Friday, September 26, 2014

"Partners & Cheek To Cheek" (Reviews)


Christmas comes early this year with new releases from two of the most celebrated and familiar voices in music, Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett.While Streisand receives helping hands from not one but 12 male duet partners, Bennett is kindly assisted by none other than, Lady Gaga. 

Streisand’s “Partners” benefits from its two experienced producers, Walter Afanasieff (the master mind behind Mariah Carey’s earlier albums) and hit maker, Babyface, who also scores big by getting to sing with Babs on two numbers (“Evergreen” & “Lost Inside Of You”).


If the bubbly opener, the  Bublé-featured “It Had To Be You” is an appealing book cover, the Andrea Bocelli- pairing, "I Still Can See Your Face" is the irresistible centerfold, a pure delight where two vocal titans share their beautiful instruments with the world. 


Standouts include the bluesy “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, collaboration with John Mayer and the mum-and-son ballad, “How Deep is The Ocean”. The sheer beauty of Jason Gould’s voice could find audience in adult contemporary genre like Josh Groban if he further pursues music career.

No one sings about love and heartache better nowadays than John Legend. That’s why “What Kind Of Fool” is the perfect choice for him. Both Barbra signature tunes, “Evergreen” and “The Way We Were” get major revamp. While the former succeeds sounding polished and present, the latter is unrecognisable due to overambitious vocal arrangement that tries too hard to stray from the nostalgic original. A classic that doesn’t require an update perhaps. 


Once known for her one-of-a-kind vocal power and soaring high notes, Streisand now finds strength in her warmer texture and deeper tone – that famous vibrato is still in tact and used to emote with full throttle. At 72, her voice is still unbelievably frisky and youthful (“It Had To Be You”) rich and ripe the next (“People” with Stevie Wonder). It gets a tad too raspy during “New York State Of Mind” with Billy Joel. Knowing her current voice all too well, Streisand stays within her comfort zone all throughout. After all this is her 34th studio album, there’s nothing more to prove but to celebrate.


Tony Bennett, meanwhile, is no stranger to duet albums. He has in fact a few under his belt. His 2011’s Duets II features a chirpy rendition of “The Lady Is a Tramp” with Lady Gaga, which kick started this collaborative effort, “Cheek To Cheek”

Singing standards by Porter, Gershwin and Berlin, the duo opens the set with the promising, “Anything Goes”, which sets the tone yet finishes too early leaving the listeners longing for more. The two get playful once again on bouncy "Goody Goody", “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “They All Laughed”. But not all duets sizzle. “But Beautiful” for example lacks both energy and chemistry that even Streisand’s virtual duet with dead Elvis, “Love Me Tender” has more oomph. “Nature Boy” as well sounds dreary and detached.



Bennett, skilled and seasoned, is efficient and at ease; another day in the office. Gaga holds her own and even gets to do her thing. Her solos, "Lush Life" and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” give listeners a side of her voice that’s yet unheard. The live cover of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, though not classified as Jazz, displays theatrical quality of her voice and incredible showmanship. However, Jazz is still quite a stretch from her usual EDM and it demands more flexibility, it seems.

Call this a passion project or a drunken dare! But let’s face it; if Mercury and Pluto were to collide, balls of fire are expected. Likewise, anticipations are high for this odd pairing. The truth is, when it was a song, it was exciting. But the entire album, then it becomes excess. 


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Helsinki ~ Travel Notes


Unfortunately “Finland” in my native Burmese means, “arse exposed”. It amused us children to the max whenever our Geography teacher said it out loud in class. Poor teacher had to wait till the laughter died down, beating the blackboard with a cane, covered in chalk dust, frustrated. This particular childhood memory somehow clings on and still makes me smile to this day.


The red and white striped Gabriela has sailed for 14 hours from Stockholm, the last port of embarkation. The cruise ship carries mostly tourists, many of them jaded from a night of Casino, Karaoke, Duty-free shopping and bounteous boozing on board, slow-paced and bleary-eyed.


Helsinki looms in a distance. Fins are seizing their Saturday, out in the sea, sailing or relaxing on their fancy yachts. There are even baby sailboats for kids. Islands of different sizes are scattered sloppily before the city. The archipelago capital is the third largest among Nordic nations and blessed with whopping 315 green islands to hop on or sail around. 


