musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Kuala Lumpur’

Living on Neil Young’s Earth

When I was in Kuala Lumpur a few months back, I packed up a trio of recently released Neil Young CDs, including The Monsanto Years and Earth. Both albums are highly recommended and feature Neil playing with his new band, Promise of the Real. That band, interestingly enough, features two of Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Mikah. And these guys rock as hard as Crazy Horse, the legendary outfit that played on so many of Neil’s best albums.

 

To my ears, Neil and Promise of the Real are a great fit, merging tight musicianship with Neil Young’s distinctive guitar playing and of course the equally distinctive vocals of the man himself. And, as you would expect, the lyrical content makes a statement too. Plus, on Earth, which is a live recording, the songs are supplemented by the sound of crows cawing, and a few other barnyard sound effects. If that sounds weird, well hey, it’s just Neil Young being Neil Young, and the crow stuff actually enhances the vibe and works pretty well. Thank heavens we have still have Neil Young out there and making vital music and caring about what happens to our environment. More people should listen to him and ignore all the bloated politicians spewing their dated rhetoric and other nonsense.

 

Speaking of Kuala Lumpur, I picked up the Neil Young CDs at the Victoria Music outlet in the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya. On weekends at Amcorp Mall you can also find many dealers selling vintage vinyl and used CDs at the indoor “flea market.” While in KL I also made my pilgrimage to a few of the Rock Corner branches, the number of which are sadly on the decline. After the closure of their branches in KLCC, the Mid-Valley Megamall, and 1 Uttama, the store at the Curve also closed, and now the ones in Bangsar Village and Subang Jaya are also slated to shut by the end of this month. After that retail decimation, the only branch open will be the one in the Gardens, the smaller shopping center adjacent to the Mid-Valley Megamall. Considering how difficult it is for retail music shops to operate in these downloading, streaming times, it’s not shocking to see those wonderful establishments shut their doors, but it really depresses me all the same. Meanwhile, here are the other albums that have me pumping my fists in the air and doing silly dances in the living room:

 

Patty Loveless – Sleepless Nights

The talented singer-songwriter turns the tables and does an album of classic country songs, covering tunes made popular by George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, and more. Delightful stuff.

Bash & Pop – Anything Could Happen

BNQT – Volume One

The Velvet Crush – Heavy Changes

Nada Surf – Peaceful Ghosts

 

Billy Butler – The Right Tracks: The Complete Okeh Recordings 1963-1966

Jerry Butler’s brother shows that he was a fine singer in his own right on these vintage Okeh label songs. Plenty of great soul tunes, many of them written and produced by Curtis Mayfield, plus some groovy unreleased backing tracks.

Eugene Record – The Eugene Record/Trying To Get To You

The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Vavoom!

Bonnie Raitt – Dig In Deep

The Primitives – Echoes and Rhymes

 

Drive By Truckers – It’s Great To Be Alive!

Can I call these guys the best band working in the USA? I’m gonna do it anyway. They’ve been through several lineup shuffles over the past decade or so, the band does indeed keep on truckin’, thanks to the outstanding songs of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. And some impressive guitar playing too. The live setting on this sprawling 3-CD set only makes their songs all the more powerful. Life affirming music.

Joe Haywood – Warm and Tender Love

Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Things That We Are Made Of

Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones – Little Windows

Cait Brennan – Third

 

Khun Narin Electric Phin Band – Khun Narin Electric Phin Band

From Thailand’s Northeastern Isaan region, Khun Narin’s band is back with another intoxicating collection of instrumentals. They fuse traditional Thai morlam music with a propulsive, almost psychedelic groove. This album changes tempos more than their last one, but still plenty of tunes to get your booty shaking. Check out their videos of YouTube! Lively up yourself!

Kenny Burrell & Jimmy Smith – Blue Bash!

Natural Four – Heaven Right Here On Earth/Natural Four

Dexter Wansel – Stargazer: The Philadelphia International Records Anthology 1976-1980

Calexico – Edge of the Sun

 

Rozetta Johnson – A Woman’s Way: The Complete 1963-1975

Where did this lady come from? Listen to hear belt soulful song after soulful song and you wonder why she didn’t make bigger waves in the music industry. Great songs and a great voice. Dig in and love it!

