[kpop] rookie alert: Royal Pirates

A few years ago, I came across a Sorry Sorry rock cover, and subsequently fell in love with Royal Pirates and their emo-punk rock inspired style, epitomized with their own single Disappear– my 11th most played song of all time.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 23.57.45

so I’m thinking, part of the Royal Pirate’s “training” included plastic surgery

Royal Pirates made their debut in kpop summer 2013 with Shout Out and were disappointingly bland, bright and cheery, sounding nothing like their emo selves from four years ago. CNBlue, FT Island, and LEDApple all have varying shades of cheeriness, but none of them are “emo” bordering on screamo, and I thought Royal Pirates would really have a chance to differentiate themselves if they stuck with their roots.

Royal Pirates have released another album and single, Drawing the Line (with a fantastic head-banging teaser that recalls their emo days!), and yet again, paired with a few funky electro-synths and happy vibes. Yet, the music video is interesting and the song slightly more punky with quite delicate vocals from Moon-chul, almost like LEDApple’s Hanbyul in some respects. Due to the band being from California, there is an expected pleasure in the album– an English version of Drawing the Line.

Listening to the rest of the album, it is disappointingly produced and full of electronicky-instrumentals. Just another kpop band.

[single review] Henry’s Trap feat. Taemin and Kyuhyun

I am a sucker for the piano and the falsetto, so I was all a-tingle when I heard the beginning of Trap. Trap is a bit of an anomaly for SM– when SM debuts acts, they tend to go for upbeat and epic. Yet, Henry’s debut Korean single is a sad, midtempo dance; not quite memorable, but not quite forgettable. It sets up the rest of the album quite nicely, a little melancholy and plaintive, and definitely very Henry, using the synths that he favors (see 表白, the song he wrote and sang himself).

Henry’s voice still sounds preternaturally young; his opening few lines and falsetto are absolutely magical. Yet, as the song goes on, it begins to show strains and cracks as sings higher notes (without going into falsetto). The chorus is extremely boring, as he sings mostly straight without giving much inflection. That’s a problem with most of the song, actually. The first verse was so finely nuanced but it seems that he got progressively lazy in paying attention to the details.

Taemin, oh Taemin. When he enters in the second verse, he steals the show. He sounds even more beautiful and smoother than Henry in the first verse. This is the first time I’ve heard his voice fit so well with the song, the first time that I’ve felt Taemin’s emotions behind the song. However, Taemin’s vocalizations afterwards are weak and unnecessary. After the second verse, Taemin’s voice is added to the chorus.

Kyuhyun’s little falsetto interlude duet with Henry was not needed as Henry already has quite an adept falsetto. However, after that interlude, Kyuhyun’s voice is added to the chorus’ beginning. Thank the lord. Kyuhyun makes everything better– if only they stuck in his voice earlier and made it louder. In fact, if only they made Taemin sing the entire song with Kyuhyun falsetto-ing and doing the chorus. If only.

Taemin was the surprise in the cereal box. The way he sounds in this song– honeyed, full, smooth– is nothing I’ve heard from the other SHINee members. If he could sound like this all the time, Jonghyun and Onew would have serious competition. This then leads me to wonder why Taemin is so busy within SM; first SM The Performance, then BoA’s music video, We Got Married, and now featuring on Henry’s single. What’s happening to Onew nowadays? What about Jonghyun?

Just a few notes on Henry’s live– despite the open top, Henry’s piano in this performance is not live, which is quite sad since Henry is an okay pianist. The backing vocals are also very heavy, so Henry’s singing performance was not great, but it was passable. Like any other performance, Kyuhyun and Taemin sang like the pros they are. Yet, Henry does not have a good stage presence; this is Henry’s debut single, but in the end, my eyes are glued to Taemin and Kyuhyun.

My predictions are scarily becoming truth, 2013: Year of Taemin. Forget about Henry.