I look through the viewfinder in an attempt to capture the striking skyline from the front deck. Although it may take 20 minutes or more to reach the harbor, the city’s prominent landmark is already visible. Helsinki Cathedral, the majestic white structure with a green dome, sits jubilantly like a giant wedding cake. Nearby stands another, an orangey brown cathedral with its turquoise top penetrating the dark grey sky. The architectural influence of Finland’s immediate eastern neighbor is noticeably apparent. (I find out later that Uspenski Cathedral was designed by the Russian architect, Aleksey Gornostayev in the late 19 century). A Farris wheel, an essential fixture for a metropolis of 1.5 million people, takes its waterfront spot next to cargo ships and cruise liners, docked at the jetty.


Thankfully, the icy drizzle that greets us upon arrival soon dashes. A sunny afternoon is promised by the time we check-in to Hotel Katajanokka, an 18th century detention facility turned four-star hotel. As the room is not ready, the two of us set out to explore the Senate Square, a mere15-minute walk away from the hotel, according to the receptionist. We will then slowly make our way towards Stockmann department store where I have agreed to meet my Finnish friend, Päivi for lunch. 


Saturday sizzles under the scorching sun. Tourists and locals are roaming the streets of Senate Square, the CBD where a unique mix of iconic landmarks and important structures are on full on display like an open-air museum. Some high profile Hollywood movies were filmed here, notably Robert Redford’s “Reds” and “The Kremlin Letter” by John Huston. The biggest star of the square is of course “Bad Bad Boy”, a fetus-like pink figure that stands mischievously and urinates into the sea. The temporary fountain-statue by Helsinki-based artist Tommi Toija gains so much love from strolling sightseers whose #selfies, without a doubt, are going to fetch so much more social media love in return (or rather LIKEs and RETWEETs, to be politically correct!)

  


Taking in the sights, sounds and scents of a new place is always thrilling. A yet unknown place that holds endless opportunities to get familiar till I can claim "Yes! I’ve been!". My ‘Travel Mode” is on; I’m prepared, expectant and open. 


          


The fragrance of pan-fried salmon cuts through the crowd from the temporary tents in front of City Hall, summoning my growling tummy to protest even more. Well, it’s almost 1pm. Fish, fish, fish everywhere; fresh or filleted, smoked or grilled, even pickled and bottled. The deep fried small fish (Vendace in Finnish) looks quite appetising, I must say. Practice of eating small fish is common too in Asia although we don’t dip it in cream sauce like they do here. My grandmother would have fried them crisp with chili & garlic.

 
The harborfront market in the Senate Square is also a place to pick up souvenirs of Finland; handicrafts made out of wood, knitwear of many colors, stuffed animals, fox fur coats, winter hats, earmuffs, and reindeer skins. If you are not a fan of animal products and looking for something organic, Finnish berries may appease you. Summer here marks the berry-picking season and as one of the world leaders in the development of health-enhancing food, Finland is home to rare berries such as crowberry, cloudberry, rowanberry and lingonberry, which are packed with vitamins and nutrients essential for the human body.

The street behind the blue-hued City Hall takes us to Helsinki’s major shopping district, Aleksanterinkatu. Festive with fashion-obsessed Finns and fabulous cafés, we people-watch and window-shop all the way down to Stockmann. Our Euros are good here as Finland is the only country in Nordic region to use Euro.  


“Are you guys hungry? I’m taking you guys to an island for lunch”. 

Päivi and I haven’t seen each other for over two years but we keep in touch regularly on Facebook. Today, she has brought a visiting friend from Berlin, a pretty blonde named, Cornelia. Four of us from four different corners of the world, united by one language, embark for Suomenlinna, a nearby sea fortress built on six islands. During 20-minute ferry ride, Päivi, playing a tourist guide, graciously runs a live commentary of Helsinki; facts and folklores, in between random ramblings that we are both good at.
                                
Panimo”, a cozy restaurant and brewery is just beside the main pier. The menu offers Finnish favorites such as Traditional Salmon Soup and Toast Skagen (hand-peeled shrimps and roe of Vendace on toast). For the main course, it’s a toss between reindeer or fish, the two staples in Finnish cuisines. I opt for the latter; catch of the day in cream sauce with steamed seasonal vegetables, accompanied by the handcrafted local beer.