Various Artists – One Track Mind: More Motown Guys

John Jarvis – Something Constructive

Walter Jackson – It’s All Over: the Okeh Recordings Vol. 1

Royksopp – In Inevitable End

 

Artful Dodger – The Complete Columbia Recordings

The underrated and now defunct power-pop group from the US get a justly deserved 2-CD retrospective of their 1970s recordings. Catchy as hell.

Over the Rhine – Discount Fireworks

Chuck Berry – Chuck

The Feelies – In Between

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness

 

Various Artists – Next Stop Soweto Vol. 4: 1975-1985

Subtitled “Zulu Rock, Afro-Disco and Mbaqanga, this is another impressive collection of vintage South African music, the fourth in this series from Strut Records.

Jimmy Castor Bunch – Butt Of Course/Supersound/E-Man Groovin’

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Cotton Mather – Wild Kingdom

Shawn Colvin – All Fall Down

 

John Holt – 4000 Volts of Holt

This must have been where UB40 got the idea for their “Labour of Love” albums. Pop and Soul hits covered by the sweet-singing John Holt. It’s not all fabulous, but you’ll find plenty to like on this 2-CD set.

Gerry Beckley – Horizonal Fall

The Well Wishers – How I Won the War

Isaac Hayes – Out of the Ghetto: The Polydor Years

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

 

Pat Thomas – Coming Home: Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1964-1981

Another underrated African musician, this time a guy from Ghana who played in several groups before going solo. Another fine 2-CD reissue from Strut Records.

Chet Ivey – A Dose of Soul: The Sylvia Fun Recordings 1972-75

Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny – Beyond the Missouri Sky

The Creation – Action Painting

Don Covay – The House of Blue Lights

 

Various Artists – Afrosound of Colombia: Volume 2

I loved this first volume of this series, highlighting the extensive catalog of Colombia’s Disco Fuentes label, and this one is equally as fun. A lively stew of Salsa, Boogaloo, Afro-Beat, Cumbia, Soul, and Funk.

The Fantastic Four – Alvin Stone/Night People

Link Wray – 3-Track Shack

Various Artists – Highlife on the Move: Selected Nigerian and Ghanaian Recordings 1954-1966

Dionne Warwick – The Essential Dionne Warwick

Keeping the Music Alive and the Pages Turning in KL

I returned from a four-day trip to Kuala Lumpur earlier this week. KL has become one of my favorite quick getaway destinations in recent years. I don’t much, if any, sightseeing at this stage of my visits, however. I have a clear agenda upon arrival: buy CDs, buy books, buy more CDs, and eat lots of good meals.

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Unlike Bangkok, where retail CD shops have become very scarce, Kuala Lumpur still does have several good shops that sell new CDs, both domestic and imports. Rock Corner sports the best selection and has several branches in the greater KL area, as does the Victoria Music Center, and there is even a branch of Tower Records still open! I had thought that Tower had finally bit the dust (as they have in the US) after their one large store downsized and moved into the corner of an electronics department in KL’s Times Square two years ago. But I accidentally stumbled upon their new location in the Gardens, adjacent to the Mid Valley Megamall, on the same floor at the Rock Corner branch. The stock at Tower is greatly reduced from their glory years, but it appears that Classical music takes up about half of the stock and those sales are keeping the shop alive. Tower also has a pretty good selection of Jazz and World Music, but their pop and rock offerings are pitiful at this point.

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Meanwhile, Rock Corner, despite having the largest selection and most interesting assortment of CDs and DVDs, appears as if they are struggling to stay open. Last year they closed their branch in the Mid Valley Megamall, as well as the one in the 1 Utama shopping center, and this year I was dismayed to find that they had also shuttered their original shop in KLCC. The manager at one shop told me that spiraling rents were to blame. But they still have four very well-stocked shops still operating in Bangsar Village, Subang Parade in Subang Jaya, the Curve, and the Gardens. My bulging bags coming back to Bangkok are evidence that they still have plenty of good titles.

