Same But Different: The Oddfellows of Past and Present
By Yong Shu Hoong
In a tumultuous world that has never stopped churning, I find it reassuring to know that some things remain the same. In September 2021, Swedish pop band ABBA announced their upcoming new album, Voyage (to be released in November) – their first studio album in 40 years – and simultaneously released two new singles whose music and vocals sound like hardly a day has passed since ABBA went on sabbatical.
Also in September, The Oddfellows (or The Oddies, as they are affectionately known by fans) dropped their third album, What's Yours and Mine, on streaming platforms – almost three decades after the release of 1992's Carnival. Just like ABBA (an inapt comparison, perhaps, though Manic Street Preachers do not seem to mind any mention of ABBA's influences on their 2021 album The Ultra Vivid Lament, but that's another discourse for another day), it's a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" as far as the styling of The Oddfellows' new songs goes. This is not an indictment of any kind on this Singapore band that has been around since 1987, nor a pronouncement that their fresh material is stuck in stagnancy. My point is that they've not deviated too far from their original guitar-driven sound – well, not the way U2 has shifted gears with Achtung Baby (1991) by embracing industrial influences and electronics after six albums; nor the way Radiohead abandoned heady Britpop for the more experimental soundscapes of Kid A (2000).
Now in the spirit of transparency, I should declare I'm acquainted with Patrick Chng, the lead vocalist and founding member of The Oddfellows. We were fellow writers with independent music magazine, BigO, from the early 1990s till the early 2000s. For a short period around the turn of the millennium, we worked in the same dotcom start-up. More recently, we collaborated on a poem of mine, 'To the Lighthouse', where Patrick provided acoustic guitar backing and some vocals, in accompaniment to my reading for a literary/music programme called 'Note for Note' held in 2017 at The Arts House. So I thought this article might work better as an opinion piece than a serious music review.
In all honesty, What's Yours and Mine is a polished work of Singaporean indie rock. The album kicks off with a gloomy image: "All your dreams / Gone awry / Nobody's spared / Yeah, these are strange times…" (on the opening track, 'New Future'), but the peppy music is full-blown optimism. By the time the song ends, even the lyrics allow a glimmer of hope: "Seems like nothing's changing / But the wind is blowing / We all need a new direction / To live a new future." And I'm thinking, isn't this the reassurance we need in this time of sickness and uncertainty?
From upstarts to veterans, The Oddfellows have come a long way since the band's formation with the original line-up consisting of Patrick (who also plays guitar and keyboards), Casey Soo (drums) and BigO editor Stephen Tan (bass). Casey had started drumming for only a few months then, while Stephen had just touched a bass guitar for the first time in his life. But after some practice sessions in a rehearsal studio, the trio soon played their first gig in Singapore Botanic Gardens on June 5, 1988, at the Singapore Arts Festival's Alternative Pop concert. [A bootleg recording of their live performance of 'Your Smiling Face' at this concert can be found on the 2001 album, Bugs and Hisses (B-sides and Rarities).]
I did not get into collecting The Oddfellows' singles and EPs released on homemade cassette tapes (for the record, their first cassette EP is the six-track Mild, released in December 1988, which includes 'Phooney Accent' and a live cover of Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door'). So it was not until 1991 when I first heard the band on BigO's inaugural New School Rock CD, which was distributed free with its issue #63 (March 1991). Alongside two songs each by Corporate Toil and Opposition Party, The Oddfellows showcased 'Lost My Head' and 'Song About Caroline'. In the same year, BigO's Tim Records released the 'So Happy' CD single, which also contains 'Your Smiling Face (Version '88)' and 'Stand and Stare'.
In August 1991, The Oddfellows' debut album Teenage Head was released on Tim Records and distributed by BMG Singapore. With Stephen's departure from the band in 1990, Patrick also played bass on the album, while Casey shared drumming duties with the late Abdul Nizam (The NoNames). (In a 2016 article on the Unite Asia website reporting on Nizam's passing from cancer, Patrick was quoted, "When Casey left for studies in the States, Nizam played all the drums on The Oddies' second album, Carnival, and was our drummer for most of our live shows, including the time we went up to KL in early '92.")