After lunch, Päivi leads us on a promenade along the old fortress, which was built during the Swedish rule in the mid 1700s to fend off the neighbor Russia’s every-growing expansionism. The site has seen both Swedish and Russian rule, been damaged during wars and restored as a UNESCO heritage site since 1991.


Sunny Saturday keeps the spirits high. Shirtless young men are relishing the sun, receiving their Vitamin D intake (which is scarce in this part of the world) while two girls practice cartwheels on the grass. A married couple, in full wedding attire, sits on the rock being photographed against the stunning backdrop. Suomenlinna’s audience today comprises of tourists like us, picnickers, runners in Nike gear and of course, swimmers & sunbathers. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can be in the water right now. It even gets chilly the minute I stay out of the sun. Soon, autumn will quickly come and flee. Then it’s time for brutal winter, the longest season in Finland that lasts about 100 days (200 days in northern Lapland where the sun does not rise at all for 51 days). For now, Finns are savoring the last remaining days of 18 hours sun with reckless abandon. 



“Why am I not living here? This is so my kind of place.” enthuses Cornelia. It’s true. The idyllic island is ideal for those who seek a peaceful lifestyle while keeping an option of all-things-urban open. Dotted with charming old buildings some of which have now been converted to souvenir stores, cafés and museums, Suomenlinna is not just a tourist destination but a living community with over 900 inhabitants who reside here permanently.


Sunday morning starts with a visit to the iconic Helsinki cathedral. The superior situation and the shape of it remind me of Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. This neo-classical place of worship was built from 1830-1852, during the Russian empire era and was designed by German architect, Carl Ludvig Engel who was also responsible for other buildings in the Senate Square. I find it interesting and refreshing in fact that the interior is quite marvelously modest compared to the usual ostentatious ornaments as seen in cathedrals of Spain or France for example. The steep flight of steps not only serves as a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the city but also sunbathing spot for many. 


                 



Other notable architecture includes Parliament house, which has been the scene of many crucial political moments in the country’s history, especially during the Winter War and Continuation war. Finland is also the first European country to grant women the right to vote and to stand for the parliament. The marvelous column-lined façade has timeless elegance and minimalist charm. Architecture enthusiasts will certainly get a kick out of Helsinki’s eclectic mix of neo-classical and modern buildings, coexisting in harmony and even complimenting one another. I’m particularly impressed with the shoreline-facing apartments that not only find balance between functionality and aesthetics but also adopt the policy of sustainability and eco-friendliness. 


I meet my two blonde friends later to go to the Restaurant Day celebration. The concept; anyone can be a restaurant/café/bar owner for a day during this food carnival, Paivi explains, originated from Helsinki and has spread all over the world ever since. Finns gather four times a year to celebrate cooking and eating. It’s that simple. The energy here is palpable. Cultures and colors are constantly colliding. Many languages are spoken. Many different dishes are sampled. The city comes together in appreciation of food. You name it, Paella Valenciana, Turkish Kebab, Brazilian Barbecue, Vietnamese spring rolls, Ethiopian Beyaynetu, Chinese dim-sum and a Finnish favorite that I try, Karelian pastry, a traditional Finnish dish made from a thin rye crust with a filling of rice. Butter mixed with boiled egg is spread over the hot pastries before eating. It is versatile and can be consumed as snack, appetizer or finger food for parties. It even works when I pair it with Finish flavored vodka, which I’ve fallen in love and am taking home plenty as my sole souvenir of Finland.


    
Sadly, the plan to go to Tallinn for a day trip gets clouded by the bad weather. All the boats that leave for the Estonian capital were cancelled due to strong wind. Sunshine-heavy weekend seems like a distant memory on Monday. After reading my Facebook rant, sympathetic Paivi suggests that we go to Porvoo instead, a mediaeval town, located on the southern coast of Finland, about 50 km (30 minutes drive) east of Helsinki.


Porvoo certainly is an unexpected delight, an impressive alternative. Although many fires have destroyed the town and buildings have been rebuilt, it’s easy to make sense of how folks were living way back when. A splendid saunter through the old town uncovers what one usually sees in the postcards; a maze of narrow cobblestoned lanes, picture-perfect churches, eye-catching boutiques and crimson-colored warehouses along the riverbank. I can imagine how cheerful these colorful structures must look under the piling snow. Perhaps it’s the reason they are painted in such bright hues; to shoo away the winter blues.

