Monday, December 17, 2007


I, like most people, first heard Wang Chung on 'Dance hall days' - a loping, cinematic song with an unusual clipped singing style, that doesn't evoke a dance hall as much as an Asian drum ceremony. Huang Chung (original spelling) were not making Oriental references unintentionally.

Points On The Curve is a remarkable album, straddling the line between new romantic and synth pop, and standing the test of time better than many contemporaries from those categories. It displays an impressive range and a mature blend of pathos and irony. It is also unafraid to disrupt pop conventions, as when final track 'Talk it out' stops dead in the middle of a measure, a crescendo and a word. (I had first received this album in a taped copy, and for years assumed the cold stop was a flaw in the recording; imagine my surprise when I finally bought the disc...)

The sleeper on this fine work is 'Devoted friends'. Pushing the cinematic atmosphere even further than 'Dance hall days', it's a tightly controlled yet dynamic track, picking its way delicately through the wreckage of a onesided love. It's the most sophisticated response I've ever heard for the dreaded suggestion, 'Let's just be friends.'

There are no symbols, no imagery in this song - it's all plain speaking, and while Jack Hues's vocal is emotional, it's also restrained, conveying our man's resignation along with his pain. 'How can we meet on a day in the week and be true?' One thinks of an appointment in a lawyer's office. Awkward junctions to settle open issues and turn over belongings. Or maybe just the far between dates with one pair of yearning eyes, and another pair watching the door. Both senses of 'true' apply in this line; honest and correct, but also faithful and devoted. 'How can I speak and pretend that I'm happy for you?'

The economical song uses only a pair of two-line verses and a single line chorus, essentially only five lines total. It's impressive that it conveys such a devastating helplessness with just that. The last two words of the verse lines are repeated twice, further emphasizing the simplicity. One thinks of spare but evocative poetry structures like haiku.

The arrangement pulls quite a bit of weight here, too, framing a small personal plea in a lush soundtrack of tragic proportions. Slightly dissonant piano chords strike like unhurried footsteps descending a stair, while the drums pound sparely, mimicking a heartbeat and adding tense ricochets to punctuate sections. Synthesized strings wash the background, contrasted by a single pizzicato line that flits low and close to the ground. The chord progression is remarkable because it angles unusually around the minor scale, but resolves to major in the final chord of the verse lines. The chorus is major, too, suggesting that even though our hero is facing painful conclusions, they are the right ones, and relief comes with speaking them.

At the end, the pizzicato line flits quietly away, but Wang Chung waits until the fade to add an achingly beautiful touch: what sounds like an oboe but might be an alto sax, judging from the credits, twittering away like a refugee from Peter And The Wolf. As simple as 'Devoted friends''s sentiments are, it ends with an ornate flourish, mystique preserved.

Wang Chung quasi-official website