Asia 50 – Nhat Truong/Tran Thien Thanh

If Viet Nam War’s politic is a boxing sport, no one punches the controversial bag harder than Asia production. In Nhat Truong/Tran Thien Thanh dedication, Asia, once again, elevated the art-of-war music and visual. Inducing the ebullience of an adrenaline rush, the show opens with explosive gunshots, flashes of bomb bursts, and smoke of ashes. Accompanied by the battling stimulation of the musical arrangement, Thanh Lan approaches “Anh Khong Chet Dau Anh” with a heart of a combating woman. Her voice soars with braveness and her face expresses courageousness. Her strident performance packs more heat than the oven door.

Even though the video is filled with political propaganda, Asia have managed to balance it out with mesmerizing performances from start to finish—even Trish and Asia 4 are listenable in the remix of “Tinh Thu Cua Linh.” Asia’s musical producers, especially Truc Ho, have an ear for making old tunes sound fresh and clean. “Bay Ngay Doi Mong” is a gorgeous bossa-nova orchestration with the invigorating mesh of violins, saxophone, and piano. Both Truc Mai (old generation) and Y Phuong (new generation) bring their unique voices to the tune. Another delightful arrangement is the simple picking-guitar on “Ta Tu Trong Dem,” a song I loved when I was a kid, and hearing Phuong Dung’s ageless voice floats over the rumba rhythm strikes a nostalgic chord.

“Han Mac Tu” is a savory gap-bridging performance between Thanh Thuy and Y Phung. The contrast between Thanh Thuy’s thick, raucous voice and Y Phung’s thin, clear vocals produced an intriguing effect. Y Phung is pretty damn hot too (hopefully she won’t turn trampy any time soon). Speaking of appearances, Kim Anh’s figure looks amazing for her age and in the sky-blue ao dai (long dress). Her slightly raspy voice is marvelous next to Tuan Vu’s warmness. While we’re on long dress, what Diem Lien puts on—the black dress, the pearl necklace, and the hairstyle—epitomizes a Vietnamese woman.

Nguyen Khang is a bit disappointed in “Khi Nguoi Yeu Toi Khoc” with Ngoc Ha. He doesn’t hit the high note like he gets to do at the end of the program with the group collaboration, in which he is assigned to take charge of the bridge. Don Ho’s rendition of “Tinh Dau Tinh Cuoi” isn’t so bad, but he could not surpass Ngoc Lan’s version. In “Tinh Co Nhu Khong,” the young Anh Minh is even better than the wannabe-young Mai Le Huyen. The attempt of pairing up Da Nhat Yen and Pham Khai Tuan is a huge mismatch. Putting a rhythmless dude who could barely pull off a two-step move next to my dancing queen, what were they thinking? Should have let her run the show herself.

The most bone-wrenching performance is Lam Thuy Van and Lam Nhat Tien’s “Nguoi O Lai Charlie.” The cries of Lam Thuy Van’s voice combined with the image of a helmet positioned on a gun gave me a chill. Asia 50 is undoubtedly an audacious political statement. Too bad the video is filmed after the talented songwriter Tran Thien Thanh/singer Nhat Truong had already left us. Imagine how much more powerful it could have been if we could hear the man himself talks about his own work. Now that would be priceless.

Miss Diem Thuyen

Big shout out to Diem Thuyen Ngoc Tran for her active involvement in the Vietnamese community. She will be participating in the Arizona Ao Dai Pageant 2006 and Miss Vietnamese USA 2007. Based on her extensive interests (thankfully not just sleeping and shopping) and insightful comments on this site, Miss Diem Thuyen is a well-rounded individual who not only strives to excel herself, but also is passionate in helping others. Yet, the most important characteristic of Miss Diem Thuyen is that she cherishes the beauty of our Vietnamese culture, especially in music. We’re proud of her, and we’re rooting for her.

