One of the bright spots in this year’s Stony Brook Film Festival (which is in its 17th year, well worth the trip if you have some time next July) was “Shanghai Calling,” an unassuming romantic comedy about a Chinese-American lawyer’s travails in the new China. It was mainly valuable for its depiction of “Americatown,” the community of North American expats who have discovered different ways of adapting to their new home away from home.
An expat survival strategy that “Shanghai Calling” didn’t explore is, apparently, forming an indie rock band. In contrast to Beijing, where the heart and soul of the music scene are Chinese, Shanghai looks and sounds much more North American. At least that’s the sense I got from “We Are Shanghai,” a new compilation on Zang Nan Recordings, on which most of the twenty bands originally hail from somewhere other than Shanghai. This might be related to the fact that the two guys who released it are both in expat bands (Dennis Nichols from Rainbow Danger Club, a congregation of teachers from the United States; and Bren from Stegosaurus?, origins less clear, but apparently Anglo—although they do sing several songs in Chinese). Much of it is quite good, and both of the aforementioned bands as well as Boys Climbing Ropes (originally from Ottawa) have released other things worth tracking down as well. Click here for an interview with Mr. Nichols, and here for more info about the compilation.
The best of the expats on "We Are Shanghai," in my humble opinion, is Boys Climbing Ropes, three boys who leaven their Canadian-ness with the fierce and very Chinese singer Xiao Pengke (“Little Punk”)—their Niko, if you will. “Knitting Song” (both on the compilation and on the splendid EP “Summer and Winter Warfare”) opens with the mantra “keep down down up up down down twist up up twist twist down down up up,” follows with a paean to “ordinary life,” and ends with the (loud, repeated) refrain “You get tired hands.” They superlatively straddle the early-eighties bridge between new wave and college rock, while Ms. Punk provides a great off-kilter counterpoint; and I saw somewhere that she actually knits! If Soul Asylum had been reliably brilliant, they might have sounded like this. Visit their bandcamp site to hear their complete works: it will take you less than 10 seconds to download all their songs for free—and if you only have three seconds to spare, download “Summer and Winter Warfare” at the very least.
Second best band Shanghai expat band, at least based on “We Are Shanghai” and assorted other songs available online, is Rainbow Danger Club, which brings to mind the Flaming Lips or MGMT, combining quiet horns, well-paced melodies, music-hall sashays, and psychadelic bombast. Tied for third are Stegosaurus?, who went from being jokier than thou on their debut “Our Songs B-side You” CD, to sounding like “Masque”-era Kansas and/or the Meat Puppets (they cite the latter as an influence) on “Purple Pachyderm”; and Pairs (a duo, with a Chinese guitarist named F and a drummer/singer named Rhys O'Loughlin), who may test your noisiness/atonal-screaming limits but generally delivers, especially on the truly brilliant song “Cloud Nine”: in case this reference rings a bell, they remind me quite a bit of Kicking Giant. The best fully-Chinese band on the compilation is Duck Fight Goose, which has some material available on itunes: they’re very “experimental,” and it occasionally works—though only rarely on their sports-themed CD, appropriately titled “Sports.”
One compilation was not enough to convince me that the most interesting musicians in Shanghai were born in my hemisphere, so I did some more research. My first try brought me to the website “Smart Shanghai,” where Morgan Short (the bassist for Boys Climbing Ropes) posted tons of great music between 2009-11, mostly by artists from… Beijing! The only non-Beijing band I hadn’t heard of before was IDH, a post-apocalyptic band that formed in Inner Mongolia before they moved to… Beijing! At any rate, my overall China (read: Beijing) music literacy is now vastly improved. I recommend, in particular, Ourself Beside Me, Re-TROS, and The Gar. The first two have a CD each available on itunes (as does Queen Sea Big Shark, the pre-Carsick Cars band mentioned in the video I posted last week); I wish you better luck than I had regarding The Gar, which is the best of the bunch based on the two songs I’ve heard.
Undeterred, I went back to work in search of non-expat Shanghai bands.The overall impression I came away with was that Shanghai has more than its share of great electronica artists, which I’m sure I should appreciate much more than I do. The most established (and easily available) of these is B6: I love their mesmerizing single “Red Sky,” which you can find easily enough. And I did, in the end, find two indie-pop bands that have nothing discernable to do with North America, and are very much worth spending some time with: AM444 (Chinese singer, Dutch DJ) and Next Year’s Love. Both are discordantly melodic, jazzy, and full of promising things to come. If you like off-kilter women’s voices and wonder what the Raincoats might have sounded like if they sang in Chinese, look no further. Next Year's Love released a downloadable EP in January, and an honest-to-goodness vinyl single in August (listen but don't touch—or download—here). AM444 (pictured above), besides having an 8-song EP available at bandcamp, have a full-length called "Rooms" on the way: befriend them here for the latest on that. A (perhaps too) cute Shanghai pop-punk band is Pinkberry (see the video link below), which is one of many Chinese-oriented bands on the Zhu Lu He Feng record label—Shanghai’s up-and-coming counterpart to Bejing’s fairly amazing Maybe Mars label.
Next week: a despatch from (or at least about) the Czech Republic!
This week's video: "Run Away" by Pinkberry