  

  

Three days in Helsinki is relatively short. Because the city offers state of the art museums, an eclectic set of churches, a wide variety of nightlife activities in addiction to its many parks and islands that could keep a traveler busy. Helsinki has both cosmopolitan flair and laid-back atmosphere; it can be vibrant, energetic yet calming if and when necessary. Fins are friendly and easygoing. Plus it is convenient that majority here speaks fluent English. Really, it is no surprise that the city has made the top-10 list of world’s most livable cities this year once again. 






Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mariah Carey ~ Me. I am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse (Track by track album review)



The long-delayed 14th album from Mariah Carey, “Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse”, has been finally unveiled. 

“Cry.”

The soul-baring ballad echoes Carey’s earlier album cuts like "Vanishing". But the dreary nature of the lyrical content and dull melody make one yearn for the poetic brilliance of her “Butterfly” album. Even when she tries to score the gold with the complex vocal gymnastics towards the end, it is not an easy song to get fond of instantly. Besides, if Carey claims that this album is about her life in the last three years, which saw a happy marriage, gorgeous twins and 18 million dollars she pocketed for judging American Idol, what and who is she singing about in this tearjerker then? 

“Faded”

The freshest cut on the set, thanks to the producer of the moment, Mike Will Made It (responsible for Rihanna and Miley Cyrus’s recent hits). At times, “Faded” sounds a bit like her number one smash “Don’t Forget About Us” and could easily fit in well with the rest of the songs on her “Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel” album. The synth hook played all throughout the track is haunting and suitable for this mid-tempo ballad about ‘a lover that has vanished’.   


“Dedicated” (Featuring Nas)

A throwback that brings back the 90's where Carey pioneered the rap-sung collarbo trend with her number one hits like “Fantasy”, “Honey” or “Heartbreaker”. The classic Carey cooing over rap verses or signature whistle notes doing the scale in the background, plus the infectious “la-di-da-di-da” chorus are all here. With “Dedicated”, not only does she pay homage to old-school Hip-hop/Rn’B but also flip a middle finger to the EDM trend that is dominating the airwaves nowadays. Carey is at ease when she gets to do what she does well.

“#Beautiful” (Featuring Miguel) 

The top 15 hit “#Beautiful”, if promoted properly, could have easily been her 19th number one. Carey has proven once again that her knack for writing catchy choruses is no fluke. It is also one of those rare occasions where Carey shows restraint avoiding her usual vocal embellishments and instead letting the simple sensual melody take the center stage. Even after a year of release, #Beautiful is still a standout track. No heavy lifting involved, this bouncy ballad offers a little dose of summer romance that no one could refuse. 



“Thirsty”

Sure, Carey warbling “You’re thirsty- you’re thirsty” is cringe-worthy and perhaps more fitting for a Pepsi cola ad. But hey, try not being too cynical for a moment, the song’s hypnotising beats might turn you a bobble-head. In truth, “Thirsty” could have been a hit, if it was released 15 years ago. Now it just feels like wearing a jacket that is no longer in fashion. Even when “Instagram” is mentioned at some point in the song, it just sounds dated, baby! But does she really care?  Because it genuinely seems Carey is quenching her thirst for this type of music by coming up with one song after another. Queen of shade throwing, Carey could also be cooking up her old recipe with this Hip-hop number, which by the way is about a lover who’s out of touch with reality, thirsty for fame. Her Eminem diss, “Obsessed” comes to mind. 





“Make It Look Good”

The Motown-flavored, harmonica-driven, Doo-Wop laced “Make It Look Good” sees Carey chirping about a loverboy who makes her go "I just wanna taste of what you got but my mama always told me not to play with those players who play you". All efforts are appreciated (including Stevie Wonder's harmonica solo) but this would have been more convincing if Ariana Grande was singing it. It’s a little age-impropriate. Besides, the Jermaine Dupri production is a tad too tired and dismissible. 

