There’s a missing voice in 5 Dòng Kẻ’s new record. I had to google it to make sure I didn’t hear it incorrectly. It turns out that Hồng Ngọc had left the group four years ago. When Giáng Son moved on to focus on her writing and teaching, the group didn’t suffer much because Giáng Son was more of a composer than a singer. In fact, its 2007 release Cánh Mặt Trời was a huge leap forward without Giáng Son. The group experimented with new sound and storytelling experience. Their vocals had different range, but they were still harmonious.
With the departure of Hồng Ngọc, the group is losing the rough edges. Hồng Ngọc has a smoky contralto that not only complemented the group’s alto and mezzo-soprano, but also added textures to the entire ensemble. In the new album, Yêu, there’s no evil to contrast the angelic voices of Bảo Lan, Thùy Linh and Lan Hương. Unlike Tự Tình Ca and Cánh Mặt Trời, Yêu lacks the focus of an album concept. The record opens with “Đò Ngang,” which sets in an electronic backdrop that the group had previously explored in Cánh Mặt Trời. “Yêu Trọn Giấc Mơ” is orchestrated in a minimal setting using a string-picking instrument and piano as the main accompaniment. The problem is that the melody isn’t distinctive and dynamic enough to pull through six minutes. “Chạm” is also having the same melodic mundane that leaning toward the powerful-pop-ballad-accompanied-by-a-piano trend.
With the title track, which kicks off the second half of the album, the group switches up to a big beat groove mixed with traditional zither. The fusion is intriguing, but Bảo Lan seems to have a hard time deciding whether the tune should be instrumental or with words. The end result is in between, which is a huge disappointment. She should either ditch the words and incorporate more zither improvisation or make it into a song with lyrics. I kept waiting for the singing to join in, but never did.
“Rơi” is a standout and the group should have taken the dance approach to the entire album. The production is engaging even with the unnecessary rock riff. The clattering percussion starts off for a minute and a half before the singing kicks in. Then the vocals meshed beautifully even without Hồng Ngọc. As the title suggested, “Rơi” is like the group has letting go of everything and just let themselves fall into the music. The chorus is made up of not a catchy hook, but a serious of action words: “nghiêng (tilting), trôi (floating), lao đao (dizzying), mệt nhoài (exhausting), ngã gục (tumbling), rơi (falling), lao đi (fleeing), chạy (running), tìm kiếm (searching), chắp váp (patching) and hoang mang (puzzling).
Bảo Lan once again proves that she can write. The ten tracks on the album comes from her own pen as well as her own musical direction. She is obviously the anchor of the group. Without her, there’s no 5 Dòng Kẻ. Bảo Lan could easily break up the group and do her own things, sort of like what Justine Timberlake had done with ‘N Sync, but she decides to stay with the group is wonderful thing. Even though Yêu is not as successful and coherent as the group’s previous works, it is still an impressive record that’s filled with original compositions. I sincerely wish that the group sticks together and move forward in its own path.