1. Just Another Day On The Ferry
2. Retirement Song
3. I Will Do It For You
4. Cantonese Blues
5. Come Home, Honey
6. Nathan Road
7. Ubiquitous TV
8. Can’t Do It By Myself
9. Canon Man
10. Bicycles: The Curse of Cheung Chau
11. Telephone Zombies
12. 6:39am: Running For The Ferry
Another Day On The Ferry is the first album from veteran blues performer Nick Florent. A familiar sight in jazz and blues clubs across Hong Kong, Nick has been performing songs from Another Day On The Ferry for a number of concerts before codifying them in album form (the ‘First Album’ Ferry on the cover makes a coy reference to this fact). The album is incredibly performed and full of both life and character, but the fact that this is Nick’s first album is obvious as there is definitely space for improvement, from oddly lined up lyrics to questionable mixing on the vocals, there’s a general sense of just not quite hitting the mark. Another Day On The Ferry is not a cleanly recorded flawless gem but it’s lively, well performed and full of little bits of humour reflective of the artist’s own life and personality.
The first song on the album is the titular Just Another Day On The Ferry which begins with a sonic collage of announcements from Cheung Chau Ferry Pier in both Cantonese and English. Keeping with this theme, the announcements come back at the very end of the album ending 6:39: Running For The Ferry, though one wonders why the ending announcements are only in English, but I digress. The humorous song describe Nick’s daily commute which is filled with very Hong Kong characters such ‘someone [who’s] talking so loud on the phone all the way out and all the way home’, the ‘guy who’s got his knees in my back’ and ‘someone who’s clipping his nails as a treat’. I commute by bus which is markedly not much better. Musically, the song is pretty standard, easy listening blues performed by someone who obviously has years of experience behind them. Every instrumental part is clear and well performed with barely a note out of place though the vocals leave a bit to be desired. Midway through the song there’s another ‘announcement’ which is said above a laid-back, catchy guitar solo. This time however, the announcement is written out and professionally recorded leading one to also wonder why the ‘found text’ idea that opened the song wasn’t kept throughout. Chilled out, tongue in cheek and bluesy, Just Another Day On The Ferry is representative of about half the album. The other half would easily be represented by the third track on the album, the very Beatle-esque Britpoppy I Will Do It For You.
You’d be forgiven if you thought you accidentally put on a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s because I Will Do It For You takes so many cues from When I’m Sixty Four that Nick Florent might as well be the fifth Beatle. The song begins with a jazzy clarinet reminiscent of classic New Orleanian Jazz quartets and, of course, Paul McCartney. I’m not just pulling at strings, the way the clarinet interplays with the vocals throughout the song is essentially identical to late Beatles Jazz inspired tracks. Nick’s vocals then come in tandem with Maryjane Alejo, another local artist. Maryjane’s vocals are deliberately slightly out of sync with Nick fits in with the song’s incredibly relaxing aesthetic. Just one track prior in the very bluesy Retirement Song, Nick mentions how he spends most of his time working for himself at home ‘sitting on [his] balcony’; I Will Do It For You definitely takes after the same feeling. I Will Do It For You I felt to be the most ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ (for lack of better words) of the album. It could be that I’ve got a much softer spot for 60s Beatle-esque Jazz than I do for Blues, but I honestly feel warm and cozy whenever I put the track on.
Personally, I found Just Another Day On The Ferry and I’ll Do It For You the two best songs on the album. That’s not to say that the other songs are worse. Cantonese Blues, Canon Man and Nathan Road are very catchy with great rhythmic and melodic hooks not to mention full of the same banter from Just Another Day On The Ferry. After listening to the album a few times though, I certainly found myself humming Just Another Day On The Ferry and I’ll Do It For You a lot more than other songs.
