[review/kpop] S.M. The Ballad’s “Breath”

In 2014, S.M. The Ballad returned to the music scene. In contrast to the unit’s debut, 2014 S.M. The Ballad included women and released in three languages simultaneously (applause please, seriously impressed with S.M. gunning for the entire Asian market and not prioritizing Korea). The interesting upshot of releasing one song in three different languages is that I get to compare and lampoon everyone who is not Jonghyun. Just kidding, of course.

As this is a SHINee-centered blog, I will be primarily focusing on Jonghyun’s contribution to S.M. The Ballad, but I will briefly discuss all of the other singers and singles within this mini-album. I will also discuss the live joint recital videos that SM has posted on its YouTube channel.

breathe

Breath

SHINee’s Jonghyun and SNSD’s Taeyeon sing the Korean version, and their success is ambiguous. First of all, Breath by itself is not a memorable ballad, just another sappy mix of a piano motive, synthetic strings and teardrop beats. Both Jonghyun and Taeyeon, while sounding controlled, are at times tight and thin-sounding; as Bilbo Baggins describes, it feels like “butter scraped over too much bread.” In the beginning, Taeyeon does have some beautiful moments in her lower register, but her octave duets with Jonghyun feel uncomfortable, sharp while Jonghyun is broad and relaxed. I wonder if they are truly singing a duet, or whether they are merely matching times. There is no real interaction between their singing, and no building off each other. Overall, I believe they are mismatched as a pair; in terms of aural match, Taeyeon and Onew would have been better. Overall, Jonghyun and Taeyeon’s version is not lead vocal material.

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[kpop] the state of debuts, 2013

Looking over the list of debuts this year, it was incredibly dismal. I recognized a few– HISTORY, Wa$$up, Royal Pirates– but I could not remember any of their debut songs. I could tell it was a terrible year for debuts, because though I do not really follow kpop, I do follow a number of Shawols who do. I remember when NU’EST and BAP came out, my Twitter timeline had more than a few mentions of both (more like a vomit and some people switched fandoms), but this year, buzz surrounding rookies has been small.

Instead of talking about disappointing debuts, let us talk about the kpop groups that finally broke through the barrier this year: f(x), Crayon Pop, and EXO.

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The release of Pinktape was the first serious album of f(x), and brought together what f(x) is good at paired with its oddly consistent, signature electronic sound. Listening to f(x)’s previous releases, it just all climaxes into that album, more mature and more confident. f(x) is fast emerging as a counterpart to SHINee, though they still do have a lot of catching up.

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Crayon Pop had a surprise hit with Bar Bar Bar, but the challenge in 2014 will be proving that they are not one-hit wonders, because frankly, their other songs are disasters and really shabbily produced. Crayon Pop hit the magic formula by a long shot with a catchy song and a funny dance, but I do not think they necessarily have the raw talent to push through (note: Bar Bar Bar is not in my music library).

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Last, but probably the most “wtf was that” group of the year, EXO. To me, EXO is the epitome of why S.M. is the 800-lb gorilla in the room. As the huge company, S.M. can attract the very best talents, and even if the material is a tad mediocre (cough, MAMA), once EXO hits their stride, they are fantastic. While on the surface, EXO may seem to be the reincarnation of Super Junior, they are far more meticulously crafted and far more talented as performers. Again, due to its 800-lb advantage, S.M. can increasingly reach for better songs, produced by a broad range of international professionals. Could Growl have been composed by in-house S.M. composers or Korean production houses? Decidedly not.

I believe 2014 holds the most promise for EXO, because as they are a boy group, they tend to get more Westernized, mainstream pop, whereas f(x) and Crayon Pop are girl groups and must play up the high-pitched aegyo expectations of Korean society from time to time. It is no coincidence that the enduring gold standard for girl groups in kpop is SNSD’s Gee, not 2NE1’s I Am The Best. Speaking of YG, I have no idea what happened to the “you pick who debuts” game, which was largely unpopular, pathetic, and needlessly mercenary. YG could have spent that time building up rookies’ popularity, as surely in 2014 S.M. will be assaulting us with new groups as they have revealed new rookies as well.

