[21 September 2008]
Mixing modern and classical or traditional styles can have varied results. Many times, it comes off as contrived and corny. And when it doesn’t, sometimes it’s only because the artist gets a pass based on previous efforts; see “I Can” by Nas, which features Beethoven’s “Für Elise”. Fortunately for Shanghai Restoration Project mastermind Dave Liang, however, he never sounds contrived or corny. Instead, he treats us to a delicious and lush blend of traditional Chinese instruments with hip-hop and electronica to make something truly unique and fun to listen to. Liang—a one-man music-making machine—and his numerous collaborators have turned what could have been elevator music into an album full of style and substance.
All of the songs on Instrumentals Day and Night are pulled off of past Shanghai albums Story of a City and the self-titled record, but while nothing here is new, it’s all been rearranged to breathe new life into existing tracks. They also get a new sense of cohesion as they blend seamlessly into one another. It’s not an easy task to take what you’ve already created and shape it into something else, but Liang pulls it off here. The transitions are smooth and natural. Sure, it’s easier since there are no vocals to further change the mood, but you have to give credit where it’s due. This two-disc album also comes in time for the 2008 Olympics, which was Liang’s intention. His press release dubs the compilation as the “ultimate collection of music for your ultimate 24 hours in his namesake city.” Although I have never been to Shanghai, Day and Night certainly takes me there sonically.
As expected, both discs are near opposites. Sure, they are both moody pieces that require a certain state of mind for truly appreciative listening, but they also cater to different emotions. The Day disc plays a lot like a bright afternoon spent baking in the sun or lying in bed; either way, be ready to mellow out. There are a few club numbers on the Day side, but it’s not nearly as groovy as the Night disc. When the darkness hits, get ready to shake your ass—for most of the tracks anyway.
On the sunny side, numbers like “Nanjing Road East”, one of Day‘s most danceable songs, plays a lot like the background music from your favorite Usher hit. And that’s a very good thing. Sure, the chanting vocals don’t bring modern day R&B to mind, but the hand-clap driven drums and excellent strings certainly fit that mold. Similarly, “Pudong New District” readies the listener for the morning commute with a steady beat and trance-like aesthetics. But it all cools down once “Pace of Light” hits. It’s a soothing and beautiful listen that flows into like-minded tracks “Peace Hotel” and “Jade Buddha Temple”, both exercises in relaxation.
Then, as it seems like everything is starting to chill, Night creeps in and the true bangers come out. In particular, “Babylon of the Orient” is like crunk music for the Eastern soul. Its beat bangs with the best of them while throwing in some fiddle and woodwinds to stay true to the project’s goal. Musical curveball “Bubbling Well Road” adds variety to this disc, perhaps acting as the downtime between clubs, bars, or parties. Also, “The Bund” might be too jazzy for some, but it’s a nice change among the more hip-hop-inspired numbers. And then it all begins to slow down again. The grooving “Bubbling Well Alley” feeds right into “Last Night of the Dynasty”, a silky-smooth burner that has drums reminiscent of the Neptunes’ work with Clipse.
As a whole, this 24-song collection is strong, but it’s not without its flaws. Many of the tracks blend together, for better or for worse. They are also greatly influenced by your mood. While there is enough variety in tempos and styles here, Instrumentals Day and Night is at the whim of the listener. But this album remains worthy of at least one listen, so get ready for a musical trip to China.