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The Amcorp Mall also holds a few treasures for music lovers, especially on weekends. The Victoria Music Center branch there has a decent selection of CDs and the employees are very knowledgeable. On weekends the mall has an indoor flea market with several dealers selling secondhand CDs and vinyl records. A little browsing leads to a lot! A further lure at Amcorp Mall is the giant BookXcess store. They sell remainders — all new books at greatly reduced prices — in many categories, and you get a further discount if you have a member card. Speaking of books, the long-running Junk Book Store on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee is still around too. They sell only secondhand books and the prices are a bit cheap for the quality of the stuff they are selling, but it’s a fun place to browse. I am always amazed at the old treasures they have in stock. Any shop that has multiple titles by the likes of Donald E. Westlake, Ed McBain, and Ross Thomas is alright in my book! Needless to say, I usually find something to buy there, even if the book is overpriced and finding what you want is challenging. With its narrow aisles, low ceiling and baffling way of grouping books together, good luck finding what you are looking for. The books are neatly stacked, and most wrapped in plastic, but if they are organized in any manner at all, I have yet to figure out their system!

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Quirky or not, it’s still a pleasure to shop in places like the Junk Book Store and CD shops like Rock Corner, Tower Records, and Victoria Music, all of which are managing to stay in business and cater to “old school” customers like me who appreciate a well-stocked shop that is run by people who are passionate about what they are doing. Hey, all of this online crap is fun and shiny and oh-so-easy, but don’t forget about the brick and mortar shops that remain the foundation of the music and book business. They need your support now more than ever!

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KL Quickie

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Not much to say today, just posting a few photos that I took during my trip to Kuala Lumpur in January, just before the start of the annual Lunar New Year. As usual, I made multiple trips to buy CDs at various branches of Rock Corner and Victoria Music, bought a bunch of bargain books at Book Xcess in the Amcorp Mall (and couldn’t resist browsing the selection of used CDs at their weekend flea market), and had many great meals at places such as the historic Coliseum Café.

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On another food note, over in the Dang Wagi neighborhood, the legendary Yut Kee has moved! But regular customers need not worry too much; the revered kopitiam has only moved around the corner, to spacious new multi-floor digs. Unfortunately, I was unable to eat at the new location. I showed up on a Monday, the one day of the week they are closed!

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Batu Caves & Police Stops

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Earlier this year, in late January, I went to Kuala Lumpur for a few days, making my usual rounds of CD stores, bookshops, and local restaurants. While I was in town I met up with my friend Yan Naing Soe a couple of times. He’s from Myanmar (I first met him many years ago in Mandalay), but has been living in the KL area for the past two years, working for a landscaping company.

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On a Sunday when he didn’t have to work he invited me to go with him and one of his Burmese friends to the famous Batu Caves, located on the outskirts of KL. In all the times I’ve been to KL I’d never visited these caves, so I was more than happy to accept the offer. To get to the cave, we decided to take the train, both for the convenience and the price. There is a station right next to the caves, plus the ticket price per person is ridiculously cheap: only 2 ringgit, which is about 20 Thai baht, or less than 1 US dollar (around 70 US cents).

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On the way to the train station, however, a couple of Malaysian police officers were stopping pedestrians at random, asking to see their ID cards. It became quickly obvious to me that they were stopping anyone who looked like a “foreigner”, or more specifically migrant workers, as Yan Naing Soe and his friend were. As my friends obligingly took out their ID cards, one of the cops looked over and motioned to me that I didn’t need to stop. But I told him that I was with these two guys from Myanmar. As soon as I said that, the police officers abruptly curtailed their ID check and apologized to me for detaining my friends. A nice gesture, but I wonder how much hassle Yan Naing Soe and his friend would have had to put up with if I hadn’t been with them. Just goes to remind you of the shabby treatment and shakedowns that migrant workers must put up with in other countries. My Cambodian friend Chiet reports similar “detentions” when he is working in Thailand.

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Anyway, we finally made it to the caves and I was pleasantly surprised that there was no admission charge at all. What a concept! In Thailand, just by being a foreigner, you’d be hit up for some sort of fee. Free of not, I wasn’t overly impressed with the Batu Caves. From what I saw of the area, they are more craggy rock formations than actual caves. Worthy of a few photos, but not exactly an awesome natural attraction.

