Shortly after ruling out her competitors in Sao Mai-Diem Hen (Morning Star – Rendezvous), Pham Ngoc Khue drops her debut Ben Bo Ao Nha Minh (By Our Pond), a collaboration with her musical mentor Le Minh Son who is a renowned songwriter in Viet Nam. Unlike many new faces who “take the shortcut to fame by performing pop ballads,” as Khue said during her interview with Viet Nam News, she has established herself as an exciting new voice among her peers by performing contemporary folk songs with her strange but striking style. Her rare vocals, along with her bizarre delivery, produce some of the weirdest tunes I have ever heard since Ha Tran’s Nhat Thuc (Solar Eclipse).
The first time I listen to Ngoc Khue’s performance of “Chuon Chuon Ot” (Red Dragonfly) on Sao Mai Diem Hen, she sounds a like twelve years-old girl with an incredibly annoying voice wheezing her way through the song. How the heck did she win Sao Mai-Diem Hen? After listening to the whole album, I finally figured it out. Her voice is a marvel: smooth, sweet, breathy, and smoky at once, and she flips her flows constantly. On “Gio Mua Ve” (The Windy Season Returns), Khue pours her voice into the notes until they overflow. Her northern accent near the end is the most eccentric reading I have heard, although I can hardly make out what she says. “Cap Ba La” is a contemporary folk song that I can snap my fingers and tap my feet to. Khue’s bashful and playful delivery, especially the way she flirts “la lam, ngai lam” (too strange, too shy), is irresistible.
Both the title track “Ben Bo Ao Nha Minh” (By Our Pond) and the remix version of Bac Ninh’s “Ngoi Tua Man Thien” (Sit By the Boat) are invigorating because Khue relaxes into Le Minh Son’s gorgeous arrangements. Unfortunately, her lack of breath control keeps these tracks from being perfect. “Nguoi O, Nguoi Ve” (One Stays, One Returns) is a good example for observing the difference between a new (Ngoc Khue) and an experienced (Thanh Lam) singer. While Lam is breathless, Khue is gasping for air. Khue is an excellent musician with a very unique style, but Lam is untouchable. For instance, Khue’s performance of “Da Trong Chong” (Turned to Stone) is wicked, but Lam’s powerful interpretation is murderous. I like both versions, but if I have to vote for one. I must go with Lam. She has found her way into the composition.
Despite her inexperienced vocal skills and being overshadowed by Thanh Lam, Ngoc Khue has crafted an exquisite first album. She has made the right decision by not choosing popular songs to get her name out. It might be quickest way to fame, but also the fastest way to be forgotten in the game. Khue seduces her fans by using the smartest strategy: allowing the music to grow on listeners instead of letting music wear them out.