[review] Tohoshinki’s “ANDROID.” (Toho, never come back to Korea please)

The latest release from Tohoshinki is “ANDROID”, a mini-album with two songs: ANDROID and BlinkANDROID is the lead single, and rightfully so, its hook is so infectiously catchy and singable, along the lines of Superstar. Changmin and Yunho’s vocals are incisive, precise and energizing– as usual. The only squabble is the incognruous dubstep bridge, which is quite late to the jpop scene considering Daichi Miura’s release of Black Hole more than half a year ago. The “modest gothic remix” of ANDROID is not bad either, definitely a treat for those of us who like mainstream metal, like Seether or Linkin Park.

The music video and choreography for ANDROID is nothing spectacular, but due to the eargasms that the song itself induces, I forgive them for all of their funny outfits (and people were complaining that Sexy, Free & Single had weird fashion). I would rather a strong song rather than a flashy video.

so, about dem outfits..

Blink is a weaker version of ANDROID, mostly due to a less catchy hook and its lusterless bridge, but nonetheless, a strong track as well. Its vocal strings of “Nananana” reminds me of f(x)’s tendency to use nonsense syllables, indeed in their latest track Electric Shock, they sing “Nananana” as well. However, the biggest difference between these two songs is that Blink is a strong track all together. Electric Shock is punctuated by many empty-sounding singing breaks that ruin the upbeat pace introduced in the beginning. f(x) gets a lot of heavier electrodance beats, but sometimes I feel like they are lost kids running around a supermarket, and their vocals float around aimlessly; whereas Changmin and Yunho are experts at anchoring and drawing listeners in.

Overall, I am very impressed with the level of consistency two-member Tohoshinki in Japan promotions is able to produce, from Tone to Still to ANDROID. Yunho now raps very little, and I am very grateful for this trend because his nasal voice fits extremely well in these two tracks. I will say it again, that yes, I am very grateful for a Changmin and Yunho duo, for they suit each other perfectly. Beginning with Japanese LP Secret Code, Tohoshinki has developed a signature sound: thick-textured electrodance, with a bit of electro-ballads, usually more up-tempo than down. This contrasts with TVXQ in Korea, which is still electrodance but cleaner, and more R&B influences. A comeback in Korea is probably in the books for later this year, but if that never happens, that is fine with me– as long as we see another Japanese LP. Pretty please.

[kpop/review] EXO’s debut.

I intend to treat EXO-M and EXO-K separately in reviewing their minis and their PVs. Since K is first in the alphabet, I will discuss EXO-K first, and then EXO-M afterwards. Let’s get to it.



1. MAMA: Their title track and official debut song opens with some chanting: “Careless / Careless / Shoot anonymous / Anonymous / Heartless / Mindless / No one who care about me,” which honestly scared the bejeesus out of me the first time I heard it. What if the actual Anonymous heard this song? They could reach out from the depths of the internet and strangle all of these cute little boys.

MAMA is a heavy song– it starts with ominous chanting, it is interlaced with I-mean-business strings and a flexible beat that could almost be characterized as whip-slap. The piece is also in a rather slow cut time, further pushing its heaviness. In short, it tries to be heavy and masculine– epic. The latest epicly masculine song to come out SM’s cogs was TVXQ’s Keep Your Head Down. However, for me, there is just one important difference that renders EXO-K’s rendition of MAMA inferior– they try too hard. I roll my eyes at Baekhyun’s numerous scratchy wailings, Kai’s incongruous screamo bridge, and the extra-long instrumental interlude which I think was just put in to give Kai, Kai, and Kai some more time to show off his dancing chops. Because of all this extraneous ‘epic’ frills loaded on top of an already epic track, there is just way too much going on for MAMA to be catchy and instantly memorable– which is what any good debut is. I have already listened to it five times and I still cannot remember what the melody line was.

2. What is Love? This was the first pre-debut single released, and it is classic YYJ, as probably many of you already heard already. Moreover, this is a duet between D.O and Baekhyun– both of these facts reminds one immediately of TVXQ’s Before U Go. Nonetheless, What is Love? is simpler and more well-structured than TVXQ’s ballad.

