My search for groundbreaking Southeastern Asian gems has led me to this eccentric London-based, Singaporean-born soul by the name of Sharliza Jelita. Sharliza is indeed her name (with last name Rahman); but coming from a Malay/Java point-of-view, to end a stage name with the word ‘Jelita’ (which means ‘beautiful’ or ‘lovely’, depends on the context) takes a lot of guts. The word ‘jelita’ – which are hardly use in daily conversation or any sort of generalization to describe beauty – resembles the kind of poise a classic Malay woman would possess.
That first play of Sharliza’s debut Strange Things is like an entrance to an imaginary joyful candy land; filled with rainbow-colored candies and chocolates like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Here, colorful birds are not chirping but instead they cheep dance tunes. Color blocking and pattern clashes are the very soul of your daily fashion while eccentricity is the ultimate definition of life and in this very land, monotonous is a sin. Rest assured, what you are about to listen are anything but boring. This could possibly be an adventure.
Strange Things opens with “No Go Pogo,” a playful riot girl-inspired power pop number that will immediately get you on your feet. The song will remind you of those feel good pop songs by The Go! Team, heavy with hooks that don’t shy away from the idea of ultimate fun. Second track “Is That Your Underwear On The Floor?” is her account of a one-night stand experience where Sharliza let herself loose in the mix of clapping beats and that infectious ‘who-oh, who-oh, who-oh.’ She sings such candid infidelity number with flamboyance I doubt even M.I.A would be able to copy.
By the time “I Want More Sun” comes into picture, you will start to have that sudden urge for a globe trekking adventure. A song about finding an escapade you have always dreamed of, “I Want More Sun” will automatically turn sorrow into joy. Citing an adventure from India to Australia; and Greece to her home country Singapore; Sharliza brings you on an imaginary ride you’ve always dreamed of. She sings with such charm, ‘Let’s enjoy the breeze, on the isles of Greece / We’ll tan on the beach in Argentina / And savor the food in Singapura / There’s a lot to see / Come and fly with me.’
You can’t help but to ponder in amazement how Sharliza’s unique vocal has drawn you into Strange Things in a way you couldn’t imagine. At this stage you’ll start to have the idea of whether what you just heard right from the first track is really her voice or were they heavily-processed vocal most electro-pop productions would favor. You just can’t be quite sure. It honestly takes time for you to get used to this kind of bizarre vocal but to me, after a few listens, Sharliza has one of the most unique voices I’ve ever heard. Her vocals are deep, sometimes forced and squeaky, but in a good way, as if they are heavily coated with a lot of helium yet they sound truly fitting for the kind of music she’s making; captivating for the most part too.
As “Breaks My Heart In Two” come into play, you’ll eventually fall deep in love right that very first time. Bright and playful despite its unrequited love-theme when she sings, ‘When my heart isn’t mine to control / Cause the focus of my love / Doesn’t know that I’m alive’; the song will capture you on that first listen. “Volcano Sparks” continues giving the album a transition with merely ‘Nah-nah-nah’ and ‘pa-da-da’ sung to a rocking guitar number, as if you’re about to enter an entirely different world; perhaps part two of Strange Things where reality awaits.
The album’s good vibes continues in “I Feel Great,” two-verses of feel good catchiness fit for a morning anthem before making way for the second half of the album that contains heavier subject matter and is more contextually rebellious. In punk-rock influenced “Credit Crunch,” Sharliza gets vocal about her frustration on the current state of the economy and the rise in living expenses where she sings, ‘Giving up on fun / To save a deposit / On the way to become / A first-time home buyer.’ She gets tougher in sync-heavy “Claustrophobia” – one of my favorites off the album – as she sings in disappointment towards city life: ‘Hard to find a quiet spot / Too much to see / The streets aren’t clean / And there’s no trees.’
After eight tracks of eclectic pop goodness, “Fine On Your Own” doesn’t seem to match up with the rest. Its electro-pop beats – despite its positive and encouraging words – just seems a bit tacky to my liking. But what is one single-track disappointment as compared to two awesome finales, no? To be honest, as the album draws to an end with “What It Feels Like For A Child” and album-titled track “Strange Things,” you’ll eventually realized that there’s no other tracks that quite like them. The former will remind you of the works by the great Sinead O’ Connor, only heavily synchronized while the latter will give you an ethereal feel of that transition between life and death. In “What It Feels Like,” Sharliza is melancholy in this beautiful number about her missing childhood, perhaps reminiscing about her struggles as an orphan before she made her way to the UK when she was 17. Closing number “Strange Things” is indeed a very strange imaginary account of how it would feels like during that final meeting with God – somehow it have kept me humble and grounded at some point.
I might have exaggerated earlier how the Malay word ‘jelita’ is too sacred to simply be used to describe oneself unless you truly fit the criteria. But no, I did not and that wasn’t an exaggeration at all as I hold strongly to my (first) language and (slightly) my root. But Sharliza and her musical works in Strange Things have somewhat redefined that idea – the rule of what fits and who deserve the right to such a word – which is anyone, really. But a true ‘Jelita’ – like Sharliza – spreads positivity and believes that no matter how hard, the best part of life will come to those who wait and work hard for it. She will speak up and fight for her right and most importantly she’s an optimist who’s progressive by nature. She understands that to own the name ‘jelita’ is to redefine it (read: traditional palace tunes to eclectic electro or eclectro). And ah… that sweet brown face of her is unmistakably Nusantara. That says it all why Sharliza is undoubtedly a Jelita.
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