Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kelly Rowland- Here I Am (Album Review)

Even with two decent solo albums and a few hit singles under her belt, Kelly Rowland has not yet been very well-received in her native country. It must have been very difficult to break out from the shadow of her ex-band mate, the uber-talented Beyonce, considering B always took the centre stage during “Destiny’s Child” days and subsequently became one of the biggest artists in the world. With “Here I am”-an interesting title for a third album- Ms Rowland seems prepared and looks ready to finally claim her fame in the US of A and hopefully the entire globe. With this album, she has also successfully shed this sweet girl-next-door image, got herself a boob-job, gone naked on the cover art and sung songs about fornication and orgasm. Well done! Sex sells, right? I don’t blame her. “Motivation”, her current Rn’B # 1 single, is something Janet Jackson would sing during “Velvet Rope” era. Kelly sings “Oh lover, don’t you dare slow down. Go longer, you can last more rounds. Push harder, you're almost there now. So go lover, make mama proud”- her delivery, sexy and smooth. Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins-produced “Turn It Up” and “Down For Whatever” crafted by the producer of the moment, Red One (Yep, Lady GaGa adoringly sings his name on her hit "Just Dance"), are pure club-bangers that could eventually become her next singles.

Aside from these two, Kelly  has made the right move by teaming up with hottest producers like  C. "Tricky" Stewart on “I’m Dat Chick”( I find that track trying too hard… just a little),  The Runners on “All Of The Night” and Rico Love on “Motivation” and “Feeling Me Right Now” (narcissistic self-love anthem, a favorite of mine cos’ it sounds FRESH!) 
The best track, I must say though, is “Commander”, her collaboration with David Guetta. They have effectively recreated the magic of “When Love Takes Over (2009)”, the song that set gay prides and dance floors around the world on fire and brought Kelly her second Grammy as a solo artist. I wish she should have put more songs like this on the album. 

Kelly Rowland’s voice is that of a summer wine; lively, refreshing and elegant with a bit of crisp finish. I am positive that she is capable of letting her beautiful voice bounce up on a dance track or shining it bright on a power ballad (although I was a bit disappointed to find no ballad on the set except for a slow jam called “Keep It Between Us”). Obviously this album is not about her voice. It is about staying current and being radio-friendly so she could reach out to millions. And generally I believe she has achieved that goal with this quality urban record.  So.. GaGa, Rihanna and Ke$ha, scoot down a bit and make some room for Ms.Kelly.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Remembering Amy (My all-time favorite Amy Winehouse song)

Although Amy Winehouse was widely-known for her global hit “Rehab”, this is my all-time favorite song from her history-making second (and sadly the last) album “Back to Black”.  Achingly beautiful lyrics, combined with her soulful warbling, this song does not need a repeat listening to make an impact on you.  It is simple yet magical and desperately sad. (Even more so now that she’s gone). 2:49 minutes of pure soul heaven.  There are many videos of her singing this song live but I prefer this original studio version; Amy Winehouse at her best and that is how we will remember her. Rest in peace, Amy. You have given the world two great albums with such timeless music.  We’ll miss you.


For you I was a flame 
Love is a losing game 
Five story fire as you came 
Love is a losing game 

Why do I wish I never played 
Oh what a mess we made 
And now the final frame 
Love is a losing game 

Played out by the band 
Love is a losing hand 
More than I could stand 
Love is a losing hand 

Self professed... profound 
Till the chips were down 
...know you're a gambling man 
Love is a losing hand 

Though I'm better blind 
Love is a fate resigned 
Memories mar my mind 
Love is a fate resigned 

Over futile odds 
And laughed at by the gods 
And now the final frame 
Love is a losing game

