Gary Lucas: The Edge of Heaven (2003)
And you might be ready to write him off at this point, but that would be a big mistake Lucas, a master guitarist, puts a wicked, bluesy spin on old Cantonese pop tunes. Though the album concept might sound dubious, it's anything but: the music has a delicate, evanescent loveliness that goes far toward explaining Lucas's fascination.
As he tells it, a business trip to Taipei in the mid-1970s was the start of it all. While there, he fell very hard for Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong, the top women singers from the 1930s through the '50s. Lucas was so besotted that he began opening Captain Beefheart shows with medleys of their songs, played for Chinese weddings, the works. And he eventually talked someone into letting him record this album, which (in my book) is a good thing. His ferocious technical ability could have sunk the project, but The Edge of Heaven is no chops-fest I think Lucas would rather die than trivialize this exceedingly lovely music.
He comps for singers Celeste Chong and Gisburg with a feather-light touch, but this is where the going gets a bit tricky. Chong's passionate restraint brings the lyrics home sans translations, but Gisburg's cool, emotionally distanced interpretations are another thing. They're interesting enough in their way, but they simply don't grab my imagination like Chong's. (Or Lucas's instrumentals, for that matter.)
The Edge of Heaven is highly diverting, and it certainly bears up under repeat listenings. But I'd far rather hear the recordings that captured Lucas's imagination in the first place. Here's hoping his work here spurs someone to risk releasing them for the U.S. market.
Track Listing: 1. Old Dreams; 2. Please Allow Me to Look at You Again; 3. The Mad World; 4. The Wall; 5. If I'm Without You; 6. Night in Shanghai; 7. Where is My Home; 8. Songstress on the Edge of Heaven; 9. I Wait for Your Return; 10. Pretense; 11. The Moon in the Street; 12. The Wall; 13. Please Allow Me to Look at You Again
Personnel: Gary Lucas: acoustic, electric and National Steel guitars, electronics; Celeste Chong, vocals (2, 6, and 8); Gisburg, vocals (4, 9 and 11); Ernie Brooks, bass (4, 9, 11, 12); Jonathan Kane, drums (4, 9, 11, 12).
Record Label: Label Bleu
Style: Fringes of Jazz