Tu Khuc Thuy Mi – Nhung Vet Chung

If I were the producer of Asia Entertainment, I would invite Thuy Mi to the annual Mua He Ruc Ro (Radiant Summer) event to showcase our Vietnamese-American multi-talented woman. According to her website and the credits on her album, she is the software engineer, songwriter, singer, guitar player, web designer, and graphic designer. She has everything I ever wanted: a Masters degree, a creative mind, and a handful of original songs. Her other talents, especially web design, are interesting, but they are beyond the scope of this article, and so, I will focus on her music.

As a musician, Thuy Mi is innovative. Her compositional skills, her lyrical spellbinding beauty, and her passion for jazz turn her into a sensation. Her luminescent debut Nhung Vet Chung (rough translation: the Scars of Life) featured ten “tu khuc” (self expression) songs recollecting her personal experience. Her compositions, which are based not on precision but passion, offer the audiences an intimate listening atmosphere. For instance, she pours her heart out on the title track “Nhung Vet Chung.” Accompanied by Thong M. Do’s soft and clear acoustic guitar, her rich, perfectly placed voice enters: “Co mot chang doi buon vo nguyen co / thuong canh la roi, xot nhanh hoa tan / chi mot minh lang le, khoc mot manh doi / ta voi ta thoi” (loose translation: A period of life that is sad without a reason / regret for the fallen leaf, pity for the withered flower / quietly alone, crying for a part of life / by myself and I). She writes lyrics that mirror her life. Through her melancholy voice, she connects with music and reaches the listeners.

Thuy Mi’s fine taste in jazz aesthetics makes her an interesting new songwriter. On “Mot Lan” (One Time), she leads an effortlessly smooth performance that is enhanced by the cascading jazz chord and mellow vibe arranged by Le Tu Phong. Besides the composer herself, the record is molded together with the help of four top-notch vocalists -Tuan Ngoc, Nguyen Khang, Thanh Ha, and Diem Lien – at their best.

Each of the vocalists brings a unique flavor to the record. Tuan Ngoc’s meticulous phrasing and his expressive delivery give spirit to “Em Van Do” (You Still There) and soul to “Em Ve Chi De Xa Toi” (You Come Back To Leave Me). As Nguyen Khang goes sentimental on “Chieu Dong” (Winter Evening), Vu Tru’s violin infuses despondency into the track. Khang’s gravelly voice married to a blues melody creates “Chung Nhu” (Supposedly) to be a masterpiece. While Thanh Ha’s intoxicating timbres match the jazzy chords on “Niu Lay Doi Nhau” (Grab Onto Each Other’s Life), Diem Lien’s thin and delicate voice blends naturally into the glimmering grooves on “Chan” (Bored). Unlike what the title suggested, “Chan” is anything but boring.

Aside from the vocalists and the composer, the album would not be complete without the brilliant production, mostly handled by Le Tu Phong, and two tracks from Ho Dang Long. Their mesmerizing jazzy sounds are the delicious butter that melts inside the hot breads of the vocals. And just like bread and butter, together they have produced an impressive debut that can be complemented by a bottle of fine wine. Nhung Vet Chung raises a glass and toasts to the possible, an aesthetic work that is elegant, intricate, and expansive. Thuy Mi, please keep on feeding us delightful dishes of soul. I am already hungry for more even though I just ate.

The Gangster We Are All Looking For

Le Thi Diem Thuy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For is a story of a Vietnamese family who came to America to start a brand new life. Thuy takes me back to the good old days when I first stepped my foot in America. Eating alone at school lunch table hoping to blend in with the rest of the kids. Although we live in America, the images of Viet Nam will always remain in our mind. That is how the story being told. Thuy shifts back and forth from her current life to those moments in Vietnam. Actually stories are told out of order and quite hard to comprehend. All of a sudden, her mother came into their lives. The relationship between the parents is quite interesting and her father is such a character. Suddenly she skips to twenty years later being a writer. At 16 she ran away and the story of her brother drowning. Many stories are being told but none of them are delved into details. The narrator herself is not too exciting. She did not open up a whole lot. For instance, the only relationship she had was once she was a little kid. The boy touched her breast and they heard some footsteps so they ran away. I guess she doesn’t want to go into her private life. Anyway, I do give prop to Thuy for writing this novel. It’s absolutely rare to see a Vietnamese American writer.

