Good Things Come in Threes: Three Women and their Pianos – Angela Ai (History)
This is the third part of the second article in my series “Good Things Come in Threes”. In the previous two articles, I looked at
- Angela Aki a Japanese-Italian solo artist and pianist, brought up in Japan educated in the US and made famous by her Final Fantasy XII theme tune.
- Fayray, a Japanese singer and pianist brought up and raised in the US before finding major success in her home country, Japan with the album Hourglass.
Angela Ai – History (US, 2001)
In this part, I will be looking at Angela Ai and her landmark album, History.
How I found her
I was looking for the song “Rain” by Angela Aki on iTunes when the new iTunes 8 feature “Genius Sidebar” suggested I might like Angela Ai.
Yeah, that’s a laugh, I thought, new the Genius function might be, but not so Genius when it comes spelling it would appear!
On a whim, I clicked on the identically titled “Rain” by the fictitious and misspelt (or so I thought) “Angela Ai.”
It was not the version of Rain that I had expected. iTunes had no information on their Artist page, but intrigued I jumped across to Last FM to see who she was. Fortunately, Last FM had complete versions of her songs for playback. (The whole track is available here if you’re a Last FM member, or a reasonable chunk can be found on her site here.)
Instead of Aki’s shouttastic rendition of a typically staid love song, I found myself listening to an engaging, short romantic-tragedy in the form of a regular, common-all-garden pop song.
With Ai’s sublime voice, it told an insanely solid tale in its few short minutes about a woman watching in dismay as her best friend, to whom she was the bridesmaid and who she’d had a secret crush on for years, got married! Startlingly bold for a debut single!
I was blown away. This was NOT Angela Aki. Not by a long shot. I had found Angela Ai.
Angela Ai is an American Chinese who was, to quote from her website:
…born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. Her passion for the performing arts began at the age of 5 when she began studying ballet. She studied classical piano at the age of 7 following with brief studies on the violin and flute. While in high school, she began auditioning for and was chosen to be the lead in many of the school musicals and plays.
After graduating from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Finance, she moved to New York City and started a career in investment banking of all things. Her heart lay elsewhere, however and she went on to study Jazz at the Manhattan School of Music before making a career for herself on Broadway in the US.
She is a technically superb pianist, highly trained in both classical and jazz (as are Fayray and Angela Aki to whom I am comparing her) which has set her up perfectly for a wide range of sounds and genres. However what sets her apart from the other two is her background of voice training and experience on the stage as an actress. That experience alone puts her voice and manner in an entirely different category altogether, and it shows on her album, “History”.
She commands total mastery over all aspects of her performance from the piano to her immaculate voice. And there is only one word to describe her voice: spectacular.
Where Fayray’s voice would deftly and delicately give way on the high notes, Ai’s is right there, in control and without the barest hint of stress or strain. Where Aki would tend to shout in order to wring out her full emotional gamut, Ai’s strength and passion manifests itself much like an ice skater’s performance: Effortlessly graceful yet immensely strong.
She is Asian, a singer songwriter with a classical and jazz background, she plays piano, she has a fine voice. There the similarities with the other two end.
I consider Angela Ai a rather notable departure from my usual tastes in music, even taking to consideration the changes my library has gone through over the last year.
Where she differs most of the music I usually listen to and the other two women to whom I’m comparing her, is that she brings the vivid passions and emotions of theatre, drama, the stage and of Broadway musicalsin particular and moulds and tempers them into songs of remarkable simplicity, elegance and beauty.
Every song is a play, every line is a scene: Much closer to Chicago the musical than Chicago the 80’s pop band.
Thus, this simplicity and cross discipline genre busting comes at a price to the listener, however, as her songs tend to be remorseless assaults on your imagination. Each one is steeped in thespian emotions and soaked in graphical imagery painted with fat, wide brush strokes, like the backdrops to the stage plays from which they might have been used for in another life.
For Ai, there is no hiding behind an orchestra, no percussion or rhythm sections to get the listener going, indeed no backing whatsoever. There is, for the entire album, Just Ai and her piano.
“History” is an entire album of piano and voice alone.
Also, the subjects of most of the songs could not be considered conventional: child abuse, the imminent death of a father and a believer’s shock at being denied entry to heaven don’t really sound like the sort of things that can be sung about, but on stage anything can happen.
As such, it’s far from the most accessible album released, much less so than her debut, self titled mini album from which the song “Rain” was pulled.
Is it worse for that?
For from it. its shocking simplicity is a refreshing breath of air in a world where every facet of every album is produced down to the ground.
If you enjoy the sheer beauty of what a voice can achieve, if you enjoy musicals and love the sound of a well played, lucidly recorded grand piano, if you’re fed up to the eye-teeth with insipid love songs, Angela Ai’s History is a real treasure.
Angela Ai, History
At nine songs long, it’s not an epic, but each song has something to offer. There are no fillers, no masturbatory demonstrations of piano skill. She doesn’t need them. The album is as sparse and simple as her songs themselves; nothing wasted, nothing superfluous, yet dramatic and emotional as a Broadway production.
