O Kia, look who’s back? The young, witty, and eccentric Ngoc Khue, whose debut Ben Bo Ao Nha Minh remains a rare work of art, strikes again. After writing a highly favorable review of her first album, I wanted to test the water by playing it at a family-gathering dinner, which included about twenty people. The reactions were what I had expected to be: “What the heck is this music?,” “She can’t even sing,” and “She sounds like ‘len dong’ (calling the spirit).” The last comment is not so far off, but I would prefer to call her style as running-the-voodoo-down. And that is exactly what she has accomplished in volume two, her newest release, by weaving Vietnamese traditional folk into western flavors including jazz, funk, pop, rock, and semi-classical.
Like her previous album, O Kia marks another imaginative collaboration with fusion master Le Minh Son who penned six out of seven tracks and produced the entire album. In the lead-off title track, slinky songbird Khue paints a gorgeous rice-padding scene with white butterfly on the flower, a laughing bee, and a singing bird. The cha-cha beat gives the song a nice, mid-tempo rhythm, but it is her unusual phrasings that take the track to the anomalistic level. Her superb, bizarre technique is best observed on “Bo Song.” Sporting an unorthodox delivery, Khue floats her big, deep, slightly graveled voice in and out of the savory jazz-funk groove. What makes “Bo Song” a masterpiece is the way she swaggers from soulful to playful phrasings with effortless verve, and she has the requisite chops to maneuver her way into the blend of folk, funk, and jazz. Khue switches her flow in the semi-classical “Toc Tha Thuyen” soaring her strident timbre into the soul-soothing sounds of violin and keyboard accompaniment. “Tinh Tang” and Nguyen Cuong’s “Em Khong Vao Chua” are her rock-folk experimentations, and she rocks them both with her prevailing delivery and prodigious techniques.
Once again, Khue offers out-of-the-trend freshness to the Vietnamese musical scene. She also brought her own distinctive style to Le Minh Son’s music. I am so glad that she continues to excel in the avant-garde path she has chosen. Her execution is a tremendous improvement: more confidence, less breathy, and unafraid of vibrato. Her performances can make the mass listeners feel uncomfortable because they are ill-prepared for something that is way too far out there. Khue’s work is not the type of art form that speaks for itself. If we don’t get it, the commiseration is on us.