Asia 65 – 55 Nam Nhin Lai

Politic aside, Asia latest 55 Nam Nhin Lai had a few worth-watching performances. Lam Nhat Tien and Nguyen Hong Nhung kicked off the show with a Doan Chuan and Tu Linh’s medley (“Goi Gio Cho May Ngan Bay” and “La Thu”). Their strong vocals meshed well.

Another great match is Nguyen Khang and Diem Lien on Le Uyen Phuong’s “Vung Lay Cua Chung Ta.” The subtle keyboard licks gave the timeless ballad a bit of jazz flavor. Nguyen Khang also dominated the Phuong Hoang’s medley. His roughness made Doan Phi and Mai Thanh Son sounded like bitches.

Anh Minh was blazing in an uptempo rendition of Y Van’s “Dem Do Thi.” Too bad she only sang half of the song. Mai Le Huyen killed the first half. Ha Vy, Nini and Vina reunited with Van Phung’s “Trang Son Cuoc.” The track was hot; the girls were hotter, especially Nini. Her voice is alright, but she has killer ab and gorgeous face.

I was not too crazy about medleys, but there were some enjoyable ones such as Thanh Thuy on Truc Phuong’s, Ho Hoang Yen and Quoc Khanh on Vu Thanh An’s and Y Phuong and Anh Khoa on Nam Loc’s. I didn’t feel Trinh Cong Son’s medley through Thien Kim and Le Thu. They sounded boring. And the worse medley of all was from no other than Trish and Cardin. I felt so relieve when Cardin announced that he took a break from singing. The little dude should have stayed on hiatus.

Concert: Tinh Khuc Mua Thu

Maybe a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon was not the right time for an intimate listening experience. Ngo Thuy Mien and Thanh Trang’s Tinh Khuc Mua Thu—a fundraising concert for veterans living in Viet Nam— took place in VNCC’s auditorium at two o’clock was not a great success. I was hoping for a big rain to boost up the atmosphere, but the sky was bright and clear.

Besides the timing, the sleepy arrangements and the poor sound quality didn’t help either. Quang Tuan didn’t impress me much. His rendition of Thanh Trang’s “Huyen” was simply long and he didn’t have the stage performance. During the break (keyboard solo), he simply stood there looking at the audience and just waiting to sing again. Although Thien Kim could turn her back to the audience during the break to reveal her naked back, she was even more disappointed. She had to sing with the music sheet even on a well-known ballad like Ngo Thuy Mien’s “Ban Tinh Cuoi,” in which her short vocals took the bridge to nowhere. Diem Liem was the only one that could weather the quiet storm. Despite the snoozing accompaniment, she poured her heart out on “Tra Lai Cho Em,” a new tune from Ngo Thuy Mien that will guarantee to be a big hit. She also soared like a songbird in the afternoon on “Tu Giong Hat Em.”

After intermission, a PowerPoint-like video clip of the handicap veterans who are being ignored by the Vietnamese government was shown on a big screen to encourage donations. The best part of the show was the interview with Ngo Thuy Mien and Thanh Trang conducted by Duong Nguyet Anh, but it was rushed through because of time. Thanh Trang was quite hilarious in his answers even though he only had time for two questions.

Nguyen Khang – Ta Muon Cung Em Say

Nguyen Khang’s new album, Ta Muon Cung Em Say, is a cop-out: He stays in his comfort zone; he covers candy tunes; and he abandons artistic daring for formulaic boring. With such a unique of a voice, he could push his craft into a higher level, but instead he chooses to play safe, which is a damn shame.

