Tuan Ngoc, Thai Hien, Vu Khanh – Y Biec (Nhac Khuc Nguyen Dinh Phung)

Never judge an album by its cover. As a visual guy, I find that principle is hard to follow. I believe that first impression is better than no impressions at all. An album cover should at least give the audience a sense of the work before they make the purchase. The design of Y Biec (Nguyen Dinh Phung’s music) looks like someone who just learned new Photoshop effects and puts his or her tricks to work. The layout is incoherent, the use of types is ineffective, and let’s not going into the background and bevel effects. The visual says nothing about the work. Could it be that the designer doesn’t immerse into the music?

Y Biec is not an easy listening album. Nguyen Dinh Phung music doesn’t seize listeners immediately, but the strength lies in a study in subdued, soothing colors, gorgeous harmonies, and cascades of pure melody. Like a slow-cooking process, the compositions marinate gradually into the listeners’ hearts. Once they are fully absorbed, the experience is rejuvenating.

The album featured three distinguished vocalists and a sonic mastermind. Tuan Ngoc, Thai Hien, and Vu Khanh are at their best on the performances (each covers three tracks), and Duy Cuong is as amazing as always with his soft and sensuous arrangements. Despite what the poor CD cover design might suggest, together they have created a rich level of chamber-music. The best part is the varieties each singer brings to the work. While Tuan Ngoc delivers his calmness qualities on “Sau Y Biec,” Thai Hien flows her illusionary aesthetics on “Hanh Ngo,” and Vu Khanh holds the dynamic steady on “Thanh Pho Thien Than.”

As a master of fine-tuning producer, Duy Cuong caters his sounds to blend in with the vocalist styles. For the cool-under-pressure Tuan Ngoc, Duy Cuong allows tiny fluctuations in his instruments to carry the emotional weight, noticeably on “Mua Dong Hong Van No.” For the pitch-perfect Thai Hien, he wants listeners to hear the particulars, even when the chord weaves in and out of the singing on “Vo Dinh.” The technique is so subtle that the instrumental and the vocals have become an integral, indivisible part of the composition. For the forceful Vu Khanh, he lets the voice to be the essence. “Nhung Loi Nghin Trung” is a vocal driven track, but the beat changes in the background are interesting from slow ballad to jazz.

With Nguyen Dinh Phung’s poetic lyrics, Duy Cuong’s brilliant sounds, and vocalists’ meticulous deliveries, Y Biec is an album I reach for over and over, as if it were a pack of cigarettes, especially when insomnia strikes. Sleep is not something I do well these days, and it seems to get worse as I am approaching the three-zero territory; therefore, slow, relax, and unwind music is my best companion.