refrain, as Cheng intones “[We] have everything, but actually [we] have nothing” (什麼都有其實什麼都沒有).

Sparks fly on the rousing Independence Day (獨立日), on which Cheng, backed by Windmill, proves she can hold her own in a straightforward modern rock setting. It’s a shame she doesn’t sing more in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) as she does on the solo acoustic number Sayonara (撒唷那拉), her most unabashedly soulful piece, which ameliorates some of the prissiness that creeps into the album.

As an artist, Cheng impresses not for her pristine, immaculate delivery, but rather for how natural and effortless she is able to make these songs sound.

— DAVID CHEN

A-Lin (黃麗玲), We Will Be Better (我們會更好的), Avex

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