Yet, D.O and Baekhyun do not suit the song. Neither are smooth or particularly soulful singers. Maybe Onew/Jino and Jonghyun, Kyuhyun and Yesung. Especially when D.O and Baekhyun sing the chorus, it feels lackluster and I feel one of them might pass out from boredom. All of their vocal runs are more or less the same. Actually, I might be the one who passes out from boredom.

3. History: This was EXO’s second pre-debut single. I think it would have served as a much better debut single, though it may not have been as ‘epic’ as MAMA. It has a lot of key ingredients for a solid debut– tight track, tight vocals, catchy, upbeat, slightly cocky– and it promises a whole lot more to come.

I suppose here is a good point to bring it up as any– I am having trouble telling apart EXO-K’s voices– they either sound similar, or they are covered with heavy-backing that it seems like a joke to say “Oh yeah, now SuHo is singing.” Who’s SuHo and why does he sound like an army of synthesized voices?!

4. Angel: This is a track that does not jibe with the rest of the album– it is faint, R&B vibe, unremarkable, and understated. This is not the I’m-making-a-splash-EXO, rather this is I-need-a-filler-song-EXO. EXO’s voices are not remarkable at this stage so no section particularly shines, or makes this song particularly compelling.

5. Two Moons: I hear the obligatory rap song! This is probably the most gangster thing I have ever heard from SM, so kudos for stepping in the Drop It Like It’s Hot direction. The impression I get from EXO-K’s rapping is that they all are trying to imitate gruff-voice-rapping (i.e., TOP, to a lesser extent, Key), which is currently in vogue. For this, demerit.

Key’s guest appearance is nice, we get to hear him rapping quickly at the low end of his register which is usually taken by Minho. Key is really a jack-of-all-trades.

6. Machine: Because of the pulsating synth, I hear the some electrorap influence (think Dev, Far East Movement) in this one as well. Machine is not nearly as fun, the singing is happy and cheerful, the rap bridge dutifully gruff and badass, mixed with a bit of Michael-Jackson-SHINee feel in the higher registers. Next to AngelMachine is probably the next song I would vote as ‘filler’.


1. MAMA: EXO-M nails the epic more so than EXO-K, for the sole reason Chen has a beautiful voice. Every time he opens his mouth, I sort of forget about the bad chanting, the idiotic Xiumin / Kris screamo bridge, the overdone-heaviness of the backing track. Chen sounds so organic and willing to let go, even if this language is not his first. Chen and Xiumin of EXO-M are both Korean, not Chinese. Tao and Kris, when singing, provide tantalizing clues to what their real rapping voices sound like, raspy and deep.  Continue reading

[review] SHINee is soooo back with Sherlock.

CONCEPT

Though SHINee’s members are all males and legal, I got a distinct hippie-Japanese-Lolita feel from their teasers, or as Westerners call it, cheesy French porn made in the 70s. Something was not quite right about seeing everyone (excluding Onew) so clearly half-naked. Perhaps it is because the image SHINee projects is overwhelmingly “little-brother”, “cute”, and “chaste”, and to have teasers so obviously about their sexuality was a bit shocking. A bit of shock in the kpop industry is not bad in a time of Shinhwa, EXO, and BIGBANG promotions.

After seeing the music video and noticing that they are all fully-clothed, I am more inclined to believe that these photos were more fanservice than anything, as sly thank-yous to the fans who have waited for them for close to two years. Nonetheless, the hippie concept sans the half-nakedness really jibed with their album, which used acoustic guitars and brassy old-school sounds. Also, it is worth noting that no other male group has used the hippie concept, so congratulations, S.M., for being ahead of the curve again. After Lucifer, there was a marked rise in heavy eyeliner and androgyny. Perhaps we should look towards the rise of hippie-style.

Though the teaser images had little to do with sleuthing, the Sherlock plotline is cute, finally providing SHINee with some sort of story. Compared to the other things they could have named this album like “Detective”, “Mystery” or “Sleuth”, I am totally fine with “Sherlock.”

MUSIC

I will review in order that the songs appear on the album. However, as it will make more sense if I evaluate Clue and Note separately before I evaluate Sherlock, I will change the order slightly, putting Clue and Note as 1 and 2, respectively.

