New albums by Julia Peng, Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Z.E.N. Trio



Julia Peng

Sony Music Entertainment

3.5 stars

Over the years, Taiwanese singer Julia Peng has chalked up quite a few hits from Ai Dao Wu Lu Ke Tui (Dead End Love) to Gan Yuan (Willingly). It was not till 2016, two decades after the release of her debut album, though that the singer finally won a Golden Melody Award for Best Mandarin Female Singer.

It was for the album Darling, whose Chinese title is the more evocative Older Women.

The 45-year-old explores similar ground here, looking at things from the perspective of a woman of a certain age.

Her warm and pellucid voice breathes rich life into tracks such as Singing With Me Softly: "My dear, have you discovered as well, storied us seem to be used to smiling bravely".

Does society demand too much of women nowadays? She asks poignantly on the title track: "Who says women have to sacrifice everything, use up all our strength, forgetting to take care of ourselves".

The ballads are moving and lightly melancholic, but Peng is far from defeated by life.

There is the retro rock of Heart Is Blooming and the jazzily sassy None Of Your Business. She is gloriously defiant on the latter, which features a cameo by in-demand rapper PoeTeK: "Ask me how I am, none of your business, leave a gentle smile, just the right amount of lonely".

She can be justifiably proud of what she has achieved when she looks back on this record.

Boon Chan



Squirrel Nut Zippers

Southern Broadcasting

This Americana band burst into prominence around the same time that the neo-swing movement took off in the late 1990s. While peers such as Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy went for the full zoot suit/straight swing sound, Squirrel Nut Zippers were always a little more goofball and left of centre with their generous infusion of bluegrass, vaudeville and kooky sensibility.

This new album, their first studio release in 18 years, follows their tried-and-tested formula. The album opens with twangy harp strings and jungle drumbeats underlining a carnival barker soliloquy.

Conglomeration Of Curios segues directly into a big swinging New Orleans meets 1930s swing take on Karnival Joe (From Kokomo), jazzed up with lively bluegrass violins, which sets the crazy carnival camp mood.

The programme, as well as arrangements, careens cheerfully from Cuban rhythms with jangly piano in Hey Shango!, to nudge-nudge wink-wink vaudevillian double entendres in Rusty Trombone, to Delta blues belting in Use What Mama Gave You.

What saves this from tipping over into full-scale ironic camp is the band's genuine love for the musical genres that they mash up so gleefully. There is both affection and accomplishment in the way they play, making this a great party music soundtrack which sizzles and struts with flair.

Ong Sor Fern



Piano Trios

The Z.E.N. Trio

Deutsche Grammophon 481 6292

5 stars

The Z.E.N. Trio is formed by Chinese pianist Zhang Zuo, Korean cellist Esther Yoo and Armenian cellist Narek Haknazaryan, all young prize-winning musicians who were brought together by the BBC New Generation Artists programme in 2015.

Their debut recording as a piano trio (the group's name is derived from the members' first names), coupling piano trios by two Central European musical giants, is a triumph of the globalisation of music.

Both Johannes Brahms (1833 to 1897) and Antonin Dvorak (1841 to 1904) were well acquainted - the older German served as a mentor to the young Bohemian.

There is little that is zen in these performances. Brahms' youthful Piano Trio No. 1 In B Major (Op. 8), brims with ardour and vitality, especially in the opening movement's big tune and the ebullient Scherzo. Even if the composer had drastically revised it in his mature years, this later version nevertheless retains its original youthful spirit and fire.

This continues seamlessly into Dvorak's Piano Trio In E Minor (Op. 90), nicknamed "Dumky" as its five movements relive the essence of the Slavic folk lament known as the "dumka". The dyed-in-wool melancholy and catchy rhythms are well captured by the youthful threesome, as is the rather apt quasi-gypsy encore, a heady arrangement of Brahms' Sixth Hungarian Dance. There is much to enjoy here.

Chang Tou Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2018, with the headline 'Hot Tracks'. Print Edition | Subscribe