As for debuts in 2014, I only have one question: where is Jino? (Apparently he is starring in a musical in Japan and still is under S.M., but seriously. What about his Korean activities?)

[kpop/rant] Henry and Lindsey Stirling’s unfortunate violin skills

Wielding both the piano and violin, Henry is the boy genius from kpop machine, S.M. Entertainment. Lindsey Stirling is the YouTube violinist best known for her dubstep arrangements. They are both wildly famous and successful in their own ways, and in no way do I think their success is undeserved.

Yet, I can’t watch their recent videos without gagging. To put it bluntly, Henry and Lindsey sometimes seem to be playing a saw rather than a violin. It whines and it screeches, and no, those are not the whines and screeches of emotion, they are the deviations of a violinist that has not yet learned how to control the intonation and tone. Every fingering they produce is slightly different every time, and so their tones may vary wildly. The mark of a good string instrumentalist: every time they play a note, it is the same exact position.

Honestly, I have never listened to Henry’s violin seriously– I watched his gimmicks strumming the violin on variety show and came away slightly amused (not exactly new at that point). Also, I knew he had gone to Berklee, so I was expecting at least the lower rung of conservatory level (my first mistake, Berklee’s not a conservatory). Therefore, watching him do a piano and violin version of Trap, I was so shocked. Moreover, he laced the video with needlessly technical runs that he did not even do well. It is a mistake to assume that the easiest pieces are the easy to play. No, they are not. You have much less chances to mess up, and if you do, it has a much larger effect. The mark of a good musician is not by how difficult their pieces are, but how much attention they pay to the details and if that attention to detail actually translates through.

I like Lindsey herself because she is good-natured and genuinely wants to bring violin out of the stodgy classical realm. Yet, compared with The Piano Guys (the cellist is amazing, I’d pay to see him play a concerto any day), her violin skills are below par, which is terrifying considering it is all pre-recorded and yet she cannot sound on-key at least 95% of the time. Sometimes I cannot believe that there are some people who make their living off of playing instruments cannot play it at good amateur level, much less professional, or god help us, conservatory level.

I sigh and I kick and I rant, but in the end, if people like them, then whatever. People like what they like, and I hope that Henry and Lindsey are only the jumping off points to a richer life in music.

[review] SHINee’s Chapter 1. Dream Girl – The Misconceptions of You.

I hope you are all as excited as I am to analyze the SHINee’s Dream Girl comeback. I will split this review into four main parts: album, music video, lives, and overall assessment. Let’s get on it.

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ALBUM

(1) Spoiler. This song begins with the opening synth to Sherlock. As SHINee has said, Dream Girl: The Misconceptions of You should be viewed as a continuation of Sherlock. Moreover, this introduction mentions each song in the album; establishing a very clear connection between Sherlock and Dream Girl. In fact, the instrumentation used on this track is not unlike Sherlock, except a little lower and sultry. SHINee is definitely back but it is definitely in a more understated, sexier fashion. Case in point, we have wonderful chants of mostly Jonghyun singing “Tonight, tonight, tonight…” at the end of the song. In fact, this song– verses and chorus– is mostly dominated by Jonghyun’s voice. The biggest disappointment is this track is Key. There are times he does sound lovely, but often the endings of his singing parts stick out and seem largely unfinished compared to the sultry croonings of Onew and Jonghyun, and yes, even Taemin.

(2) Dream Girl. Praise lord that this is not “acid electro funk,” as described to the music critics who received a preview of Dream Girl before it officially released. This is just electro funk. If it were “acid,” it would be much more sharper and higher, and the electro part of the song would not be as full. Think Dream Girl on heroine and slowly wasting away but crying out for more to feed an addiction; now that would be “acid electro funk.”