1. Clue: Throughout the song, the scratchy synth– so overused for their sibling group, f(x)– predominates. Plus, every five measures, there is the sound effect of glass breaking. This, coupled with the scratchy synth, makes Clue one of the most grating and annoying songs I have ever heard from SHINee. The chorus is a Key and Minho rap, but it is not immediately obvious; it just sounds like a customary rapping interlude. Clue is a hot mess of a song– the sort of song that sounds like it could go on forever, until it suddenly stops.

2. Note: I find the drum lead-in much more effective and exciting than Clue‘s synth lead-in. Also, this is the song that includes the infectious and energetic hook, “I’m so curious.” This is a challenging song, keeping all of SHINee continuously stretching to the top of their ranges. Some reviewers have commented that this track feels very Broadway, what with its overambitious hook and straightforwardness. Yet, though I do understand that the instrumentals sound punchy in that way, they way they sing is not comparable to Broadway– it is simply not clear and enunciated enough.

3. Sherlock (Clue + Note): The first thing I thought when I heard it for the first time was just how very SHINee it sounds. With AMIGO, SHINee debuted with some 90s and old-school funk influence. Despite being old-school, the youthfulness with which they sang and performed conforms to SHINee’s self-description as a ‘contemporary band.’ Though SHINee has now been active for close to four years now and are sunbaes to many other kpop groups, SHINee still remains one of the groups that continually sounds fresh and young. The lead single, Sherlock, is not an exception to this concept, with its overconfident brass blaring in the background, with an imaginary DJ scratching up the record and breaking glass, fast pace and vocalizing gymnastics all over the place. Sherlock is a thoroughly satisfactory comeback song. It is bold, assertive, and highlights the strengths and style of SHINee, almost blindingly so.

4. Alarm Clock: The lyrics were penned by Jonghyun, the rap by Minho. I am happy to see them doing some of their own participation, and Minho finally getting a rap credit. Yet, what sits wrong with me is the music itself. It does not recall an alarm clock, rather an afternoon cocktail at the bar, neither happy nor sad. The swirling synth in the chorus sounds like someone swirling a martini to me, not an alarm clock. Perhaps that is just me, but this song could have used more evocative instrumentals, emotive chordal progressions and vocal runs. Read: where are Jonghyun wailings?

5. The Reason: I did a double take when I first heard the beginning, it sounded at any minute the raspy voice from Three Doors Down would be crooning. Yet, once we dive into the chorus, we have this lovely, calming oscillating synth. The Sherlock album is heavily composed by foreigners, but right away, I knew this song was written by Koreans and serves as SHINee’s mandatory sob kballad. In this way, this song seems a bit filler and out-of-place when stacked up to the rest of the album.

6. Stranger: This is the other out-of-place song, composed and written by Kenzie, in the employ of S.M., who also wrote Graze, Jo Jo, and Life for SHINee. This originally was featured in SHINee’s Japanese album, The First. Since Kenzie is Korean, I am guessing that it was intended as a Korean track but since SHINee’s Japanese debut was looming, it was converted to Japanese in the meantime. Is there any difference between the Japanese and Korean versions? Not really. I prefer the Japanese version because there is no English it in it, though the English in the Korean version is all grammatically correct.

7. Honesty: Not what I would have expected coming from SHINee, but it fits, somehow. The bare guitar, SHINee putting on their best voices, it is all so terribly endearing. In general, kpop rarely does this sort of acoustic-sounding track, mainly because none of them really play instruments and none of them have groups in which all the members can more or less hold their vocally. You know what would be super magical? A live of Honesty with Jonghyun accompanying everyone on guitar– but this may just be wishful thinking. Onew especially shines here, and Jonghyun would have been absolutely gorgeous if they let him touch some of the lower parts. Minho still sounds like a frog. Key still tries hard to reign in his raspy voice. Now for the million dollar question, how did Taemin do?  Continue reading

[review/jpop] STILL / One More Thing, TVXQ

Despite reading all those Homin fanfics in my spare time, I did not know until yesterday that TVXQ had actually released new singles in Japan: STILL and One More Thing. Along with downloading SHINee’s Sherlock, I also downloaded TVXQ’s new singles.