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In any case, this site is considered to be of great religious importance to Hindus. In fact, while we were there, several groups of Hindu devotees were making their pilgrimage to the caves. Seeing these people walking around all powdered, shaved, and dressed in colorful costumes was far more entertaining than seeing the actual caves. Of course the hordes of monkeys that prowl the stairways also had some entertainment value, but it’s not a destination that I’d be rushing back to see again real soon. If nothing else, though, the trip to Batu Caves is an inexpensive train ride and makes for a pleasant way to kill an afternoon.

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The Hollies: Better Than the Beatles?

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Some rock and pop music fans would take umbrage at the headline of today’s post. Better than the Beatles? You’re out of your mind! Well, maybe not. To say that someone is “better” than the Beatles is indeed a bold statement (of course the definition of “Best” is itself highly subjective), but based on their recording track record, the number of hits they had, and the high quality of their songs, I would certainly rank The Hollies right up there with the legendary “Fab Four.” Certainly, if I’m honest, I’d have to say that I enjoy listening to the Hollies more than I do the Beatles. The Hollies had so many truly great songs, all bursting with memorable melodies and those magical harmonies, that I think they deserve to be ranked with the very best bands of the 1960s.

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While I was in Kuala Lumpur recently I bought a CD of Radio Fun by the Hollies. This album was released in 2012, but contains vintage BBC recordings that the band did from 1964 to 1968, along with a handful of tracks recorded from 1969-1971 after Graham Nash left the band. Radio Fun is an apt title for this collection, 32 songs on a single CD. The tunes radiate with those gorgeous harmonies and the breezy pop goodness that were trademarks of the Hollies. Graham Nash may have been the most famous member of the group, but they wouldn’t have been the same without the distinctive lead vocals of Allan Clarke or the guitar playing and harmony vocals of Tony Hicks. And drummer Bobby Elliott, who wrote the liner notes for this collection, was the silent rock that held the rhythm section together.

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You’ve heard many of these songs before, but not these exact versions. These “live in the studio” recordings were taken from shows such as Saturday Club, This Must Be the Place, Top Gear, Delaneys Delight, Saturday Swings, and Top of the Pops, and they show a looser and indeed more “fun” side of the group. Classic Hollies songs such as “Look Through Any Window”, “Jennifer Eccles”, “Bus Stop”, “I Can’t Let Go”, “Here I Go Again” and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” retain all of their original charm and magic. Plus, some of the covers the band does are both surprising and — I’ll use that word again — fun. Among the cool cover versions the band performs are “Shake” by Sam Cooke, “Ride Your Pony” (written by Naomi Neville, but a big hit for Lee Dorsey), “Little Bitty Pretty One,” George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone”, Curtis Mayfield’s “You Must Believe Me,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, and “That’s How Strong My Love Is.”

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If you don’t have a collection of Hollies music, this may not be the ideal introduction, but for longtime fans of the group, this CD is a must listen: sheer musical joy. If you are looking for a comprehensive collection of Hollies songs, however, there are many — so many that it gets mighty confusing — CD collections available, some of them repeating the same songs. Some of the collections cover the early EMI years (when Nash was in the band), others offer selections from the early 1970s after Nash left the band, and some of the multi-disc sets offer a fuller overview. All of them are worth hearing.

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Among the CD compilations on the market are 20 Golden Hits … Midas Touch: The Very Best Of … Anthology … 30th Anniversary Collection … On a Carousel: The Ultimate Hollies … The Best Of … Clarke, Hicks & Nash Years Air That I Breathe: Best Of … Essential … Classic Masters … The Long Road Home (a 6-CD boxed set) … and several more titled Hits, Greatest Hits, Super Hits, All Time Greatest Hits, or something similar. Happy hunting!

 

 

Monhinga in Malaysia

klbur03While I was In Kuala Lumpur last month I was able to satisfy my cravings for monhinga, the savory Burmese noodle soup that is a breakfast staple throughout Myanmar, at a local restaurant. In the past, while visiting Kuala Lumpur, I have dined at another place specializing in Burmese food, the Gandawin Restaurant on Lebu Pudu Street. But due to construction work it was closed the first day I ventured out. Luckily, I found another place nearby, the Zay Yar Restaurant.