Dream Girl is amazing electro funk. The tricky problem with funk is that if not done well, the novelty of the funk can overpower the singers– so, in essence, the audience is thinking this song is really weird and no matter how talented the performers are, they simply cannot ignore the weirdness of the funk. The song was assiduously mixed with this in mind: the funk elements are there but not in your face– we get treated to beautiful falsettos mostly sung by Onew and Jonghyun (heavy on the Jonghyun for the most part), and “funky” synths like guitar riffs and interesting bass lines, while present, are kept minimal in the background. These funky moments are likewise paired with minimal electro synthy tricks; the choruses are all our familiar Sherlock electro with a light percussive beat, so the track itself cannot be categorized as just plain funk, hence the electro funk. Dream Girl strikes the correct balance, which is what makes it such an exciting track to listen to.

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[music] top 10 kpop songs of 2012

Another one of these 2012 posts! Over the last twelve months, I hope I have gained a wider appreciation for kpop. These following 10 songs released in 2012 dominated my playlists:

(1) Catch Me, TVXQ: not a surprise. It is actually quite a solid and epic track, if not for the blubbering bridge in the middle that could have used a sharper ear for dubstep. TVXQ’s jpop release, Android, released earlier in 2012, was a great example of good dubstep pop.

(2) Midnight, BEAST: the instrumentals and the raw vocals really hooked me. B2ST should stick to their sunnier image for a bit.

(3) MAMA, EXO-M: despite the Engrish gibberish, MAMA held its own as an epic dance track. Chen wailing is not bad, either.

(4) Sherlock (Clue+Note), SHINee: the only thing to be said is “why isn’t this number one?”

(5) History, EXO-M: next to Sherlock and Catch Me, quite possibly the third sharpest dance I have seen this year in kpop.

(6) Note, SHINee: Clue‘s synths bother me, but Note‘s relatively straightforward entrance is endearing.

(7) Blue, BIGBANG: I was chilled to the bone when I heard it for the first time.

(8) Day by Day, T-Ara: a girl group appears! Amazing. Then the whole thing with Hwayoung blew up, and suddenly I am scared that T-Ara cannot get this nice sound anymore. You take what you can get; they gave us quite an amazing music video, something you can only weakly hope SNSD gets a chance to do someday.

(9) Sexy, Free, and Single, Super Junior: straight from the indomitable dance anthem gods, and gosh, how can I not resist a song with the word “bingo” slathered all over it?

(10) Beautiful Night, BEAST: for a group that I have regarded on the fringes of kpop for a while, welcome into the ilam realm of consciousness.

[kpop] best rookie groups 2012

This very biased selection is based on quality of members–mostly dance and singing, but looks are considered as well, debut track(s), and live performances.

EXO was easily the most anticipated group to debut this year. Though not of epic proportions, their tracks are slickly produced and the groups are well-balanced with many talented individuals in each. At any rate, their debut was more solid than f(x), Super Junior, and even, SNSD. If SM plays their cards right, 2013 could be a very large year for EXO.

NU-EST played their cards extremely well, despite holding a few weak cards. A well-written debut song, one of the first to capitalize on the ‘new’ europop invasion, and including one very intriguing member, Ren. Dancing and lives are unspectacular though, and the shock of a pretty face will not last forever.

Regarding true singing talent, Lunafly and Busker Busker, in this respect, are both promising.

I hesitate to include BAP, but I see way too many BAP fans around me to think of them as a minor rookie group. They did have a nice, unified concept in debut; but alas, their track to me was stuck in the 2005, way too brassy and heavy, trying out a 2PM concept that barely fit.

A.cian‘s whole debut album is a beautifully crafted imitation of europop. That’s about it. Due to the constantly changing nature of kpop, I doubt they will release a europop album like this next time– if there is a next time.

Like A.cian, Cross Gene delivered an amazingly crafted imitation of europop for their debut. The facts that they have Japanese, Chinese, and Korean members and released simultaneously in Japanese and Korean are very nice bonuses. Another great bonus? Their live singing is A-OK (but please hire another choreographer).