However, there are musical problems with the album unfortunately and these lie mainly in the vocals both in terms of word setting and mixing. Let’s talk about word setting first, there are times in which Nick sets up a rhyme scheme – something that is very important in blues lyrics writing – but then breaks them in favour of long, descriptive sentences or uses odd half rhymes which only half work. It’s not a mistake, the descriptive, narrative writing is clearly Nick’s style but it puts itself at odds with a repetitive structured genre like the blues. Where his narrative lyrics do work, they’re often cliched or highly predictable such as ‘x x x and free’ on the ends of phrases sung over high notes in Just Another Day On The Ferry (out of the air and free; get out of there and free). Another issue is in the mix itself, the vocals often sound highly compressed and lack both the clarity and fullness of the other instruments. The problematic mix is most obvious when Nick sings low notes such as in Just Another Day On The Ferry, Cantonese Blues and Canon Man though the accidentally raspy mixing is audible throughout the album. Considering everything else was well mixed, this could be a problem that stems right back to the vocal recording rather than post-production but is nonetheless one that needs a look at.
My primary contention with this album is not really with its music but rather its subject matter, or rather its very ‘gweilo’ interpretation of the subject matter. Understandable as Nick is, of course, a gweilo. To Nick’s benefit, this is not something he hides but a fact that he makes light humour of throughout the album such as in Nathan Road during which at one point he goes to Lan Kwai Fong where ‘[his] friends are there, they’re all gweilo’ (as a side note, Nathan Road also features Nick on his blues harp which is really quite a treat to listen to). He also makes fun of the admittedly not necessarily gweilo but middle-class hobby of going around with a Canon camera, taking pictures of everything (‘not very good’) then posting them online for instant likes. Nonetheless, his expat background comes at odds with what it’s really like for the less privileged in Hong Kong and inadvertently reveals a much less chilled-out side to the Hong Kong experience. In Retirement Song for example, Nick’s casual quip about relaxing on his balcony in his old age is simply not an experience shared with the majority of elderly people in Hong Kong some of whom spend their days picking up cardboard (and now doing it amidst petrol bombs, tear gas and global pandemics without protection). In Bicycles: The Curse of Cheung Chau, there’s a complaint about people biking too much on an island where the only cars are emergency vehicles. ‘You want me to move, well you can go to hell’ he sings over the sound of bike bells. I’m not a resident of Cheung Chau, mind you, so I apologize for speaking a bit out of place (quite ironic I know) but that’s a weird hill to die on.
Most problematically, in Cantonese Blues Nick complains that people ‘Look at [his] face, and see his race’ making it difficult to learn Cantonese as they’ll always speak to him in English. He sings ‘So you Chinese, oh help me please, don’t always speak to me in English. Don’t use sign language or other such shit. Learning Cantonese is a bitch’. These lyrics conjure up many mixed feelings because on one hand, it’s a shared experience amongst many non-Chinese residents of Hong Kong no matter whether they moved here or grew up here. The non-Chinese are wrongly almost always seen as foreigners and therefore get the foreigner treatment. On the other hand, this experience reflects a symptomatic issue in Hong Kong. Indeed, if I may speak more freely, it’s a leftover from Hong Kong’s imperfect colonial history. Cantonese, the local language, is spoken with other Cantonese speakers – it’s a low-class language. Meanwhile, English, the language of our old colonial masters and the language of international business, is high class and shows education. Is this a modern viewpoint and do I agree with it? No and definitely no, but unfortunately such a mindset is still rampant throughout Hong Kong. The Chinese speak English not only because of your race, but because they feel they should when in the presence of a foreigner. Foreigners who, speaking as a majority, do not learn to speak Cantonese to any proficiency. There is a silver lining in the lyrics though and that is in the fact that Nick, despite his privileged position, has learned to speak Cantonese and, however imperfect it is, tries to practice it with the locals. If you are reading this Nick, I’ll be happy to practice with you.
To conclude, Another Day On The Ferry is not the best album English released in Hong Kong, but it’s a very Hong Kong album that’s released in English. Nick’s experience as an expat in Hong Kong is a privileged one – this is not really a point anyone can argue – but it’s nonetheless a truthful Hongkongese experience that is rarely expressed in the arts. Many expats and their born-and-raised children would much sooner call themselves foreigners than Hong Kongers which cyclically leads to English arts in Hong Kong to lacking local flavour – something which Another Day On The Ferry, despite its issues, does indeed have. Reflective, funny and full of references to local places, experiences and characters, Nick shows his Hong Kong life – and it’s an honest life. There are very few albums in Hong Kong like it and perhaps for that reason alone, we should take a listen.
Reviewed by Cyril Ma
This album is available on bandcamp and Spotify.