(click on the songs’ titles for excerpts direct from Angela Ai’s Web site at http://www.angelaai.com)
It opens with →history, sung in the first person to the listener. On a conventional theme of lost love, it might be considered a taster if you will and something to ease the audience into her world. It offers a nostalgic look at lost love and the pain of living close to the source of your pain while forcing yourself to move on with your life.
Despite her assuredness that the relationship is over, is history, the loss she suffered, the anger she felt and the love that lingers despite her best efforts remains as her voice bursts with every stab of pain, every nostalgic twinge, every memory.
The stage influence on this track as on every one on this album is plain to hear. You can almost see the feel and moody set, a flickering streetlamp, grey extras milling past and among them, in colour, her lost love.
This theme is returned to in the third song on the album, →i Really Miss That, a more mellow, introspective song but sung from the viewpoint of a woman who yearns for the relationship she once had, a relationship that somewhere along the way lost everything that once made it so special. More than the finality of the first song, this one offers a ray of hope for the future.
→world War Three (Yes, the first letter of every song on the album is a small letter)
This is such an unbelievably cool concept for a four minute song that I feel obliged to share it with you.
A “believer” who has behaved impeccably her whole life, yet for all the wrong reasons, dies and is confronted by God. She is shocked on being questioned by Him as to her worthiness in spite of her life of apparently good deeds. He tries to make her understand the error in her ways, that her deeds were all done out of a sense of duty and selfishness rather than out of love. By way of example he explains, but she is unable to comprehend. God, in a final attempt to enlighten His child accompanies her through Hell where she is forced to witness World Wars One and Two. Yet, still unable to comprehend, she is left there to face World War Three alone. Yowzers!
This song with its beautifully memorable chorus sung from the viewpoint of the deserted subject, is a magnificent piece worthy of entry into the Annals of “Seriously Great Concepts.”
→daddy, the fourth song on the album is an emotional song that touches on the trauma left by family breakups.
A daughter visits her father on what may well be his deathbed; a father who it appears left or even abandoned his family and his daughter a long time ago.
As she sits there with her dying father, she remembers the pain that he caused her and the loss she felt at his leaving. She remembers how she blamed herself for his leaving.
She visits him in hospital with the intention of forgiving him for his lies and the past, to let bygones be bygones. The daughter reveals her soul to him, asking him to come back to her, only to be rebuffed bya refusal to accept her, her love and most importantly, her forgiveness.
→raw the most powerful and heartfelt song on the album stays with the theme of family trauma.
A woman comes to terms with the emotional scars left by a self esteem destroying childhood under the thumb of a domineering, perhaps even violent family and moves on with her life.
Ai conveys the confusion and fear of the child through the lamenting chords of her piano and a voice that falls into depths of pain before rising symbolically and soaring above the music to freedom.
Listening to this song, it’s hard to believe that such a powerful number wasn’t written autobiographically. The emotions on display here are palpable and, just like it says on the tin, raw.
For me, this one song alone would justify purchasing the album.
This song, coming just beyond the midpoint of the album stands as a turning point from the darkness of having things taken away, fear, entrapment, hate and remorse proffered by the first five songs to the the latter half of the album on which each song promises so much; dreams, happiness, thankfulness, forgiveness and freedom.
Angela takes a 180 degree turn from the darkness and despair of raw and sings an uplifting, almost Disneyesque song which could have quite easily come from a children’s musical.
Something, (My innate cynicism and dislike of Disney, perhaps) unfortunately prevents me from experiencing this song in the unfettered and childlike manner which it deserves.
Instead, I feel that it doesn’t have the depth of feeling or context that the other songs on the album have. Even so, I can feel that it represents childlike imagination and the purity of childhood joy and thus earns its place at the head of the four Yang songs that counterpoint the five Ying songs that came before it.
→Whole: A woman hungers for solace and finds the man who she feels can fill the hole she has inside. The woman, obsessed with every aspect of his being feels salvation a mere heartbeat away, if only she can hold on to herself and not lose herself in the process.
→you Gave Me, is an unbridled song of thanks to a mother or parents and feels as though it was written with her own parents in mind.
→free, one of the strongest tracks after WW3 and Raw, ends the album on a high note (no pun intended). Where the first track history is a gentle introduction, free is a reminder that Angela Ai is a performance artist at heart with powerful, modern influences and is the best demonstration of how far she has taken her craft.
True to the title of the track itself, the songs form spirals, seemingly out of control as she invites her audience to come with her as she explores freedom itself, building up to a freeform pillar of sound like I haven’t heard since Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
“I scream, and you can scream with me ’cause I am free.”
However, Ai demonstrates that there is a fine line between freedom and chaos and her masterful control shows on which side of the boundary she lies as she brings the song masterfully back under control before soaring off, quite literally into the stratosphere in one of the highest notes I’ve ever heard in popular music, proving once and for all the divide that lies between mere, trained ability and given gift.
In closing then, History is a challenging yet thoroughly rewarding listen which offers a touch of class and a LOT of emotion delivered by a master of her craft!
Angela Ai (History)
- world war three
- i really miss that
- just a dream
- you gave me