Sandy Lam - Late Night Solitude (三更夜半) (1988)
Album: Sandy Lam - City Touch - Part I - City Rhythm (1988)
Song: Late Night Solitude (三更夜半)
Until recently, I had no idea that there was a prominent Cantonese pop scene in the 80s. You hear a lot about J-Pop in the west, but never will you hear of "Cantopop". Among the many prolific artists in the genre, none rise higher than Sandy Lam in terms of melody, energy and production. And wouldn't you know it, she is still putting out albums today that are still very good and worth checking out (I suggest looking for her 2012 album Gaia, if you are curious).
But my focus for this post is to focus on her most energetic track, "三更夜半" which translates to either "Late Night Solitude" or "In the Midst of the Night". The reason I make a big deal about that is because, surprisingly, this entire album was part of a multi-album series of connected concept albums that Wikipedia describes as, "portraying a surreal young urban professional woman in a realistic city of the late 80s."
This track in particular seems to touch on a very nuanced and cultural aspect of being a woman of strong tradition in Hong Kong who is torn between needing to keep a her perceived high social status while desperately wishing to seek a romance. I am positive a lot of this concept is lost in culture and translation, but from the sound of the performance, there is genuine feeling and conflict. It's a fascinating angle that you pretty much never see any pop music attempting to tackle.
But what of the music? I am pleased to say that even on the other side of the world, no one could resist the urge to use drum machines and synths galore. This entire track rests on a cloud of mysterious dissonant jazzy electric key chords, while being constantly peppered by an exceptionally meaty synth bass and low bitrate sampled brass stabs. It actually has a very 90s vibe to it, while still keeping a lot of 80s aesthetics.
But the real show stopper here are the vocals. Sandy Lam has an unbelievably sultry voice, and is excellent at conveying emotion, even without being able to translate the words. The entire album is sung in the Cantonese language, which is actually one of the prettiest languages in my opinion. Very apparent when you hear it wielded by such a strong performance. The music video here, too, has a surprisingly high quality to it. It is very refreshing to see a pop star sing about sex without having to get naked on film, or show off body parts, and still come off sexy as hell.
It might not be in a language you can understand, but still the language of music speaks very strongly through this track. Combined with knowledge of the high lyrical content, this track seems to be something you can translate by feel.
Cantopop... Who knew. Well, millions of people in Hong Kong, at least.