As soon as I heard Homin’s gritty voices, I think I fell in love. In love with two ballads, no less. Whereas I am holding off reviewing SHINee’s Sherlock so it can ‘grow on me’; SHINee was not love at first listen.

STILL

http://vimeo.com/62549193

Gorgeous cinematography, simple but sophisticated, as always. Gorgeous-looking men, carefully done hair and natural makeup, as always. The woman is not a typical Japanese ideal beauty, and I think that testifies to the good taste Avex has. Nonetheless, the PV is not really special unto itself, it provides a lot of eye-candy, i.e. ‘looking-into-your-eyes’ shots for those of us who have a secret burning passion for Shim Changmin and Jung Yunho. So while it may not be a deep or exciting video, it certainly satisfies on those levels.

The song itself is a slower midtempo ballad in which neither Changmin nor Yunho are subjected to vocal gymnastics, but rather relaxed and written for their lower registers. The climax comes when Changmin sings, “I love you,” at 3.32s. It is a soft, beautiful declaration. I admire this final product very much, because it shows how TVXQ is able to bring a song without much bells and whistles and still manage to have a compelling interpretation.

Again, their voices harmonize extremely well, melting into each other and making it sound cohesive. Some people may find offense with this, but I am glad that Changmin and Yunho were the ones who stayed behind and formed duo, as their voices are uniquely suited to each other. They support each other, which I find refreshing after considering groups like BIGBANG and SHINee, the members of whom have distinctive voices, distinctive enough to sound disjointed. TVXQ sounds whole.

One More Thing

*no one has successfully uploaded this song to YouTube or any video-sharing site I could think of, therefore, if you would like to listen to this song, you must download it. There are two versions: a regular mix and the Sakura mix.

One More Thing is a faster midtempo ballad than STILL, but yet it still retains that relaxed vibe as the song has also been arranged for their lower registers. As with STILL, there are minimal voice alterations, their voices are crisp and sharp as they are backed with pulsing electronic layering underneath.

There are a bit more vocal gymnastics in this, yet it is still not over-done. Though, sometimes the chorus feels a bit strained as they sing in the higher register. I find this to be a recurring theme in Japanese pop music, so I am not entirely sure if it is just a Japanese idiom to have singers sound strained in the upper register. Yet, their voices in this song is not unlike chocolate, especially the ones with espresso beans inside. A bit crunchy, a bit sweet; it wakes you up, and you savor it. Refreshing.

As I listen to more of Homin TVXQ, I am realizing why it is I love their body of work so much– they have a mature, yet flexible sound. They can sing lullabies, dance music, ballads, all with the same aplomb. They can be overly sentimental, overly aggressive, overly cute. Their voices and styles can accommodate it all.

Comparing to SHINee, SHINee ballads are either cute or overly emo. They cannot sing relaxing ballads like STILL, or even overly aggressive music like Why? Keep Your Head Down. SHINee has never promoted a ballad; Romantic had a brief run, but it was only for a few performances. However, Homin can easily sing Romantic, Quasimodo, Stand By Me; Homin can easily promote ballads alongside dance music, such as Before U Go. To top it off, Homin sounds like a group of singers. To me, SHINee sounds like two singers, one struggling to be a singer, one who may be a singer but his voice does not match, and the last one, well, he is not destined to be a singer.

As I have deeper into the Homin fandom, I see many people lamenting, saying that this passage or that passage could have used JYJ more delicate voices, that Yunho is not a strong singer. Yunho more than holds his own here in STILL / One More Thing; singing is not all about hitting every note technically, but also matching the tone of the song and the group members with whom you are singing. Yunho does all of that extremely well. If Taemin could ever reach Yunho’s level, I would probably shut my mouth and never say anything bad about his singing ever again.

I am beginning to understand TVXQ’s claim as the Gods of the East.

[review/kpop] BIGBANG’s mini-album, ALIVE. but it seems more like half-awake..

I will review the songs and their music videos (if applicable) in the order they appear on the album. Then I will offer my overall conclusion on BIGBANG’s ALIVE. Let’s get to it!