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klbur07Actually, it wasn’t so much luck that I found this place. There are several restaurants and grocery stores in the same neighborhood that cater to the large number of Myanmar nationals who work in the greater Kuala Lumpur area. Zay Yar is much more of a basic operation than Gandawin, offering self-serve meals where you walk up the counter and place your order, similar to a fast food joint. But Zay Yar turned out to be a very friendly and very inexpensive place that offered very tasty bowls of monhinga along with a few other Burmese noodle and rice dishes. A pleasing cup of hot Burmese tea is the perfect accompaniment to any meal.

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Zay Yar Restaurant is located on the corner of Jalan Tun Perak, on the second floor of a large building that houses other restaurants and businesses. It’s directly across the street from the Maybank Tower.

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But all is not blissful for those people from Myanmar working in Malaysia. I frequently read accounts of Burmese being robbed, injured, or murdered in Malaysia. Whether this is Burmese-on-Burmese crime, or something else, I can only speculate. This week I read a report on the Irrawaddy’s online site about four Myanmar workers in Malaysia who were brutally murdered this past week. One theory is that these murders were somehow linked to the Buddhist-Muslim riots in Mandalay last week. Hmm … that sounds a bit far-fetched, but the article said that whenever such sectarian violence erupts in Myanmar, attacks on Burmese working in Malaysia invariably occur soon afterwards.

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 Whatever the cause, it highlights the dangers and uncertainty that awaits anyone from Myanmar who decides to seek work overseas. The wages for unskilled Burmese workers are much better in countries such as Malaysia, but adjusting to life in a different culture and country is not always easy, nor is it always safe.

http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/four-burmese-workers-killed-brutally-malaysia-month.html

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In Defense of Taxi Drivers

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In the Letters to the Editor section of the Bangkok Post this week there was another snarky letter by some grumpy expat complaining about Bangkok taxi drivers, calling them the worst he’s ever encountered. Really? I swear, some of these farang living in Thailand, or perhaps visiting our kingdom, seem to thrive on complaining about things. Thais can’t do this, they screw up that, things aren’t as good as in my country, these people are bad, why can’t they improve this … blah blah blah. The proverbial broken record, the same shit over and over again. So leave already!

Taxi drivers are easy targets, and passengers love to complain about them, but honestly I have mostly very favorable experiences, both with regular taxi cabs and especially with motorcycle taxis here in Bangkok. Being able to speak some Thai helps the communication factor, so maybe that’s one reason I get along so well with these guys, but I really don’t understand why Bangkok taxis get such a bad rep. Most of them are just hard-working down-to-earth dudes from upcountry trying to eek out a living here in the big, crazy city. I know if I had to drive the chaotic streets of this city for any length of time I’d be completely frazzled and on edge all of the time. So I can certainly excuse the occasional taxi driver who doesn’t smile or doesn’t want to take me across town in rush hour traffic, or is disappointed that I’m not taking his taxi from the airport to Pattaya. Put yourself in their shoes. Hell, if I was driving a taxi, I’d probably turn down 90% of the freaks wanting a ride. Next!

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I almost always have very interesting conversations with the taxi drivers in Bangkok. They are a curious bunch and are eager to bombard me with a variety of questions. It can range from simple things like asking where I come from and what am I doing in Thailand, to my opinion of Thai women, Thai food, and lately, World Cup Football teams. And a lot of them play pretty cool music in their taxi too, mostly Thai mor lam or luk toong tunes. I love checking out their little Buddha shrines or smelling the fragrant flowers that some of them stick on the dashboard. Thai taxis are their own separate little world.

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I was in Kuala Lumpur last week and had very favorable experiences with the taxi drivers there too. Over there, you get more of a racial mix; Muslim Malays, Chinese Malays, Indian Malays, and a few that could be from other South Asian countries. But they are also eager to talk and I find them to be very friendly and honest for the most part. One guy that took me to the train station at KL Sentral last week ended up thanking me after our conversation, and parting with the words; “Good Luck, brother.” You couldn’t help but smile!

 

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