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Good Things Come in Threes: Three Women and their Pianos – Angela Ai (History)

December 15, 2008 Leave a comment

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.

angela-ai

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.

Her music

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.

just a dream

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.

WholeA 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)

angel ai history

  1. history
  2. world war three
  3. i really miss that
  4. daddy
  5. raw
  6. just a dream
  7. whole
  8. you gave me
  9. free
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Good Things Come in Threes: Three Women and their Pianos – Angela Aki (Home)

December 3, 2008 2 comments

This is the second part of the second article in my series “Good Things Come in Threes”. In the previous article, I looked at

  • 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.

The third article looks at

  • Angela Ai, an American Born Chinese, raised in Columbus, Ohio who is and an actress, on Broadway, a singer and a talented pianist.

Angela Aki, Home

Angela Aki

Angela Aki’s upbringing might be considered a mirror image of Fayray’s:Born to a Japanese father and Italian mother in Shikoku, Japan, she emigrated with her family to to the US, Hawaii at the age of 15. Later she moved to Washington DC where she attended and subsequently graduated from the George Washington University with a double major in Politics and Music.

More than anything else, Angela Aki is renowned for her no-holds-barred, powerful voice: with full control over its entire, wide range, who like many Asian pop singers has been influenced heavily by the queen of Canto-pop Wong Faye.

To a much greater extent than Fayray, piano or keyboard take the lead on her ballad laden debut album, Home. And although many songs have a string accompaniment, with minimal percussion and electronica.

The album starts Kiss Me Goodbye, the most well known single on the album, made famous for being the theme song to Final Fantasy XII.

“Kiss Me Goodbye”, although being popular and catchy enough to put it number 1 on the album doesn’t really show Aki’s voice off in its best light, and she drew criticism from some quarters for “shouting rather than singing.”

Certainly there are moments when all you hear is the power and nothing else, but it is still a fine Wong-esq pop song.

Incidentally, she performed a cover of Wong Faye’s Eyes on Me, the theme song to Final Fantasy VIII.

“Love is Over Now” is a more archetypal Aki affair and she is given much more room to explore the extents of her vocal talents which take centre stage in this, a far more emotional number.

“Kokoro no Senshi” has her shouting again for another powerful, bestselling single.

There’s no denying the impact of her orchestra backed pop and this, more than any other song on the album defines a young and energetic Angela Aki with a memorable number that stays with you long after the album has been put away.

“This Love” starts off suggesting a gentle ballad but progresses up the scale, much like Kokoro no Senshi into yet another shouty, full orchestral climax of the ridiculously catchy chorus.

Whereas most albums would be content with a 1, 2, 3 Punch. Aki outdoes them by adding her fourth single to the front loaded album. that made this album a 600,000 disc seller.

After the first four groundbreaking singles, “Music” the fifth song has a difficult job to feel anything other than a slight disappointment in its lack of distinctive hook and ends up as just a pop song.

Any feelings that the album may have lost steam however are blown out of the water by the dark, deep piano strings and heavy drum section that open “Uchuu,” the sixth song on the album. In terms of composition and orchestration alone, Uchuu is by far the tightest on the disc. It’s a one song opera, dark powerful and fearsome one moment transitioning to beautiful, drifting solitude the next with Aki taking on the role of the entire cast with her adept voice and pulling the whole ensemble together beautifully. It’s beautifully dramatic in the way songs by Queen tend to be and feels much fuller and longer than its sub five minute length would suggest.

Uchuu is probably the understated highlight of the whole disc.

“Onegai” comes as blessed respite after the heavy “Uchuu” and signals a pause for a breather before the start of the last half of the album as a slow, gentle piano solo ballad.

The last half is less remarkable than the first, which can’t really be helped considering how this album starts off.

“Rain” and “Kiseki” and “Hallelujah”  return to Aki’s regular pattern of fully rounded and powerful chorus backed by strings and a band without ever loosing the piano from the front and centre, with the final song of the album, “Home” being a rather strong closing song to this pattern. There is a suggestion that she may have been struggling for inspiration at several points during the album with these four songs being very similar, pulling influences from late 90s domestic stars such as Onizuka Chihiro, Yaida Hitomi and others. Still, if you like one, you’ll probably like all four.

“Oogesa ni Aishiteiru” (“exaggerated love”) is stuck in amongst the above four songs at #10 on the album and takes a very different turn, ebbing and flowing at a gentle pace with Aki at the piano, where she belongs.

This song would do well as a showpiece for her voice and piano playing, displaying them both in their best light and would do as well on a stage in the East End or Broadway (were it sung in English) or backing up Tom Waits in one his more mournful moods. It is also slightly reminiscent of late 90’s Japanese group Hana*Hana’s acoustic numbers.

“Your Love Song” is a placid closing ballad in similar vein to “Oogesa ni Aishiteiru” above but is sung in English and makes a beautiful, restful close to the album.

Aki is a young powerful talent who hasn’t quite found her comfort zone, although perhaps its at the edge with songs like Uchuu, Your Love Song and Oogesa where she shines the most.

There are hints of brilliance on her album Home, but one gets the feeling that two or three songs could have been shaven off to lift the overall average.

