What does Lucinda Chua sound like?
Powerfully understated string, key and vocal arrangements for those searching for a place to belong.
The review of Lucinda Chua – YIAN
‘YIAN’ means swallow (the bird) in Chinese and is part of Lucinda Chua’s Chinese name Siew Yian given to her by her parents. It is the first of many connections to migration, free-spirit nature and an airy, angelic condition. This is because the singer-songwriter’s new album ‘YIAN’ is a masterclass in contemporary classical alternative pop.
The first thing to know about Lucinda Chua is that she mixes lush, sensual, feminine, full-bodied string arrangements with piano and voice. Whilst there is a lot of contemporary classical string work going on, diving into the icy ambience and meditation like on the beautiful ‘Meditations on a Place’, Chua is just as happy working chords and hooks too. The closest artist I can think of that has a similar thought process may be My Brightest Diamond during her ‘A Thousand Sharks Teeth’ era. Vocally they also sound similar in tone. Lucinda Chua is permanently in her soft and transcendent form throughout the album though. Do not expect bombastic explosions – this is introspection and detailed microscopic notes blown up for all to hear.
The opening track ‘Golden’ is sublime. Its tender electric piano gently underscores distant acoustic guitar tinkles and Lucinda’s vocal layering. As the track hits its stride, it has a ghostly call-and-response chorus. Lucinda sings a phrase only for her backing layers to warp in and out like ghostly echoes to repeat it back to her like a sound imprint. Chua is also very happy leaving space for contemplation. On tracks like ‘I Promise’ and ‘”You”‘ we move from warm electric piano to tentative upper octave clinks and gentle string solos, washed out or quietly dancing in the background. The album is so delicately put together and Lucinda’s voice is able to barely break a hush to draw you in too. It is rare to convey such intimacy for a sustained period but this album does it with ease.
When an album is so rich in femininity, it can sometimes lack a low end. To combat that, Lucinda brings in subtle electronic elements to add depth. Elsewhere, lower octave piano notes add depth too. Both are used in the elegant ‘An Ocean’, with vinyl effects to add a rustic edge. The theme of the album is Lucinda’s reconciliation of heritage, personal history and personal identity. I think it’s why a lot of the echoing backing vocals sound like ancient Chinese folk chants, ghostly calling out. A lot of the lyrics are about being in different places or thought states too. This all comes to a head in the only song which lets Lucinda really sing with weight and power. On ‘Autumn Leaves Don’t Come’, she declares after ‘swallowing her songs’ that she’s been living in the sky too long. It feels like the emotional clarity the album and Chua is looking for and with it being the most direct melodic and vocal piece, it delivers the message perfectly.
With this realisation, the lyrical tone shifts to acceptance. On the pitter-patter electric piano of ‘Echo’, Chua realises she needs to lead her own path and not be someone else’s echo – complete with some beautiful backing vocal arrangements to showcase the fact audibly. Quiet in defiance, it is one of the best soft army songs I’ve heard in years. Tapping into her more experimental side, ‘Do You Know, You Know?’ plays tape-damaged electric piano and synth riffs whilst vocal effects twist her voice into alien cries. ‘Grief Piece’ is a short instrumental piece that is piano based but triggers some notes like razor light beams of fuzzy noise instead. It’s like a very thin electric guitar as if the grief is sending out an electric charge to shock you. With everything behind us, the closing track sees Lucinda asking how to live her life in ‘Something Other Than Years’. It is a beautiful ballad that closes out the album with a new line of questioning but also sounding more assured too. The sound of the string arrangement is fuller, with a lower-end depth. Lucinda’s vocals have additional lower layers to them. It’s as if she is sonically a bit more grounded – intentionally or not. It’s such a subtle production tweak but it really works.
‘YIAN’ is an absolutely beautiful album from start to finish. It is so sensitive, nuanced and delicate as each song searches for something to call home. It is an album of yearning to belong and that’s something many can relate to regardless of what we want to belong to. Balancing wisdom and vulnerability – and a cracking penchant for subtle earworm choruses – Lucinda Chua has created a powerhouse body of work. Deeply arresting and affecting, this stays with you long after it’s over.
Recommended track: Golden
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