Just prior to Teenage Head's launch, I interviewed Patrick for Teenage magazine. Moonlighting as a freelance writer while working my first job in a local bank, I was 24; Patrick was a year younger than me but looked even more boyish in the photos accompanying the article. I went with this intro: "Overwhelmed by the imported Top 40 fare that is played-to-death on our local radio stations, it is no wonder we often overlook the budding talents we have upon our very own soil. Dick Lee and Energy may have their share of fans, but mainstream artists and bands like them make up only one sphere of our local music scene." I continued about how, unknown to the general music-listening public in Singapore, there was another breed of young Singaporean bands lurking beneath the surface and struggling for a chance to be heard – one such band being The Oddfellows.
I'm not sure whether at that time I could have predicted the band's commercial success with Teenage Head. 'So Happy' became the first song by local musicians to top the Perfect Ten 98.7FM radio chart, while 'Your Smiling Face' got within the chart's Top 10 tracks. (Another legacy is that 'So Happy' has inspired the title of the 2015 exhibition 'So Happy: 50 Years of Singapore Rock', showcasing decades of Singapore rock music since the 1960s via a collection of writings, photographs and artefacts; it now lives on as a Facebook group.)
Before 1991 wrapped up, Vincent Lee (also from The NoNames) joined as bassist, and singer-songwriter Kelvin Tan (The Bluest Silence) came onboard as guitarist. In 1993, Johnny Ong responded to an ad in BigO and took over as drummer after his successful audition, and this line-up of Patrick, Kelvin, Vincent and Johnny has remained intact till today – and for the recording of What's Yours and Mine.
This new album, in many ways, is an example of creativity born out of lockdowns and safe-distancing measures. Patrick wrote 'New Future' as a new song to perform at The Oddfellows' two 45-minute sets at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre in December 2020, when restrictions were lifted on in-person attendance of live concerts. After receiving enthusiastic response to the gig, the band was motivated to begin work on the album.
On the first single 'Silent Worlds' written by Kelvin, he takes over lead vocals to sing of his pandemic concerns: "I'm gonna leave this troubled year behind / Gonna take what's good and gonna bring it back to life…" The sobering message is wrapped in a bittersweet melody with a dash of psychedelia – which prompted Patrick, after listening to an acoustic demo of the song, to write 'It's Not Easy' and 'Restless Heart', and also amend some of the lyrics for 'Where's Your Heart?' and the closing track, 'A Lullaby (For You)'. "In a way, these songs are about living through the pandemic," Patrick explains on the official Oddfellows website, proudly adorned with the recently unveiled logo (with the band name's second "o" afloat), "It's hard on some people, which could lead to loneliness, isolation, helplessness and mental health issues, not to even mention the loss of jobs or livelihoods. As such, I wanted the songs to be life-affirming."
One of my favourite tracks on the album is the laid-back, aptly titled 'You Calm Me Down': "Lift up your veil and let your spirit soar / Shine on / I want to feel the sun in my eyes…" Melodic hooks notwithstanding, I often feel that Oddfellows songs have this tendency to (as corny as this sounds) set my heart soaring within my chest (I recall having a similar feeling the first time I heard, for example, The Beatles' 'Free as a Bird').
'The Song You Said I'd Never Write' is another personal favourite here. I later realised that the reason my two favourite tracks resonate with a familiarity I couldn't quite place is that these tracks, both written by Patrick, have already appeared in Bugs and Hisses, which I hadn't listened to for a while. When I asked Patrick about this, he told me that the version of 'You Calm Me Down' on Bugs and Hisses was a live recording, as the band has never recorded it in the studio till What's Yours and Mine. 'The Song You Said I'd Never Write' on Bugs and Hisses was a rough mix recorded in the late 1990s during the studio sessions preparing what would have been their third album, this time under Pony Canyon – unfortunately the tape reels were lost after the Japanese media company closed its Singapore office during the Asian Financial Crisis. "I've always felt it was a pity that these two songs were never released properly," said Patrick, "so that's why we decided to record them for the new album." As things turn out, these two songs now serve as a kind of bridge linking the past to the present.
R.E.M. (whose song 'Oddfellows Local 151' from their 1987 album Document inspired Patrick's choice of band name) is still an influence on the new album, as evident in the jangly riffs of 'Lucid Dreams' written and sung by Vincent. Aside from the well-documented influences of Pixies and The Replacements on Patrick, I also discern shades of The Stone Roses and the power-pop catchiness of Teenage Fanclub scattered across the album. But Patrick's distinctive vocals do set his band apart from his idols. Arguably, with the involvement of this most lasting line-up of the band, the music on What's Yours and Mine is much more tightly woven and professional sounding, as compared to the earlier releases.
