Reviewed by Johan Palme on 30th December, 2020
It is the eternal fate of a vocal album, for better or for worse, that it will be judged mainly by the quality of its vocals. The singer’s nuances and emotive expressions are lauded; a group product is reduced to the qualities of the person that happens to adorn the album cover. If the accompaniment gets a mention in reviews, it’s often when it fails to reach the standards set by the singer, that it’s unimaginative, too frumpy, badly mixed. All of which makes reviewing the Kong Ling Christmas album a bit tricky, because she’s emphatically not a particularly good singer.
With questionable phrasing, weak dynamics and a haphazard sense of rhythm, she can pull off sultry ballads with some assurance, especially in Cantonese, but struggles once she gets to more up-tempo numbers. She’s certainly got a glamour factor and is on point tonally, but it’s not enough to carry the endlessly covered standards this album consists of.
So why, then, do I feel myself drawn to this record over and over?
It’s that accompaniment that reviewers are meant to pay less attention to. Like many releases of the time, there’s no information on who’s in the band, but there’s a drive here that’s hard to shake off. Sitting somewhere between the garage rock of frequent Kong Ling collaborators The Fabulous Echoes (I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s their Danny Ruvivar we hear on drums) and a more traditional, big-band setup, it keeps leaning in unexpected directions, a sudden accordion here, a flute there, a roughly shaken tambourine somewhere else. Most of all, there’s a fantastic looseness to it, with an intentionally ridiculous stereo separation and a band that has just enough natural swing and power. Some of it, on a lesser recording, would appear to be mistake or amateurishness, but here it imparts a truly engaging humanity.