I never liked Anh Khoa when he appeared on Paris By Night‘s videos back in early 90s. He wasn’t bad looking, but the man always seemed as if he was about to cry during his performances. At the time, I had enough problems in my real life, especially in school where I was the only Vietnamese kid who spoke a word or two of English; therefore, I couldn’t stand watching him weeping on stage. I needed up-tempo and dance-pop tunes to get my mind off the damn school drama. That was the reason I liked young cats like Don Ho, Kenny Thai, and Thai Tai. In fact, I used to envy Thai Tai when he performed that Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” with Dalena, a Caucasian girl who could sing Vietnamese flawlessly. Thai Tai was a flyboy, and he was jamming and holding hands with this fine white girl. The dude wasn’t my idol, but I wouldn’t mind being in his position at that moment.
Back to Anh Khoa. Although his stage presence never grabbed my attention, I have always liked the mellow, gentle, and affectionate qualities in his voice. After many years on hiatus in Hungary with his family, he recently recorded Khuc Thuy Du, an album with nothing but romantic ballads including Trinh Cong Son’s “Tuoi Da Buon,” Ngo Thuy Mien’s “Ban Tinh Cuoi,” and Nguyen Tam’s “Rong Rieu.” What makes the album listenable is Anh Khoa’s relaxed approach to the standards. He hardly pushes his delivery, yet somehow his soul finds its way into the songs. Almost anyone—from Khanh Ly, Tuan Ngoc, Thanh Lam, Nguyen Khang, Thu Phuong, Quang Dung to Dam Vinh Hung—who had sung Trinh Cong Son’s “Mot Coi Di Ve” had poured every piece of aching heart and soul into it, except for Anh Khoa. He takes it the opposite direction—like Miles Davis responded to bebop—by sounding calm and cool, and he pulled it off beautifully. Unfortunately, the banal production from Bao Chan brings his performance down a notch. The album would have been much tighter if Duy Cuong was behind the board. Anh Khoa needs to get a hold of Duy Cuong in his next release. While his unruffled-the-feather style worked brilliantly on “Mot Coi Di Ve,” it didn’t quite fit “Ban Tinh Cuoi” because he didn’t switch to high register and hold his voice at the bridge, which is the highlight of the entire song.
The worse part is when Anh Khoa performs in English. His rendition of Viktor Lazlo’s “Stories” kicks off with a woman who has a weird accent reciting the poem. No, not reciting but just simply reading off the paper because she puts no emotion into it. Then followed by Anh Khoa’s thick-accented, pathetic singing. Why did he even bother recording that track? Beat me. What is he trying to prove? Beat the hell out of me.