It's undeniable that Livonia are today one of Singapore's more established indie-rock bands. The skilled musicianship of the members alone is testament to that. And then there's the band's history, dating back to 1994's Self. That's why triplegrandeskinnylatte, the band's debut long-player, is a little overdue. But like they say, better late than never.
The album also demonstrates a long-overdue phase of growth for the band. The previous demos and even the Zerofeel EP had been rather predictable in terms of musical direction. We've come to expect a certain brand of indie-rock from Livonia, and that's what we got from each of those releases. Nothing wrong with that, but the truly great artists don't become so by doing the same thing over and over again.
This debut does not make Livonia a truly great band. But the material is more eclectic and adventurous than ever before. The retro riffs on Dubside are straight from the 70s funk textbook, while Prototype sees Livonia doing a very creditable take on C86 jangle-pop, complete with a super-cheesy synth interlude.
Still, there's only a very fine line between experimentation and self-indulgence. I'm afraid the aptly-titled penultimate track, Too Much, treads that line, while the title track crosses it firmly. It's one thing to be playful in the studio, but quite another to include such material on an album, because the result is to detract from the album's focus and artistic cohesion. Similarly, Livonia have a tendency to go overboard and end up being a bit over-flashy, which creates the impression of all sound and fury with little substance.
Be that as it may, triplegrande is an excellent showcase of Livonia's songwriting ability. The material is of a fairly high standard, with the stand-outs including Dubside, Heavy Load, Let Go and Eve, as well as all three ballads, If Not Now When, Prototype and Unbecoming. And the lyrics are obviously personal while retaining a certain obliqueness, which is no mean feat.
That's why it's a pity that the strength of the material doesn't really jump out at the listener. Joseph Tan is a good singer, but his vocal range is a bit limited. He makes up for it by keeping the songs within a certain range, thereby playing up his strengths as a vocalist while hiding the weaknesses. That's how he can make the ballads work so well. But the consequence is that over an entire album, the songs and hooks aren't that distinctive from one another, and they don't grab the listener the way they would in the hands of a truly gifted singer. That's a pity, because repeated spins really do bring out how good the songs are.
The album was recorded at The Mastering Suite (except for If Not Now When, which was recorded in 1997 at TNT), and mastered at DRT Mastering in the US. The sound is therefore generally good. The notable exception would be the strangely anaemic-sounding drums on Epiphany.
In the final analysis, triplegrande is a landmark for Livonia, but not for the local music scene as a whole, not the way the Oddfellows' Teenage Head or Humpback Oak's Pain-Stained Morning or SideASideB or even the Boredphucks' Banned In Da Singapura were. On the strength of this album, it does look like Livonia are still a work in progress. But if everything comes together in the right way at the right time, who knows? (7.5) Xiao Jinhong
or visit www.livoniachannel.net.
And indulge me while I clarify my earlier review of Livonia's Zerofeel
EP, comparing it with Mansun's Six. Read it again; I only said (or meant
to say) that the song structures had that prog-rock style, of twisting
and turning, slipping and sliding. Not that Livonia sounded anything like
Mansun they don't. And I liked Zerofeel while I hated Six.
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