Just a word of warning, I am not an antifan or anything, it is my opinion on the tracks, and not malignment on BIGBANG personally. Thank you for understanding.

01. INTRO (ALIVE) 

So, I’m getting this retro vibe, and the swagger vibe, like the I’m-back-so-you-better-hail-me-as-your-king-vibe. Because of this, the introduction sets me up for a retro feel album and cockiness, strong beats and rather aggressive.

02. Blue

In context of the introductory track, Blue is totally wrong to be the next track. Perhaps a song like Fantastic Baby would have been better next. You get so amped up for BIGBANG, and then Blue hits, and frankly, it is rather depressing.

However, for the song itself, I think it is rather genius. It breaks free of Korean mid-tempo ballad cliches and manages to have a melancholy yet uplifting feel. It is fresh, as I said in my initial review.

03. 사랑먼지 (Love Dust)

Dust? Is BIGBANG referencing God, now? The second question I have is, why is this such a sweet and sticky song? I was so ready for a strong sing-a-long chorus, but the chorus seems so muted and half-baked; it’s like background music played at some little cute bakery in the middle of nowhere. Also, cute and sticky and TOP-singing do not mix (well).

04. Bad Boy

I have to admit this kind of sound is rather novel for South Korea but this kind of Caribbean sound and reggae beat is already overused and passed over in Western pop. And so, considering the reggae-ness of this song, G-Dragon’s gritty voice, Seungri’s bubble pop, TOP’s grating voice do not fit at all on this track. This song is very low-key like Blue, but at the same time, the pathos that Blue evokes is not here.

Yes, I will say it again, Bad Boy is half-baked.

The music video? Well, there are five different girls, and they all do not look like couture models. Yay, YG. Something is going right.

05. 재미없어 (Ain’t No Fun)

I know I said before that I do really like G-Dragon’s nasally sound in Blue, but here, this is just too much with all of them being nasally. This nasal sound is not G-Dragon’s real voice or any of BIGBANG’s real voices, as judging from previous albums, and using it too much causes it to lose its specialness. Also, I will say it again, using the nasal voice all the time makes it seem like you were singing half-baked. TOP’s one-phrase repetition in the chorus is also a bit creepy, because if I heard correctly, that’s the only time he appears in the whole song.

06. Fantastic Baby

This reminds me of a 2NE1 song, but I have no idea what it is; I spent about 10 minutes trying to find it. If you could point me in the right direction, I’d be much appreciated. This is actually a rather good dance track for a non-mainstream club, but I admit I raised my eyebrows when I heard TOP saying “Boom shakalaka”. Okay, I get that this album is supposed to have a retro feel, but really. This is just pure corn instead.

07. 재미없어 (Wings, DAESUNG SOLO)

When Daesung sings “Yeah” it reminds me of a rather classic American song, but again, I’m not sure what it is exactly, and I’d appreciate any help in this direction. The one question I had while listening was, is this really Daesung’s style? Whether it is or not, it is an average pop song masquerading as rock (think Pink).

Overall?

I am disappointed. You can mainly tell by the brevity with which I reviewed each song; I had nothing much to say. As I said in my Blue review, I was really excited to have BIGBANG come back, but once I listened to ALIVE, the discontinuity of the album just really hit me to the core. It just seemed like a mish-mash of what seemed good at the time; a bit of alternative, a bit of clubplay, a bit of reggae. And I’ll say it for the fourth time, this album just seems so half-baked. I don’t like my fish undercooked, and my steak bleeding.

One of the best albums I have seen in terms of continuity is Kanye West’s College Dropout. Just listen to his introduction, and you can feel the force of his whole album crashing down on you (such as Jesus Walks, All Falls Down, The New Workout Plan, Slow Jamz, etc.). Everything in that album, though each song is self-contained, references back to the introduction and forms a cohesive musical piece.

Perhaps BIGBANG’s vision is too fragmented now, with each member on their solo activities. Perhaps so. And yes, marijuana references; you know who sings with a nasally voice? Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. Yet, I am such a diehard fan of Green Day.