Angela Aki – Home

aki-home

  1. Kiss Me Good-Bye
  2. Love Is Over Now
  3. Kokoro no Senshi (心の戦士, “Kokoro no Senshi”? lit. “Soldier of the Heart”)
  4. This Love
  5. Music
  6. Uchū (宇宙, “Uchū”? lit. “Universe”)
  7. Onegai (お願い, “Onegai”? lit. “Wish”)
  8. Rain
  9. Kiseki (奇跡, lit. “Miracle”?)
  10. Ōgesa ni ‘Aishiteru’ (大袈裟に「愛してる」, “Ōgesa ni ‘Aishiteru'”? lit. “Exaggerated ‘I Love You'”)
  11. Hallelujah (ハレルヤ, Hareruya?)
  12. Home
  13. Your Love Song

Good Things Come in Threes: Three Women and their Pianos – Fayray (Hourglass).

December 2, 2008 4 comments

This is my second in a short series of articles looking at good things that come in threes.

The first in the series was Women with Attitude, where I took brief look at Lily Allen,  Katy Perry, Amy Winehouse.

This time, I’ll be looking at three culture-crashing Asian singer-songwriters who have taken my fancy over the last couple of years. And no, this is not a typo, Angela Aki and Angela Ai are different people.

The two other articles in this series cover:

  • 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.
  • Angela Ai, an American Born Chinese, raised in Columbus, Ohio who is a Pennsylvania U graduate, an actress, on Broadway, a singer and a talented pianist.

Fayray (Album: Hourglass)

fayray

Hourglass is a beatifully produced, audiophile grade album with impressive taste and style. A real treat to Jazz and Pop fans alike or those who want to stretch their hifi with some well recorded accoustics and female vocals.

The opener, “First Time”  starts with the powerful, subterranean stings of a beautifully captured double bass that will sound best with decent earphones or a subwoofer. The deep strings give way to an English voice which if not of unfettered, soaring range is one of impressive control and resonance; as rich and pure as the accomplished band that backs her.

Most surprisingly, First Time is sung entirely in English on a Japanese album, making it an unusually brazen opener for a rising star. Taking into consideration its slower, more understated, calmer pace and its also being far less famous than several of the others songs on the album, she bucks the recent trend of lining up the popular singles 1, 2 and 3 to catch casual listeners in the shopping centres at the expense of album flow, rhythm or atmosphere.

The fact that this is so demonstrates the confidence in her craft and control over her own production values.

The pace picks up a little with the third song, a Wong Faye esq ballad “最初で最後の恋” (My first and final love) and a rather 90s retro “Fell” harking back to Nakajima Miyuki with a little added electric guitar.

Classical piano influences show through heavily with most songs featuring an accomplished piano or keyboard track, played by herself.

The fifth song is a meandering, self composed piano instrumental solo demonstrating (perhaps a little unnecessarily) her prowess in front of a keyboard. Although a beautiful piece in and of itself, I can’t help feeling that it was a little unessessary.

“白い二月” (White February) is an Enya-like, synth piano floating number featuring her voice sailing breezily across its entire range into falsetto.

“道” (The Way) ups the pace to about the fastest and most upbeat the album gets with another Wong Faye influenced unashamed pop song and one of the few tracks which dispenses with the keyboard as the main melody carrier and instead pulls in a battery of electric, accoustic and spanish guitar.

“Look into My Eyes” is the hit single that put the album on shelves throughout Japan and features Fayray in her best light: On classical piano and in control of voice, the song’s well crafted rhythm and its gentle melody with other instruments, accoustic and electric guitars, a full string section and decent drums following her piano in its wake like the Pied Piper.

“Living Without You,” the second English composition on the album and signals the entrance to the final, distinct segment of the album.

It is a classic piano ballad, slow and thoughtful and if not a classic in itself is nevertheless a pleasent listen and lays the way for the final three songs, which feature her on the piano with a sprinkling of backing, winding down the tension with her gentle, soothing tones and masterful playing in a string of medium-close miked accoustic compositions, which she produced, penned, perfomed and sung herself.

Fayray’s classical background, starting at the age of 4 with the piano, squarely places her in the top echelon for technical ability. Adding intelligent and thoughtful compositions supported by an accomplished, confident voice which does not squeak, squeal, grate nor need computer assisted modulation makes her accessible and enjoyable to a wide range of Japanese and overseas listeners alike.

Mini Facts

Although she works in collaboration with a number of colleagues, the album is essentially her own production.

She often appears on TV in Japan, in dramas as well as hosting TV programs as an English language interviewer of artists, politicians and other notables.

Fayray, Hourglass (Japan, 2004)

Hourglass - Fayray

 

  1. first time
  2. 願い (Negai; Wish)
  3. 最初で最後の恋 (Saisho de Saigo no Koi; My first and last love)
  4. feel
  5. 樅の木-樹の組曲- (Momi no Ki-Jyu no Kumikyoku-; Fir Tree -Musical Suite of Woods-)
  6. 白い二月 (Shiroi Nigatsu; White February)
  7. 道 (Michi; Road)
  8. look into my eyes
  9. living without you
  10. 口づけ (Kuchizuke; Kiss)
  11. 愛しても愛し足りない (Aishite mo Aishitarinai; No matter how much I love you, it’s never enough)
  12. 名前 (Namae; Name)

Next up, I’ll be taking a look at Angela Aki.