“You’re Mine (Eternal)”

Rodney Jerkins’ production is sleek but somehow weak. Simplistic melody and juvenile lyrics fit more for a singer like Katy Perry. A 45-year-old singing, “Boy, you make me feel, our love would never end. How can I forget, baby we were the best” makes one wonder if the song is targeted for the Middle School audience for their first official Valentine’s day. But then again, which Middle school kid these days would follow Carey on Twitter or LIKE her Facebook page, let alone buy this record? #TotesConfused. On a positive note though, "You re mine” begins with pleasingly husky low notes, then exhibits her rich mid-range (where her current voice shines brightest) and finally unleashes a mammoth belted note which masterfully merges into whistle register, sustained till eternity. What a wondrous thing to hear (even if it was doctored to perfection in the lab)




You don’t know what to do” (Featuring Whale)

It’s not always gold when Jermaine Dupri and Carey get together and attempt to make hits. Definitely not as of late (“Triumphant”, anyone?) and the last time the duo had a hit was almost a decade ago. However the drought may have come to an end with “You Don’t Know What To Do”. The shimmering five-star disco throwback is the best of the bunch. Donna Summer-esque soaring intro accompanied only by a piano, spellbinding pre-chorus followed by the chorus so wicked, playful rap solo by Whale and the rousing outro spell G.O.L.D or better yet, P.L.A.T.I.N.U.M, if they decide to release it as the next single. Put your dancing shoes on. Saturday Night Fever is going to hit, y'all. 



“Supernatural”

Chuckles of her adorable twins adorn the lullaby-like “Supernatural”. The unusual  composition also finds Carey’s daughter, Monroe, singing a hook. Like mother, like daughter. Not so sure if Blue Ivy can do that yet?  But the game is on. Look out for the epic key change that only Mariah could do, riding high flying right into the stratosphere.

“Meteorite” 

Either this is the ultimatum from her record label or rather a calculative move from her side, which is to feature at least one dance song that is radio-friendly. The Daft Punk-ish “Meteorite” is a Q-tip production,  an odd inclusion on this set. Moreover, Carey seems a bit detached from hypothetically inspirational, yet profoundly tedious lyrics, “You know what you are. It’s true. You will go far cause’ you got the night to light up the sky”. It’s also not certain whether she’s mocking or cheering for those enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. 


“Camouflage”

Carey’s hardcore fans know and adore her autobiographical album cuts such as “Petals”, “I am free”, “Twister” or “Lookin’ In” – the melancholy “Camouflage” starts out promising but unfortunately ends up a tad too messy due to the ostentatious vocal arrangement. A not-so-united choir of Mariahs harmonizing, wailing, delivering messages, hitting high whistles from all directions- now that’s an overkill. 


“Money” (featuring Fabolous)

Many solid tracks on this album happen to be the up-tempo ones. Hitboy-produced “Money”, like “Dedicated” is yet another throwback Hip-Hop R&B track where Carey rides the charismatic chorus like it’s a Maserati. What matters here is that she sounds carefree and convincing. At this stage in her career, she has nothing more to prove. She might as well make the type of music she loves and relish the experience. That’s why, though she sings “Money, this, that, the other don’t mean nothing”, “Money” is definitely money baby! 

“One More Try”

Almost every Mariah Carey album carries a Schmaltzy cover of a well-known song – The fans of George Michael’s earnest vocal delivery that renders angst and ache will find it difficult to accept Carey’s smooth syrupy update. However, Carey’s version of “One More Try” sounds current and cohesive, while not straying too far from the original arrangement. Carey certainly doesn’t disappoint, providing an abundant showcase of smoky low notes, impressive octave leaps, intentional vocal cracks and melismatic vocal runs although her upper range is now getting thin and as a result, a bit shrieky.

“Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can't Give Up Now)”

Carey’s approach to Gospel has always been subtle and therefore relatable– without mentioning or praising the man above excessively but usually letting an inspirational message be the highlight of her song. “There will be mountains that I will have to climb, and there will be battles that I will have to fight. But victory or defeat, it’s up to me to decide, but how can I expect to win if I never try?” It’s Gospel so she certainly is not going to hold back. In fact she sings her face off reaching the heavens and above. Her heartfelt delivery on this stirring number takes us all to church.

Even the most gifted photographers can’t ignore the power of Photoshop. Likewise, the perfectionist Carey may have played with her vocals in the studio. Many of her high notes may have been pitch-corrected, stretched slightly longer or executed flawlessly. They are far too perfect just like her heavily airbrushed album artwork. While "The Elusive Chanteuse" is the diva's weakest album lyrically, in the vocal department, she has yet again raised the bar incredibly highThat of course raises the question - how will she perform these songs live?  It is safe to bet that she may perform them live but lip-sync the difficult parts as she has been so for the last 12 years. After all, people may bitch about lip-syncing or a bad performance, they forgive and forget as time goes by. But the records, yep, her platinum records, are forever.