In recent American popular-music memory, the usage and sampling of what is perceived to be “ethnic” instrumentality – Truth Hurts’ “So Addictive,” Timbaland’s “Indian Flute” and “Erick Sermon’s “React” – has produced nothing but over-exotic imagery of the East – resonating with Rudyard Kipling’s ideas in his famous quote: “East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Contrary to the orientalist imagery of Shangri-Las, Fu-Man Chus, or the communist frenzy, Chinese-American songwriter and producer David Liang’s The Shanghai Restoration Project attempts to achieve a sonic hybridity that moves beyond essentialist categorizations.
Although The Shanghai Restoration Project is Liang’s first solo effort, his resume features work with high-profile record labels and artists – namely a stint with Bad Boy Records, providing arrangement on Carl Thomas’ sophomore LP Lets Talk About. His experience producing R&B is just one of the many musical influences that shape his music; 1930s Shanghai jazz, Latin, classical, rock and hip-hop influences are all evident in this current project , in which he weds hip-hop and house beats with a variety of traditional stringed Chinese and “Western” instrumentation.
Interestingly, song titles seem to be signposts of colonial Shanghai’s political and cultural history, denying the myths of cultural purity. Tracks such as “Jessfield Park,” “The Bund” and “Joffre Ave.” (referring to European occupation; Lu Xun, the 1930s Chinese intellectual and fiction writer; and Pudong, the current economic and cultural center) demonstrate Liang’s competence of city’s storied cosmopolitan history.
Liang puts these histories into sound, crafting tracks that deal with cultural tensions and contradictions convincingly on “Jade Buddha Temple,” “Peace Hotel (What is Love)” and “The Bund,” which starts with Xia Suo Na bowed strings and Dizi flute then follows with its jazz piano switch-up midway through. Liang complements the sonic complexity with lyrics of universal humanisms such as love, overcoming struggle, independence and personal growth. However, it is hard not to think that “Nanking Road” – oddly reminiscent of C&C Music Factory – takes a particular political stand against histories of foreign domination as the female vocalists shouts, “All rise!” with the synthesized voice beneath muttering, “fight to our last breath.”
Like the overemphasis of sped-up soul samples in current rap production, Liang’s reliance on string instruments loses its novelty toward the end. Some of the experimentation with unlikely juxtapositions – such as “Old City,” which puts contemporary R&B rhythms with non-descript religious chanting – doesn’t work. The lyrics to “Lu Xun” (“Would you like to watch me dance?”) and “Babylon of the Orient” (“Just holla! C’mon and holla!”) are just downright corny. By the end, despite the standout cinematic-style production of “Jessfield Park” – using the piano as percussion and with guzheng strings floating throughout – the vagueness and generalities of the lyrics (“I need a new house/ I need a new car I work for the man/ Gotta get up get out of here”) leaves much to be desired. Yet, despite some of these generic conventions, Liang’s intervention into music offers electic mash-ups that force us to re-think how music and an Asian American are supposed to sound.
David Liang Web site (streaming audio)
Nemesis Records (streaming audio)