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Buenos Aires Memories

After a whirlwind 10-day partying in Rio ended, we proceeded to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.  All three of us were exhausted by the time we landed in BA so we rushed to our rented apartment in Palermo, the quiet and trendy neighborhood of Buenos Aires and called it a day.  
(The Japanese Garden, Buenos Aires)
The next morning, we started exploring the area on foot. Our first stop was Jardín Japonés (The Japanese Garden). A not so large but beautiful Japanese style garden administered by the non-profit Japanese Argentine Cultural Foundation. Apparently it is one of the largest gardens of its kind in the World, outside of Japan. On our way back from the garden, we saw one of the famous dog-walkers of Parlermo. I had read about the dog culture in Buenos Aires and its dog-walkers but it was lovely to see it in person. This dog walker we saw had about 15 dogs, both big and small, on the leash. I am not sure how much money he makes. I would certainly go nuts if I were to do this arduous task of handling that many dogs. Some may wonder why I was astonished by the sight of a dog-walker. Simple answer: we don’t have this in Asia.
A Dog-walker in Palermo
Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral
The next day, we decided to view the city from the hop-on/hop-off tourist bus. This is what we usually do when we are in a new city not entirely sure where to start. We have done this in Paris, Sydney, Munich, Mexico City, Barcelona and a number of other cities. What better way to see a new city than from an open top bus? If you like a site and it is worth exploring more, you can simply get off to do so. Once you are finished, you wait for the next bus and move on. EASY. I love this bus service in cities.
Casa Rosada
Buenos Aires, largely recognized as the Paris of Latin America, is rich in architecture. The tourist bus gave us a great vista of down town BA, Plaza de Mayo. This square has become an important place (often used as a political gathering place) ever since the 25 May 1810 that led to the country’s independence. Historical sites and monuments such as Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, The May Pyramid, The City Hall, The Buenos Aires Cabildoand Casa Rosada (The Pink House) are all there standing right next to each other. Not only have these old buildings with Art Nouveau and Neoclassical styles also the new modern buildings with eclectic styles added attraction to this city of 15.2 million habitants, the second-largest metropolitan area in South America, after Sao Paulo.
Down town Buenos Aires
La Boca
The Buenos Aires Turibús also took us to La Boca which means the mouth in English. La Boca, staying true to its name, sits at the mouth of Riachuelo River. As we passed through the neighborhood, we saw the streets lined with colorful zinc shacks, children playing soccer on the street and old ladies chatting while shopping grocery at the local market. La Boca is a charming little neighborhood that seems to have its own agenda which, I believe, sets it apart from the rest of the city. Since I was so impressed with La Boca during my first drive-through, I went back there the next day to experience it street by street à pied.  Many believe La Boca to be the soul of Buenos Aires.  Many of the residents here are the descendents of Italians settlers from Genoa during the World War. Therefore, you can feel a strong European flavor here too. Near the multi-colored street museum “Caminito”, there are a number of local restaurants with tango shows, gift shops, artists selling paintings and handicrafts attracting the tourists. We watched our first Tango show in the streets of La Boca.

Tango in La Boca
Colorful houses of La Boca, Buenos Aires
Here in Argentina, people eat a great deal of meat. One of the staple Argentine cuisines is called “Parilla, simple and naturally tasty beef cooked over a large wood-fired or charcoal grill. Almost every interior part of a cow is available on the menu, from liver, kidney, blood sausages and intestine, to the usual tenderloin or sirloin steak. We ate Parilla almost every day with a good bottle of local Cabernet Sauvignon. (After two weeks in Argentina, we were totally beefed out that I wondered if let out a scream, it would have sounded “Moo”.)
Recoleta Cemetery
Unlike the bohemian La Boca, Recoleta is definitely a posh and chic side of town where 5-star hotels like The Four Seasons and luxury designer boutiques can be found. The influence of French architecture is evident in this area. It is also known for the Recoleta cemetery, the final resting place of some famous and rich people, including Eva Perón, Raúl Alfonsín, and several presidents of Argentina. Many affluent people’s mausoleums decorated with enthralling sculptures are well-maintained until today while some others are crumbling apart unfortunately. 
Eva Peron's final resting place
The highlight for me was visiting one of my heroines, Eva Perón’s black marble crypt. As a young boy growing up in Burma, the first time I became aware of Argentina and Eva Perón was when I watched the film “Evita” with my parents. Back then I did not understand what was going on in the film (I was puzzled why they were singing and dancing all the time). Later on, I read about the movie musical and a brief biography of Eva in a Burmese magazine. I was fascinated by her rags-to-riches story and how she eventually became the spiritual leader of her country. If anyone back then said I would one day visit Argentina and experience the Argentine way of life, I would have laughed it off for sure. (Argentina? It felt so far away). Being there that day and the subsequent visit to “Evita museum” the next day made me think of that time period of my life in Burma and realize I have come a long way.  And a long, long way from Burma that is.
Evita Museum in Palermo
Evita is still very much part of Argentine people’s lives. Her name and her images are still apparent in the city’s graffiti and in the posters and statements of current politicians. People still remember and talk about her fondly. Even when we stopped over for drinks at a famous gay Karaoke joint called “Sitges”, some young fella went up on stage and sang “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from the Broadway musical “Evita”. He was of course greeted with thunderous applause. 
Buenos Aires Skyline seen from Puerto Madero
One of my favorite spots, Puerto Madero is located next to the river and it used to be part of the harbour. After being abandoned for many years, it has been urbanized and turned into a very fashionable district that features restaurants and bars, hotels and many high-rise buildings. We really enjoyed walking around the harbor at sunset with the view of beautiful Puente De La Mujer (Woman’s Bridge), designed by the Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava.
Puente De La Mujer (Woman's bridge)
Next on our must-do list, Avenida Corrientes, also known as “The Street That Never Sleeps”, is Buenos Aires’s answer to Broadway. We went to see “Chicago”, the musical at one of the theatres. It was entirely in Spanish but it was not a problem for me. (Not because I speak that much Spanish, simply because I know the story by heart.) It was nevertheless an unforgettable evening. The cast was amazing. I must have been smiling so wide and giant that when the show was over, I realized my cheeks were really tired. (Nothing excites me more than a dazzling live performance, really.) 
Musical "Chicago" in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires, as a city is truly versatile; modern skyscrapers and classic historic architecture, both European and Latin American cultural influences, people of different backgrounds and status existing in harmony. In the arts department as well, you can almost have it all. Theatre, Classical concerts, Dance, Cinema, Literature, Art galleries and museums, oh, you name it.  You will not get bored as there are plenty of things to do for both day and night. Porteños, as people from Buenos Aires are known, (meaning people who are from or lives in a port city) are nice and friendly people. Many of them speak English but as a courtesy, it is best you approach them with some Spanish (even if it’s limited), then switch to English once it gets too complicated, they are happy to help out, give directions and have a chat. It is also a comfortable city, communication -wise. The metro lines are uncomplicated, clean and effective. I would go back there in a heartbeat if I ever have a chance again in the future.
Argentine Congress
After one week in BA, we packed our bags once again to set out for the Patagonia region and Iguazu falls of Argentina. The city life was incredible but we needed to see the countryside and the amazing landscapes of Argentina as well. We did go back to BA for one more night on our way back from the falls. That night, opera singer, Placido Domingo was giving a free concert in the city. Sadly, we did not get to go as we found out too late and we had already made a dinner commitment with friends. That is one thing I regret because it would have been a great way to wrap up my Buenos Aires experience on a real high note. Well, you can’t have it all, can you? 
An artist in La Boca
Buenos Aires Cabildo at night