Rounding out the last of the europop imitators, we have A-JAX. Someone fetch them a new stylist.

classical music is stuffy? pshaw! classical recs for fans of pop/rock/electro/…

In my experience, people tend to think of classical music as one huge, static genre. Far from it– there is some classical music I love to death, others, meh, not so much. In a lot of ways, classical music can be very similar to the popular music that most people listen to nowadays, but it can be hard to find that particular classical music you click with.

Thus, in alphabetical order, I have listed popular genres and based on the genre, underneath I wrote some suggestions of classical music for you to listen to. Of course, being a pianist, this will be a little heavy on the piano side. If you have any suggestions for me or would like me to add a category, please let me know!

Country
In popular music, country is a genre which can encompass many idomatic sounds of the American region– but true country has a deep soul; nonetheless, it also has levity and is loose and free. Personally, I am in a mature stage of loving American composers, so this corresponding genre of classical music is very dear to my heart. Though to European ears, the American sound may be uncouth and very loud and brassy, but it is so adorable and kitschy it is hard to fight back a smile.
(1) An American in Paris, George Gershwin. A perfect summer piece to dip your toes in.
(2) Rodeo: Hoe Down, Aaron Copland. This. This piece is amazing live. If you ever get a chance to see the Philadelphia Orchestra play this, you must go. In fact, if the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing anything remotely American, just go. They are the best orchestra in the US where American music is concerned.
(3) Piano Concerto in G major, Maurice Ravel. An impressionistic composer, Michelle? Really? Yes. This piece was heavily influenced by jazz, and its presence in this concerto is whimsical and floating and altogether very beautiful.
(4) ‘American’ String Quartet, Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak composing in a field in Iowa. Best idea ever. Also one of the pieces the Emerson String Quartet played when I saw them.
(5) Excursions Suite: no 1, Samuel Barber. Every piece in the suite hearkens to some American idiom. When I listen to the first piece, I think of trains. What do you think?

Dance / Electronic
Unless you get into the really hairy avant-garde in classical music, classical music does not use much electronic elements. However, I am interpreting this genre as ‘upbeat’. Some upbeat pieces you could (theoretically) dance to.
(1) Caprice no. 24 in A minor, op. 1/24, Niccolo Paganini. Probably the most well-known piece in virtuoso violin repertoire.
(2) Concerto for Two Cellos in G minor, RV 531, Vivaldi. Love at first listen.
(3) Moonlight Sonata, Ludwig Beethoven. The third movement is definitely a head-bopping moment.

Easy Listening / New Age
A great genre for some relaxation and contemplation.
(1) Adagio for Strings (choral version), Samuel Barber. One of the seminal pieces of the twentieth century; even DJ Tiesto made a remix.
(2) Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I and II, Johann Sebastian BachGlenn Gould is the go-to pianist for Bach. His interpretations are fantastic to listen to (however, once you start playing Bach, you realize sometimes Gould is a bit crazy at times). Bach is amongst the most cerebral composers I know, and it is a pleasure to play his works, if only to get a mental workout. I also like Maurizio Pollini‘s interpretations.
(3) Dolly Suite, Gabriel Faure. A cute and light set of piano duets (four hands, one piano).

Emo
Constantly listening to sad ballads? Want to cry your tears out?
(1) any Frederic Chopin– some choices: Nocturne op. 9 no. 2, Piano Sonata no. 2, Fantasie-Impromptu op. Posthumous, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. Chopin is mindbogglingly beautiful, but many times, I cannot handle the level of emo and would rather hack away at something aggressive. However, if you are super emo, do some soul-searching in Chopin.
(2) Pour le piano: Prelude, Claude Debussy. I’ve played this before in eighth grade. Why? Because it was emo.
(3) String Quartet in G minor, op. 27, Edvard Grieg. The first movement, Un Poco Andante, Allegro Molto Ed Agitatomight be a little more hardcore emo than you bargained for, but you cannot deny the entrance as one of emo anguish. If you like heavy metal, definitely grab onto this.