TMCES begins with the dated “Café Mot Minh.” Why bother rerecorded a song that not only every Vietnamese singer had sung, but also in the same acoustic guitar sound and the exact written melody every Vietnamese singer had done? The basic rule of cover is to make an old, popular tune sounds new. He redelivered Dieu Huong’s “Vi Do La Em” with an equivalent blandness and monotone he did the first round. On “Diem Xua,” his flow is slicker on the refreshing arrangement, yet lacking the rawness of emotion he brought to Trinh Cong Son’s lyricism before. “Tro Ve Mai Nha Xua” would have benefited from a string ensemble rather than a club remixed, but he desires to enter the popularity contest more than he would like to raise the musical bar. Fame is blinding him.

On the album cover, he sports a black tuxedo looking like a pimp surrounded by his hotties. His long-time collaborator Diem Lien returns with Quoc Hung’s “Vi Sao Em Oi.” Their duet is once again an opposite attraction where good girl goes for bad boy, and Nguyen Khang beefs up vocals to sound like a badass. Ngo Thuy Mien’s “Niem Khuc Cuoi” turns out to be not so great, even though Ngoc Ha and Nguyen Khang are two of the best vocalists among their peers. What didn’t work is that they don’t seem like a believable couple. The only thing they might have in common is their height. Surprisingly, Nguyen Hong Nhung, his partner in crime, steals all the duets. Truc Ho’s “Gio Da Khong Con Nua” is a lustful pleasant from a sensualist-meets-bohemian romance.

TMCES is actually not a bad album, but rather a disappointing one. He chooses to commercialize more than to challenge himself.

Asia 53 – Bon Mua (Mau Sac Cua Tinh Yeu)

Thought that I would never make another post on Vietnamese DVDs, but Asia latest show, Bon Mua, featured some worth-mentioning performances. So let’s get to it.

The show kicks off with a four-season medley. All the youngsters did an excellent job with Trinh Cong Son’s ballads, but when Nguyen Khang and Y Phuong came together, a luscious duet was born. Y Phuong who is now officially my new girl brought down the joint with her powerful lines in “Bon Mua Thay La” and could match up with Nguyen Khang’s thuggish voice. On the Doan Chuan & Tu Linh’s medley, I was hoping for an encore of Nguyen Khang and Y Phuong, not Diem Lien. Nothing against the sweet Diem Lien, but Y Phuong’s voice is stronger and darker, something to die for. Of course, Y Phuong’s technical skill isn’t as solid as Diem Lien. She still has that breath control issue. And we could witness that in her performance of “Chiec La Cuoi Cung” along side with Bao Yen. Both voices are exceptional, yet the technical skills set Bao Yen above Y Phuong. But don’t worry baby, you still have plenty of time to work on that.

The return of Thuy Duong alone is worth penning. It’s about time, Asia. She is gorgeous, and her laid-back style, which is a perfect complement to that calm and elegant look, is irresistible. Her slow-burning rendition of Van Cao’s “Ben Xuan” is an ideal example of interpreting an old work. Her dreary phrasing made it sounded as if she was living in her own world. As listeners, we either have to get with the program or we out. Even when the arrangement got dramatic, she never seemed to be excited and still maintained her serenity. Love that attitude.

More highlights of the show are from Ngoc Ha, Dalena, and Henry Chuc. Ngoc Ha’s version of Pham Dinh Chuong’s “Tieng Song Huong” is along the line of Duc Tuan’s, but hers was not long enough to create an epic piece like his. The bosa nova-inflected “Hoang Vang” isn’t so bad. It doesn’t hurt to jazz up old tune once in awhile. The drawback is that both Dalena and Henry Chuc have no chops for scat singing.

As for negativity, enough of ink has been spilled on sex before, so I am not going to repeat myself. Besides, none of these broads, including Da Nhat Yen, Thuy Huong, Anh Minh and Vina Uyen Mi, could get me hard anymore. Ho Le Thu has topped them all. One thing I do like to point out, however, is that little Trish was freaking me out for a minute.

