Joanna Wang is a great example of how record labels can make and break a creative person. Imagine a successful musician, someone with a particular style and look, who is often described in three words, two of which are the first and last name of someone more famous. Someone whose music may not be great, but is safe and agreeable enough to fill the halls of shopping malls and grocery stores. Now imagine that musician is you, astute reader of Critter Jams, who obviously has taste and wouldn’t be caught dead listening to such compromised and focus-grouped trash. This is the life Joanna Wang has been living. I don’t want to imply that she just tripped and fell into a music career, but she is in a way a victim of circumstance. She had the voice, she had the looks, she could sing in two languages, and she had a father who just so happened to be a well-known music producer, making her the fever-dream of music executives everywhere. She wound up getting roped into a long-term contract at the age of 17, unaware of exactly what her music career was about to become.
The only surprising thing about Wang’s debut, Start From Here, is that Joanna herself was only 19 when it was recorded – there’s a raspy, world-weary quality to her voice that you’d have trouble believing came from someone so young. Otherwise, it is about as professional and dry as you can imagine; it is the sort of thing that you find yourself hating even though it’s hard to point out what, if anything, is wrong with it. I find it hard to scrutinize (my one-word review: “boring”) but for Joanna it was a major problem – it was her name, her face, her voice, but it’s not her. The real Joanna Wang was sharp and eccentric, into video games and theatre, and would never willingly listen to the soft-jazz she was so often compared to (Norah Jones, Lisa Ono, and Kenny G). Unhappy with the situation, she fought for the right to use her own compositions on the next album, given that they would be in line with the style that she was known for. Sony agrees at first, but eventually intervenes, and as a result her second album was yet another collection of covers and ballads, with her original songs relegated to a bonus disc.
All this makes The Adventures of Bernie the Schoolboy that much more interesting. Technically it is her 4th or 5th album, though in some sense it is her debut. It is every bit as bizarre as the cover makes it look – tales of revenge, unrequited love, revolting farm animals, and manipulative children, all set to clavier-heavy baroque music. There’s not a whole lot quite like it – Susumu Hirasawa’s Secrets of the Flowers of Phenomenon I’ve heard that sounds anything like this, though I suspect it’s very close to Wendy Carlos in some respects. Guernica too, though Joanna is less avant-garde. Maybe you could compare it to Danny Elfman (Joanna is a big fan), or late-period Sparks, but it’s important to note that the clavier and Joanna’s voice are nearly the only elements on the disc. I’d hesitate to call it minimalist though, as there’s enough rhythm and counterpoint that you wouldn’t exactly need a drum machine. One step to the left and you could call it Zolo, one step to the right it’s Shibuya-kei, but as it sits these may well be covers of an obscure 18th century composer. Even the lyrics seem old fashioned, mostly whimsical little fables that take dark turns (“I’ve plotted against everyone I know/last on the list is me, oh no!”).
It’s amusing to imagine Sony trying to market this album. Not because it’s inaccessible, but it is at odds with Wang’s established image, the red-jacket wearin’ producer’s daughter who sang songs for sophisticated dinner parties. This same year she released The Things We Do For Love, another dual-language album of folky and jazzy cover tunes like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and “Wild World”, an album she only agreed to make as a means to get Bernie recorded in the first place. So predictably, Bernie got almost no promotion at all, as though Sony was afraid of her fans buying it without really knowing what it was. Which is a shame, because it’s a really good album, and one that I think would’ve done quite well, if only Joanna had some different labels affixed to her.
The great thing about Bernie the Schoolboy is that it’s the sort of album that’s easy to listen to, as it’s very short (just under half an hour) and the songs tend to be pretty catchy. The trick, in the grand old They Might be Giants fashion, is not to repeat anything more than once, and to end the songs before they hit the three-minute mark (only the final one goes over). So there’s no time to get bored, and the album ends before you have a chance to get tired of the style. So yeah, its brief and I wish it were longer, but it doesn’t feel like it ought to be an EP or whatever. Of course it helps that the songs are melodically dense and well-constructed, rewarding repeat listens despite being fairly immediate. Normally at this point I would write about some of the individual songs but there’s not much point on an album this consistent. Jauntier songs on the first half, prettier ones on the second, plus an instrumental called “The Chicken Circus”, which you know has to be good. Still, Joanna’s voice is the secret weapon here – a lot of music like this features singers with voices that are paper-thin and don’t have a lot of range, which is unfortunate since you can do so much more when the singer can hit the higher notes (Sparks, for example).
Sadly, I’m not sure how someone in the intended audience would even discover this album. I discovered it on a tip from I Love Music (you know who you are), but since Sony isn’t making her “weird” music available outside of Taiwan, she’s still better known as the soft-jazz ballad singer. The only option for her is to keep plugging away, which she seems more than happy to do, releasing even stranger albums in 2013 and 2015, while keeping her other career alive. Best not to bite the hand that feeds, I guess. And it does seem like those albums are slowly gaining some momentum; Wang has too much talent to be suppressed, and I suspect she’s got some really great things ahead of her.