Monday, August 29, 2005
HUMPBACK OAK- Pain-stained Morning CD
(Pony Canyon Entertainment 1994)
"Down to the low life, well do I like it? No finer time to be alive." Or so, said the tortured crooner of Humpback Oak, with that familiar, desperate voice that reaches out from the lonely corners of the HDB units into every drowning holes of nocturnal enclaves. I drink to that, with a chill for that good old nostalgia of my teenage years and the solace I found in the dejected chapters of "Pain-stained Morning". Yes, I was that kid in the backrow, and I swore to my checkered jackets. Part of the curriculum involved desktop graffiti and exchange of CDs and cassette tapes. And one evening was spent dumbfounded, wearing the filmsy "Pain-stained Morning" tape of my friend. Of course I bought the CD eventually. For the very first instance, my eyes were drawn to the morose cover, which cannot be explained better than a really painful, screwed up morning, dead cat fetuses and all. Evenings became sessions that turned the depression of a melancholic youth into uplifting experiences, with myself shut within an enclosure, a little beam of light to break the total darkness, cigarette between the lips and Humpback Oak unfolding the pain in its poetic proses. The rich and infectious bleakness they've woven is the drought to wallow and drown into, the bitterness leaving memorable aftertaste like mana-like sustenance. The best thing about "Pain-stained Morning" is that I can relate my life at that time to every songs put out by the melancholic merchants, and feeling a familiarity in its unique Singaporean sound. It just speaks to you in a personal way, when you feel left out because you are not living in Seattle.
This is the band's debut album, but the unit had existed well six full years before it, made up of four blokes from SJI (mortal enemies of my alma mater) namely leader and bassist Daniel Wee, drummer Stanley Teo, guitarist Vincent Chin and the well known main lyricist/lead vocalist Leslie Low who had past outings in the Sonic Youth inspired outfit The Twang Bar Kings. They cited their influences from The Beatles to Jesus and Mary Chain and in my opinion the debut has a particular appeal to fans of guitar-based pop/rock of R.E.M., CSNY, Crowded House and especially The Church, but laden with more guitar flairs, folk, local spirit, sadness and calm. One listen and you'll understand that these guys eat nasi lemak for breakfast. The strong Singaporean identity is an advantage, but also not to forget their gift of weaving mesmerising sadcore that hooks the listener deep into their sepia-tinted creations. The guitar rhythms have a laidback mellowness, and melodies are rather bright and enticing, yet the undertone of the music has that subtle undercurrent of foggy shadows and clouds. The vocals are also rather relaxed and mellow, never really adding up to serious emotional upheaval or lamentings which can water down the flow in excesses but rather guide you through the chapters gently. There's no need to catch a breath in its lengthy expanse, since it glides gracefully with sublime ease, simple but intricate. One can feel the utmost sincerity, passion and elegance that make their pain seemingly enjoyable.
"Deep Door Down", the second track off the CD is really the first song to set the dark mood in, with the laidback brooding guitar lines unfolding in the X and Y of the stereos stimultaneously, engulfing the listener in a surreal passage of lonely forlorn, and I can picture a trip through the twisted interiors of Labrador Park. The vocalist croons "turn a corner and I see, a person looking/ there behind me there's another person staring/ am I freaking or am I strange...rearranging my brain...", which grapples on morbidity and schizophrenia, descent into his insanity. That guitar line is the making of legends! This happens to be my most favourite track and it made me not wanting to return the cassette tape to the anxious bugger who also managed to makan my Stone Roses tape. "Lucifer" delves into the unspeakable, the unholy yet omnipotent darkness that pervades the lyricist. On the subtle note, I can feel that he's casting a personal exorcism upon his innermost struggle; an expulsion for the temptations of "a new reason, a new freedom". The track shares a rather similar kind of laidback touch to the former only with the addition of a creepy-sounding electrical violin warping the senses. A good track for a fine reflective moment too. "Finer Life" is a tragic insight into twisted human relationships, misery and questions the blurry grey between right and wrong. Musically, this track exudes a local/asian feel from the unique scales the guitarist is playing on.
"Swansong" is more upbeat than the aforementioned tracks but it certainly isn't less painful. Floating brightness, casual strides, mesmerising melodies make the suicide theme a tad mild, but also more beautiful. Once again, it narrates an encounter; this time a mysterious call from a lady in the middle of the night sought advices from the narrator on suicide. "Then the line went dead/ she never called again..." ends on a tragic note and he's suddenly being overwhelmed with a sense of guilt, "saw her in my head for the first time". "Circling Square" is an endearing torch song tipping on grace without being overladen with diabetic-harmful saccharine typical of masses' "love songs". The simplicity, sincerity and passion of the song, combined with tender vocals and an ingenious beauty of composition makes this track a major favourite of mine. Love "don't see the need to complicate", pure as that. This song became the anthem to all that infatuations I had in my teenagehood. "Lower Girl" elevates the mood with more upbeat rhythms, the groovy surf-lines conjure The Pixies in the sleazy night lounges of Katong. The lyricist proclaims an obsession with the girl who happens to be way higher up than him. All she needs is to "be my lower girl", as hopeless as it may sound. "Crow" equally touches on obsession, but with hurt and pain manifested in both directions as relationships turned away from the fruition of love into the destructive cycle of "I turn to persuade you, pursue you like a prey". This song has a certain grandiose to it, as the instruments (for the most part, guitars) are layered into a rich hue of sounds, converging into a soundscape of ambience and the deliverance is driven by delirium (note, intense passion). Another frequent number on my playlists, no doubt.
With material this strong, it came as no surprise when the songs became frequents on the radio back in '94/'95 and chances are that bespectacled girl across the street knows how to hum to "Circling Square". Humpback Oak became THE BAND from Singapore with this debut release, making many young eager upstarts swearing to the local waves, which included me in the process. "Pain-stained Morning" is the landmark in the history of Singaporean music and no matter how much you are brought up with the latest MTV fodder, you cannot be blinded to the sheer qualities of this effort. Regardless of what you skeptics hold your opinion to, their music has become a living legacy of our heartlanders. I myself will attest with my heart. Do you have pain-stained mornings? Yup? Great, then you must be a Singaporean.
--sojourner at 2:40 AM