"Hearing the music of Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong for the first time was like a gift from the Goddesses," Gary Lucas writes in the liner notes to his album The Edge of Heaven: Gary Lucas Plays Mid-Century Chinese Pop. The album opens with a shimmering, delicate splash of guitar that serves as a transition to that heavenly world, leading into Lucas's pretty, exceedingly gentle rendition of the touching "Old Dreams", originally sung by Bai Kwong.
While Lucas’s instrumental “Old Dreams” gives listeners a succinct glimpse into the emotions these songs deliver, the otherworldliness which drew Lucas to the original works isn’t truly demonstrated until the vocalists appear. All of the 11 songs included here (there’s 13 tracks, 2 in both instrumental and vocal versions) were originally sung by Chinese vocalists Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, and much of those recordings’ power comes from the two women’s majestic voices. Both sang for films as often as on record, so it’s fitting that, as Lucas points out in the liner notes, their songs are starting to show up again in new Chinese films. Lucas mentions Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love as one of these films, and it’s true that Chow Hsuan’s songs make up an important part of the spell that the film casts.
On The Edge of Heaven, the vocals are handled by Celest Chong and Gisburg. Both excellently capture the piercing yet dreamy quality of the original vocals, sharply conveying the emotions that bowl listeners over as completely as the melodies and atmosphere do. With titles like “Please Allow Me to Look at You Again”, “I Wait for Your Return”, and “Where Is My Home”, these songs deal with love and hope and sadness in stark terms. While the translated lyrics in the liner notes makes those feelings clear for listeners like myself who don’t speak the language, understanding what’s being said isn’t necessary for getting the emotional impact. There’s a force to the sounds themselves which is overwhelming. The way the singer’s voice meets the guitar, as both clearly express longings, is extraordinary.
Lucas is a guitar player, so though the album is a tribute to two singers, guitar is omnipresent. While he adeptly supports the two vocalists on the songs that have vocals, staying appropriately in the background yet adding immensely to the atmosphere, seven of the 13 songs are instrumentals. These give Lucas the chance to capture a singer’s gift through his instrument while playing with the melodies in a more exploratory way. While on “Old Dreams” he swirls impressionistic guitar sounds around the melody, on “If I’m without You”, he chooses a straightforward approach, gently but firmly picking the melody. If none of the songs give Lucas the chance to demonstrate the rock chops he honed with Captain Beefheart and Gods and Monsters, on several of them he taps into his love of the blues (something both of those bands also obviously drew from), making a cross-cultural connection that works. “Mad World” has a rolling acoustic-blues sound, while “Where Is My Home” rages with a churning electric blues.
That melding of genres is only a small part of what makes The Edge of Heaven so compelling. While a more blues-oriented guitarist finding similarities between his style and Chinese pop from half a century ago makes for an intriguing musical experience, the album also takes a straightforward enough approach as to be a great introduction to fantastic music that Lucas’ average listener isn’t likely to know much about. As with any good tribute, if music fans seek out the original recordings after hearing The Edge of Heaven, then Lucas has done them quite a service. What makes this album a cut above is that it’s both tribute and reinterpretation, something for everyone.