Tuan Ngoc – Nho Em Giu Lay Tinh Ta

I am still picking up my man Tuan Ngoc’s old albums whenever I get a chance. The most recent one is Nho Em Giu Lay Tinh Ta (released in 2000 by Diem Xua productions), in which he once again demonstrates his mastery of approaching ballads. And no, Tuan Ngoc doesn’t need any further introduction so let’s cut straight to the recordings.

With a refined, relaxed technique, he gives Ngo Thuy Mien’s “Mat Biec” and “Tu Giong Hat Em” a soul-calming rendition, especially on “Mat Biec” where his voice melts the lyrics around Jack Freeman’s soothing sax. His signature style of hovering-over-the-next-bar is also displayed on the former piece. On “Ta On Doi,” his flow becomes intricate to match Pham Duy’s complex lyricism. I love the way he phrases, “Dam eo seo nhan the / Chua phai long say me.” The words “eo seo” sound so sensuous, yet I have no clue what they mean. And of course, Duy Cuong’s orchestration is as luscious as always on the production.

On Tung Giang’s “Toi Voi Troi Bo Vo,” Tuan Ngoc’s quiet beauty marks the pinnacle of his vocal artistry. He emphasizes the words “lanh lung” (noticeably the cracked timbre on “lanh”) so natural that we could feel the chilliness as well as the coziness in his expression. Beneath the superb technique is a human spirit that moves us when he delivers, “Ai cho toi mot ngay yen vui / Cho toi quen cuoc doi bao noi.” The eerie, lust arrangement produced by Vu Tuan Duc added a mysterious image to the gloomy, lonesome night.

The only performance that is somewhat disappointing is Anh Bang’s “Khuc Thuy Du” (poem by Du Tu Le). His breathing was labored. Yes, I do have high expectations for Tuan Ngoc—nothing less than perfect—but he meets them most of the time. That’s why I got love for him. Even though he cheated on me once, he’s still my main man when it comes to Vietnamese music. I sound mad gay, don’t I?

Van Son 29 – Van Son in Tokyo

By now fans should know what to expect from Van Son production: same MC, same singers, same comedians, and pretty much same strategies. The only difference is where they would perform, and this time the place is Japan. I am not complaining since they do a great job of incorporating the cultures into the show. On Van Son 29, they introduce Japanese’s Shinto dance, folk music, and brief documentation on Japanese in general and Vietnamese people in Japan.

Van Son’s niche has always been the short comedies. Although most of them are not too bad, I only enjoy “Nguoi Ban Toi” because Van Son, Hong Dao, and Quang Minh go off the context a bit. I like it when comedians get out of the routine and be themselves. That way they act more natural.

On music, the best performances are from Nguyen Khang (“Van Yeu”) and Diem Lien (“Roi Mai Em Di”). Both songs come from Huynh Nhat Tan’s pen. I also dig the new girl Vy. Her lyrics mirror her attitude on “This is Vy.” Furthermore, her choreography, style, hair, and outfit reminded me of the great R&B singer Aaliyah.

On the much-needed improvement, they need to drop those translated songs, which are way too many on this video. Even Tuan Ngoc and Thai Thao perform a translated version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Huynh Nhat Tan is also wasting his skills on the translate tracks: “Em Can Cho Anh,” perform by Cat Tien, and “Yeu Em Suot Doi,” perform by Cat Tien and Nguyen Thang. Speaking of Nguyen Thang, his own attempt of translation on “Van Yeu” is bad. Dude looks and moves like a cheap version of Justin Timberlake, and the dancers look so trashy in their skanky skirts. Yet, the worse performance of all goes to Minh Tri’s “Khuc Hat Xot Xa.” His feminine vocals combined with his cheesy lyrics are intolerable. I try my hardest, but my hand forces me to hit skip.

Van Son is one of the top three Vietnamese music productions in the US. While they are cashing in on their sitcoms, their music is still way behind Asia and Thuy Nga productions.