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Jessie J-Who You Are (Album Review)

Since Amy Winehouse’s victory in music, we have witnessed the invasion of British female singers on the world’s music stage. Duffy, Leona Lewis, Florence Welch and Adele are killing it on the music charts around the world (while Amy is sorting herself out at the rehab). To join forces with these pop tarts, here comes another hailing from London called “Jessie J”. Initially, to be honest, I assumed Jessie J was just another hip-hop chick who would stick around for a bit singing about bling-bling and gangsta-luving s*&#ts. Then I saw a video clip of her singing her heart out in a New York subway station on Channel V. Her colossal voice and her British accent immediately grabbed my attention and subsequently led me to her debut album “Who You Are”. I shouldn’t have judged the CD by its cover, right? And here’s the CD cover.

The album’s biggest asset is not the near-poetry song writing or lush music production. It is Jessie J’s enormous voice. Don’t expect her to hold back when it comes to singing. Jessie J, with Chaka Khan-like force and power, though not always necessarily soulful like Chaka, sings very high and very loud. “Mamma Knows Best” is a track where look-what-I-can-do vocals are full on display. The album title track “Who You Are” is a rousing anthem where she slays her vocals. (I very much prefer the live acoustic version)It's okay not to be okay. Sometimes it's hard to follow your heart. Tears don't mean you're losing, everybody's bruising” lyrics sound a bit cliché and corny but it’s one of the better ballads on this album. Besides I feel that she carries the message with a very honest delivery.

“Price Tag” will see the concert-going crowd swaying and singing the lyrics “It's not about the money, money, money. We don't need your money, money, money. We just wanna make the world dance. Forget about the Price Tag”. Smart move! Stand by the poor people and you’ll go far.Big White Room”, a favorite of mine, was written when she was only ten years old in a hospital. Her intense singing matches the heartfelt lyrics. “Sitting in the big white room alone. Close the door. Don't want the pain to come in. I clench my fist. And try to stay strong. I cry, feel sick. My heart is beating out of control. Can I run, run faster than you? I wanna feel my body again. Feel the wind in my hair, yeah. But I have to stay in this big white room,'Cause no one else cares”. “Who We Are” and “Rainbow” talk about self-confidence, anti-discrimination, social justice and equality. They all coulda shoulda become the new “Beautiful” or “Hero” but they didn’t simply because there’s already “Beautiful” and... “Hero”. Do we need more? Perhaps!

She shows a whole lotta attitude with “Do It Like A Dude”. It is of course an obligatory female empowerment anthem that every female singer must sing about nowadays. I particularly like her humorous approach and street cred in her song writing which makes it fun and relevant yet not sounding trite. Apart from these few good tracks, the other songs, though they are catchy and decent enough to make you dismiss the thought that they were merely fillers, are not that spectacular. Mixing of Caribbean sounds and hip-hop beats, anybody would agree, is not earth-shatteringly fresh. Channeling Bob Marley in “Stand Up” and “Rainbow”??? Not original, bad move!  As much as I love the Halloumi cheese-like squeakiness in her voice and her soaring mammoth vocals, songs like “I Need This” and “Rainbow” find her voice going all over the place and out of control. She will need to find the right materials to put her glorious voice to good use. But then again, it’s only her first effort. First records are always about making a statement as loud as one could, right? Then Jessie has done well. I’m sure we’ll see more of her in the future.