Fundamentally Floored

Every once in a while an artist comes in from the fringes to shake things up and challenge the preconceptions we have all become comfortable with. Jason Lo did it admirably with Evening News, introducing big budget production values and songwriting to a rather apathetic music scene. However, since then the local industry has slipped back into denial mode, citing any number of excuses that justify the substandard and second-rate outlook of many of the country’s artists.

Which is why artists like Pete Teo are so important. An outsider where the local music scene is concerned, Teo was obviously not aware of the consensus on what cannot be done when he decided to record the songs that would become the album Rustic Living for Urbanites. The result is a decidedly professional looking and sounding product that won’t sound out of place on your stereo next to your Peter Gabriel or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan CDs.

Although this is officially Pete’s debut solo album he has had a long and varied career in music which includes a spell writing music for TV and documentaries on the UK’s Channel 4 and a spell with Hong Kong pop outfit Mid Century. Then, after a series of mishaps prevented Mid Century’s record being released, the lure of big money and a family took him away from music for nearly ten years. But according to Teo, the bug remained, gnawing away in the background, demanding to be heard. And then, with the breakdown of his marriage, the floodgates opened and the songs started flooding out once again.

That led to Teo picking up the guitar again and heading for open mic nights at KL’s No Black Tie, the music venue that has done more than any in recent years to encouraged diversity and push new musical talent. Those sessions were taped and the idea for Rustic Living was formed. Making the most of his international contacts, Teo put a team together to record the album that is little short of astonishing. Long-time conspirator and Hong Kong music mogul Leo Fung lent his support to the project, encouraging and working out the direction of the material, as well as engineering the recording sessions.

In the meantime, the demo of those No Black Tie sessions was sent out to some key producers and musicians. The strength of the songs caught the attention of US producer Ronan Chris Murphy, who agreed to come to Malaysia to record the project, and to reduce his fee to a much more Malaysia friendly level to do so. An international heavy hitter, Murphy is very well known for the textures he helped to create with prog-rock groups King Crimson and Robert Fripp as well as more contemporary leftfield artists like Chucho Valdes, and is responsible for much of the layered dynamics of Rustic Living. Similarly, the songs attracted one of Japan’s best bassists in the form of Hayakawa Takeharu, a seasoned session player who also agreed to record for Teo at a much reduced rate.

Throw Malaysia’s Lewis Pragasam into the mix as featured percussionist and you have a formidable team. Which only left Teo to deliver the goods with his songs. Because, great producers, musicians and design values aside, the truth of a record is in the songs and it is here that Rustic Living really shines.

In many ways it’s an acoustic album – it’s very organic and there’s little in the way of overt programming, and what electric guitars there are generally muted. It’s almost reminiscent of early Dire Straits, with the sound of virtuoso performers holding themselves in check, allowing the songs to do the talking rather than the individual performers. There’s also an undercurrent of violence in some of the material that echoes one of Teo’s influences, Nick Cave. And like Cave, Teo has a storyteller’s approach to songwriting that hooks the listener from the get go and asks them to enter the world that he’s singing about.

Particularly interesting for a debut record is the Marianne triptych. Something of a concept, these three songs, Arms of Marianne, Marianne Called and Hush Marianne, are by far the most personal songs on the album. Seeming to catalogue the decay of a relationship through the eyes of a third party, they are a window, although whether onto Teo’s own life or that of a close friend is of course open to interpretation.

What may also help the album as far as international sales are concerned are the ‘ethnic’ touches in the arrangements and productions. You can imagine ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ being championed by worthy world music types but overall it’s more contemporary than world fusion, reflecting more the cultural influences of the artist than a pre-determined direction. It’s a combination that has already garnered him considerable press locally, but one listen to the album is enough to tell you that Malaysia is not Teo’s intended end point.

In short Rustic Living for Urbanites would do very well on an international label like Real World or Rykodisc, characterizing a million dinner parties, and giving Teo the much wider platform he deserves. It’s not as cynical as it sounds: artists can survive on ingenuity alone, but money does come in useful in the long run.

First Published: 04.11.2003 on Kakiseni

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