Up in the Clouds: The Best of The Oddfellows (For Now) was released on streaming platforms in July 2021, compiling 11 remastered songs, including hits from Teenage Head and radio hits 'Unity Song' and 'She's So Innocent' from Carnival, as well as 'Foggy Daylight and 'Breach' that are included respectively in the 1996 compilation CD, Dazed and Confused, and the 1997 movie soundtrack of Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys.
So these two albums, of new and selected songs, can be played back to back for comparison. Teenage Head was an eight-track recording done at Savoir-Faire Studio, while Carnival was recorded at the same studio but with a two-inch tape machine with 24 tracks. Aside from drums recorded at the TNT Music studio, everything else on What's Yours and Mine was recorded at That Locked Door, Patrick's own home studio – which might come as a surprise, considering the quality of recording on the new album versus the early lo-fi sounds. "Technology has come a long way in three decades, such that it's so affordable to start a very decent recording studio in your home," Patrick explained to me. "In the past, it was expensive to record in a professional recording studio, so we were always rushing, looking at the clock and let go mistakes and imperfections that I've come to regret later on. Doing it at home, we were free to experiment and take our time to cook the songs and work on the production process more intently."
Whether The Oddfellows have mellowed in their songwriting approach on What's Yours and Mine (no more bandying "dirty" words as in Teenage Head's 'Song About Caroline' or exuding the twee-ness of carefree-sounding tracks like 'Two Trains') or the sound has gotten more robust with experience or better recording technology, the fact remains that some things have changed. Patrick is no longer the 20-something guy I interviewed in the 1990s but a husband/father in his 50s who must juggle real-world responsibilities with keeping his rock 'n' roll dreams alive. (Though I think it would still be true what he said then about how he is "not the type who likes to bask in the limelight" and he'd "rather have someone say, 'Pat is a nice guy,' than be the biggest rock star Singapore has ever known.")
So listening to What's Yours and Mine doesn't just hark back to the revival of homegrown music in the 1990s, when I was lapping up Force Vomit, Humpback Oak, Livonia, The Ordinary People, Edgar's Fault and Blake Chen, it is also a reminder of the struggles artists endure in a place like Singapore. Kelvin touches on this point, when he talks about his track 'Stronger (Song for Jacq)' on the Oddfellows website: "I have, by Singaporean standards, taken a very different route in the way I live, and the path I've taken. So I wanted to write about how, when you choose to live the creative life, you get misunderstood and rejected, and at the same time struggle to eke out a living. But I wanted it to be an uplifting song too… a song that encourages people not to give up on life. It is an ode to self-belief in spite of the odds."
To date, Kelvin has released more than 150 solo albums of his music. Aside from Patrick and Kelvin, musicians like Yee Chang Kang (formerly of The Ordinary People and whose current band TypeWriter features Patrick as guitarist/keyboardist), Leslie Low (formerly of Humpback Oak and The Observatory) and Kevin Mathews continue to make their original music today. Compared to many creative writers in Singapore, who produce their poetry or story collections or novels while holding part-time or full-time jobs, it can be contended that musicians require even more tenacity and willpower in composing and blending music and lyrics, and tinkering with musical instruments during rehearsals, recording sessions and gigging, on top of keeping different members together despite different temperaments and schedules (for those belonging to bands). But I'd rather see the parallels between myself as a poet and writer with no musical inclination (other than being an avid listener who didn't get very far with childhood piano lessons) and local rock musicians (or, for the matter, artists in other fields) – than trying to compete on the scale of suffering.
I know some of my fellow authors in the Sing Lit scene are overly hung up on the age differences among them, but while there is a constant itching urge to slip into this nostalgic refrain, "Ah, what I would give to be young again," perhaps it's not so bad to accept middle age, when you know that you've survived thus far, while still doing what you love.
I've always loved The Oddfellows' '20 Years' from their debut album. On the song (wistful for me, despite its driving rhythms), Patrick looks back on the 20 years he has lived and wonders what it would be like in another 20 years, singing, "But the mountains stay the same…" I asked him, if he were to write a sequel to that song, looking back on the past 50 years and wondering what the next 50 years would be like, what would he imagine he'd write about? "I won't be alive in 50 years," he replied. "I probably might write about the lives of my two boys who would be 56 and 60 years old then. Maybe it could be like a letter to them that they open in 50 years' time, asking them to reflect on who they are and what they have done with their lives and for others, with the hope that they've lived a life with few regrets."
QLRS Vol. 20 No. 4 Oct 2021