Epic / Soundtrack
I love listening to the Transformers OST and the Bourne trilogy OST, and sometimes having epic music on hand while racing through bus terminals is quite fun (I have no life).
(1) Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Certainly one of the most recognized openings of all piano concertos.
(2) Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, Edvard Grieg. Play me that beginning chord anywhere and I can recognize it immediately. This piece is iconic– it was even featured in a Li Yundi Nike commercial!
(3) Transcendental Etude, no. 4, Franz Liszt. Not ashamed to say, I first heard this in Nodame Cantabile. I also discovered that Boris Berezovsky sweats a lot (watch the video).. unsavory..
(4) Cello Concerto, op. 22, Samuel Barber. The beginning, gargle. The cello cadenza, gargle. For this concerto, my bias is Paul Tobias.

Hip Hop / R&B
This is a genre that I listen to infrequently, but nonetheless, a genre with lots of soul. And lots of bass.
(1) Julie-O (special beatbox arrangement), Mark Summers. The original is amazing, as well– as it is played by the composer himself.
(2) Libertango, Astor Piazzolla. If Yo-Yo Ma is playing it, it is automatically gold. No questions asked.
(3) Romeo and Juliet: Dance of the Knights, Sergei Prokofiev. Yes, this definitely has a lot of bass; could fit in the emo section as well.

Indie
Basically, the genre for us snobs who like saying, “I listened to them before they became popular.”
(1) Paganini Variations for two pianos, Witold Lutoslawski. Yes, I blather a lot about this piece. But still– people still do not appreciate it enough. It is also rather avant-garde, so you can brag about that too, hipsters.
(2) Tzigane, Maurice Ravel. Everyone who plays an instrument classically has a phase of liking impressionistic composers like Ravel and Debussy. I was in the phase in high school, but now I have thankfully gotten over that. Even those who profess to love Ravel oftentimes have neglected this amazing virtuoso violin piece.
(3) Simple Symphony, op. 4, Benjamin Britten. A twentieth-century composer who does not get enough love at all, even in the classical music lovers’ circles. I would have a listen to his cello concerto as well.

Pop
Catchy, catchy, catchy. Hook, hook, hook. Infectious and fun.
(1) ‘Trout’ Piano Quintet in A major, Franz Schubert. Another piece I heard at the Emerson String Quartet concert– the most well-known chamber piece. In China, one of my roommates’ ringtone was this annoying MIDI version of Trout, so boy, was I glad to stop listening to it after I moved out.
(2) Bolero, Maurice Ravel. Yes, this is used in the opening of SNSD’s Paparazzi music video (you can guess a certain someone was frowning). However, Ravel’s Bolero on its own is indescribably beautiful, though it is the same thing over and over again. Pity, Super Junior’s artistic directors should try learning from this piece.
(3) The New World Symphony, Antonin Dvorak. The last movement could go under “Epic / Soundtrack” very well, but overall, it is an amazing piece of music, filled with memorable melodies. If you have a chance, listen to the four-hands one-piano version arranged and played by Duo Crommelynck.

Rock / Heavy Metal
For those of who love a good head-banging with strong rhythms. Bitches love Shostakovich! Heh.
(1) String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, op. 110, Dmitri Shostakovich. The allegro molto (second movement) is an absolute thriller. You can never go wrong with the Emerson String Quartet.
(2) Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67, Dmitri Shostakovich. This trio’s melody was actually based on the previous string quartet’s melody. However, this arrangement is so amazing that it deserves to be mentioned. The allegretto (fourth movement) starts off ‘slow’, but once you reach the climax, grip the seat because you probably will not survive.
(3) Cello Sonata, op. 8, Zoltan Kodaly. I recently got into cello, but I really must listen to more Kodaly. His name is so fun not to.
(4) Firebird Suite, Sergei Prokofiev. The first time I heard this was in sixth grade– our teacher had chosen a snippet of it to be played in our band concert– and I fell in love immediately. Plus, there is this awesome Disney Fantasia movie to go along with it. Fetch me some tissues.

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