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Feedback: Tone Deaf

Austin Ryan

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Young and scrounging through message boards and libraries, a first attempt to find interesting modern Chinese bands did not yield me much. I had an interest in the country for a long time, but never pressed on the music much. When I did, I only turned up some world music and traditional operas. They had a strong, but old sound and I wanted at what modern musicians in China produced. A second time through, and with skimpy language knowledge under my belt, I found Second Hand Rose (Š¼Î¾ä܍_Ǎԡ). Second Hand Rose does a lot well, but the way they used tones struck me the most.

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Mandarin Chinese uses four tones integral to the pronunciation of most words and every complex sentence. In traditional Chinese music the tones resonate incredibly heavily. Voices shake, undulate, and twist to meet the tone of the character. Modern Chinese music is relatively tone deaf. Some artists ignore them entirely, opting to flesh out the power vocals common to Western pop. It makes sense to abandon tradition. Western music and culture pulls at the imagination of the Chinese youth. A Chinese artist might lose an audience sounding out tones.

Chinese pop artist Cao Ge (or Gary Chaw) crafts a song called “Mr. Lonely” that sounds quite like American pop translated right to radio. That should not disparage the song. Cao Ge sings quite well, if perhaps a little hammy. The soaring style and quiet, toned back piano all fit together with the emotional serenade. “Mr. Lonely” works for what it attempts to do, as it lacks for heavy flaws in composition and fits around the powerful vocals of the singer.

Another, likely more famed Taiwanese artist by the name of J Chou employs a bit more elements from traditional East Asian music. His song “Red Dust Inn” features a few familiar twangs borrowed from the type of traditional music we feel accustomed to. “Red Dust Inn,” like “Mr. Lonely,” by no means sounds bad. It delivers on another well-made western style pop song centered on a strong voiced heartthrob. J Chou adds more of an eastern flavor, but he hardly lays heavy on tones, or really pushes to meld two very different styles of music. Not every song needs to do something drastic, though, so both Cao Ge and J Chou will fill a void for well-made pop music sung in Mandarin.

Second Hand Rose on the other hand wants to infuse a western rock influence into their music, but not at the cost of tones and tradition. The band opts to fuse West and East in a way that few bands anywhere do. The lead singer, Liang Long, heavily emphasizes the tone of each character. He evokes the odd twang of traditional Chinese vocals. The band brings in the western element with semi-psychedelic stretched out guitar riffs. The mesh of classical Chinese instruments and guitar, bass, and drums create modern rock that sounds distinctly Chinese. Each song might not sound like a paradigm shift, but it fuses influences many bands try to bring together.

Besides that, the band employs an entertaining range of songs together. The songs switch up space, instruments, and style. Each album feels fresh all the way through. The range creates feeling enough that the band stands outside of its uniqueness. It is one thing to make something sound different, and another to make it sound worth listening to. Second Hand Rose accomplishes both. At times the songs can drag. Not every track pops, and it may not give you a new lease on life, but it is something different that sounds good enough to listen to until it feels familiar.

If you want to learn more about the Chinese music scene, check out these two features on ChinaSmack and CRIEnglish.

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Feedback: Tone Deaf