Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A look at Dick Lee's Our Singapore

Our Singapore. And we have yet another National Day celebration theme song recently released. It's written by Dick Lee, known for writing that song, Home.

Singaporeans are a hard bunch to please, looking at the spectrum of comments aimed at the song.

To be honest, I used to hate Home, because having been acclimatised to guitar-driven Brit rock for the last 15-17 years, I thought the song was way too "Sino", which was probably why a majority of Singaporeans liked it. Just a matter of taste.

I held that impression till 3 months ago, when I was doodling Home on the Electone and piano. I played it in C major because that was the most accessible key signature for me on the keyboard. It's a forgiving one too, because in playing most oldies and pop-rock numbers, you wouldn't have any business playing the black keys (C#, D#, F#, G#, A#) unless you really need to. It was also a good way to make out the chords of a song I happen to hear, before transposing it to its intended key.

Home is well-written and I actually enjoyed playing it on the piano.

Kit Chan's recorded version is in A. Her live version is in G, I think. Dick Lee sings it in F, and I figured that's his range. As if moving from G to F would allow for a "grander and more inspiring arrangement" (i.e. our National Anthem... eh hem). Any way, to my knowledge, key signatures are meant to suit the singer.

Dick Lee's use of F/A (F major on A, not "fuck all") is, in my opinion, the masterstroke of Home. It opens the pre-chorus ("I will always recall the city..."). It makes the transition to Bb a lot smoother than say the old school F major on F. He could have used Am, but he chose a happy hopeful sounding chord in F/A. If I've the opportunity, I'll ask him why.

That F/A in prechorus of Home is as significant as the C/Bb chord in the chorus (2nd chord) of Count on Me Singapore, which also happens to be in F major. For me, they define the songs.

Okay, so back to Our Singapore. I wasn't interested at all, but was asked for comments from a friend on Facebook. So decided to blog about it.

Do correct me if I'm wrong. Here is what I think are the chords (will update when I give the song a few more listens):

F Bb F-C Dm
Am Bb F/A Gm C

Fsus4 F Bb Am
Bb Dm Gm-C F

Bb F/A Bb C
Bb F/A Dm-C F

Db Eb Db Eb
F Db Gmdim C

Somehow I feel Our Singapore doesn't seem to stand out. I mean, we all listen with our tastes and biases.

For me, maybe it's the repetitive use of Bb. Maybe that's the whole idea for the song - build it around Bb.

In contrast to Home, if I have to use it as an example, what makes it good is that you spend most of the song trying to return to equilibrium, which is that F chord. You start the journey with F, then you traverse a bunch of chords, make a pit-stop at the not-so-F F/A chord, and then, you finally hit F on the first chord of the chorus. F starts the verse, starts the chorus and ends the post-chorus.

You can tell stories with chords too, because like every story, there's an equilibrium state, a state of conflict, climax, resolution and a return to the equilibrium, or in some cases a new equilibrium (e.g. transpose to a higher key). That's why songs like My Way and Can't take my eyes off you sound pretty good, even when played as instrumentals - and that probably explains why some hit Chinese songs happen to resemble Canon in D.

The problem with Our Singapore is that there's an abundance of F/A (not helped by the fact it's built around Bb), and it is used quite frequently. The build (to the chorus) is rather short, which means the journey along which you take your listeners, is short.

Even the bridge is short, repetitive and uninspiring, in my opinion. Ok, maybe the length of the bridge doesn't matter. Just look at say, the bridge of No Doubt's Don't Speak:

(From a chorus in F minor key) Pre-bridge transition: Fm Eb C Ab
Bridge: Db Ab B Gb Adim Ab

Again, it's just a preference over repeating Db and Eb. Ya, that sequence creates a grandiose feel, but it feels dated and somehow the "come down" to C - to end the bridge - sounds quite abrupt. I can't figure out how it could have been done better. Maybe drag out of the bridge, double its length. I don't know. Look at Corrinne May's national day song; I think she did the bridge (which also contains the 6b and 7b chords) better.

The whole song sounds a little bit stiff. Should probably throw it more sus4's (like what Elton John did with Something about the way you look tonight, the live version of which happens to be in *gasp* F major) to loosen it up.

The combination of Gm-F/A (or Am)-Bb-C (I call it the 2-3-4-5) has been a success formula in Count on me Singapore and Home, since they're so tightly bunched together any way, so I guess Dick Lee was trying something different. Unfortunately, Our Singapore stills uses a different permutation of that 2-3-4-5 combo.

The only part of the song I thought stood out was the last line of the chorus, which had the chords Dm C and then back to the equilibrium F. Straightforward but effective.

It's not as if he spammed chords in between Dm to C, say Dm, F/C, G7/B, Bb, C, F like the last 2 lines of the chorus in Home. He did it differently and achieved a different effect for Our Singapore, which seems to be characterised by the quicker return to F.

I think we need a different songwriting style. Corrinne May (2010) and her Bittersweet Symphony-esque Song for Singapore broke the mould. Heck, so did Electrico's (2009) What do you see. Hopefully we'll get something different in the next couple of years.

In the mean time, I guess we can appreciate Our Singapore for what it is - a decent piece that very unfortunately sits in the shadows of Home.

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