[review] Jonghyun’s BASE

For those who were excited for a review-in-haiku, I decided I’ll review-in-haiku SHINee’s latest concert album instead. Haikus actually require condensation of thought, whereas the word vomit I have for Jonghyun flows nonstop.

I followed Jonghyun obsessively throughout the whole promotion process, and I was struck by how much thought and involvement he seemed to have with his album, and indeed, this album is not in the usual pop-(music-)and-lock style of SM. It is very much colored by Jonghyun and his more droopy R&B groove, his collaborations with his friends, his own lyrics for every song. BASE allowed Jonghyun to more fully explore a slower, low-key genre, something that isn’t always possible in SHINee, which focuses mostly on mainstream dancepop. While not overwhelmingly popular, this album was a success in the sense that BASE was coherent, having a particular style and flavor of its own.


1. Deja-Boo (ft. Zion) 

Non-threatening, a slyly fun kind of a dance that I’d like to hear in a low-key bar: enough to get people dancing but not enough to make people rave and go out of control. Jonghyun also continues to make use of his whisper-singing in his lower register, which makes for a flirtatious feel– definitely a pre-release single ahead of the main promoted single.

Zion’s cameo does add character to the song, as Jonghyun is a natural crooner. I’ve remarked before in another review that Jonghyun couldn’t rap himself because his voice is rounded and not sharp enough to enunciate– it took me a while to realize that Jonghyun was actually rapping in this song. Thus, Zion T’s raw-er voice provides a good foil to Jonghyun.

Overall, while Deja-Boo is not a “bad” song, it seems to be missing something. It seems to be too level, too relaxed. Perhaps I have been listening to too much Jonghyun wailing out bridges on SHINee songs 24/7.

2. Crazy (Guilty Pleasure)

I must say this every time, but it amazes me to no end how Jonghyun is able to project such emotion. Subtle elisions that recall seduction, a soft yet strong falsetto that breathe frustration. He has such control, able to punctuate the downbeats when he wants to, and when he doesn’t, creates a sense of suspension. When compared to other SHINee songs, Jonghyun actually does not do as much vocal gymnastics in Crazy, nonetheless Jonghyun is rather spellbinding. I suspect it is because he is now able to shape and control the line of the song from beginning to end.

3. Hallelujah

Quite possibly the best three syllables in the entire album: “Hallelujah.” The first verse and chorus drags– it’s the way he chooses to stretch out certain syllables and leave some silence in between lines. From a technical point of view, I wouldn’t like to have such slow buildup if “Hallelujah” in the chorus is going to be as slow; the second verse is much better in this respect and Jonghyun puts more breath into singing. Nonetheless, as I am writing this, it is probably very intentional on Jonghyun’s part to have a consistent ramp-up to the bridge and the end of the song, a la the peak of religious frenzy.

So, where do I sign up for the Church of Jonghyun?

4. Love Belt (ft. Younha) 

I know I’ve been saying pretty great things about Jonghyun, but let me tell you, I’m rather apathetic for all of the next songs. If not sung by Jonghyun, most likely I would have passed over it like any INFINITE album.

In Love Belt, Jonghyun whispers for the entire song, and is paired with a whispering Younha. I feel listless. Yawn, next. Of course, I see how this fits into Jonghyun’s narrative of BASE as an album: it’s the anemic sibling to its more up-tempo lead singles. Next.


Neon is a more fun and lighthearted version of Deja-Boo, and is another showcase for his beautiful falsetto. However, his not-so-beautiful nasal high voice is heard briefly at the end of the chorus, clawing out “NEON NEON NEON”. Perhaps this is what people point to when they say Jonghyun’s voice has changed after the car accident; yet Jonghyun has been perfectly able to sing in that register without that nasal sound, see: Crazy.

6. MONO-Drama

This is a more of ballad, given the choice of instrumentation, which also recalls early SHINee. There are beautiful moments during the verses as his voice becomes openly warm and broad, but when the excess instrumentation and voice layering comes into play (especially towards the end of the song), it sounds messy, like a sound engineer who couldn’t keep their hands off the mastering software.

7. Beautiful Tonight

While this again, does fit into Jonghyun’s narrative, it is more typical “kpop ballad” in its choice of instrumentation and quirkily bright feeling. If B1A4 or Boyfriend were vocally up to par, I could come to expect this on one of their albums. This could also easily belong on a SHINee album.

Despite being slow, unlike Love Belt, Jonghyun does not fall back on sing-talking and manages to mix it up with his voice, slightly gravelly, then smooth, then a bit of falsetto. Beautiful Tonight showcases Jonghyun’s technical ability to micro-manage his timbre. On a related note, this is what I would say still separates Jonghyun and Taemin. Taemin’s next hurdle is thinking of the entire melody line, not just the lyric line he happens to be saying at the time. Taemin has his tools; he must sharpen and refine.

8. Fortune Cookie

Let’s pretend this doesn’t even exist. There is a reason this was only a bonus track.


KBS MUSIC BANK 20150213: Deja-Boo

Jonghyun seems tired as his live voice does not have the punch it usually does, though his performance is good. Oh, Zion T and his sunglasses. I always think to myself, is it to hide the fact that he’s stoned all the time?

KBS MUSIC BANK 20150206: Crazy (Guilty Pleasure)

His falsetto is noticeably off-key in the beginning 30 seconds, and during the first chorus. He is also cutting off the end of his lines towards the end of the performance. The band is clearly not live, which is disappointing. If you’ve ever watched CNBlue perform on music shows– that’s what it sounds like to have a live band.

KBS MUSIC BANK 20150116: Deja-Boo

A fresh-faced performance, although a bit too soft in the beginning. The second verse is uncharacteristically nasal (as compared to the recording).

KBS MUSIC BANK 20150116: Crazy (Guilty Pleasure)

An orthodox performance; he nails every note but feels over-rehearsed. I know I’ve seen better performances of Deja-Boo and Crazy, but SM has only uploaded these live performances, unfortunately.


So, what about Onew? Actually, scratch that. I want a hardcore SHINee dance comeback (preferably before I become a hardcore Xiumin fan). Taemin, Jonghyun, thanks for the great warm-up acts.

[quick review] Taemin & Key’s excellent performances on Sketchbook

Woops, I was supposed to be doing economics research but then I ended up watching SHINee on Sketchbook. Since Jonghyun’s getting a solo debut this January 2015, I hope he’s been booked for Sketchbook as well.


I definitely don’t give Taemin enough credit for growing so much in the past few years. While I’m not in love with this performance of Danger (weak as always because his low register is not comfortable for him at all and he mumbles instead of singing sometimes), his rendition of Experience and Replay are the best I’ve heard him, and could have been even better if Taemin gave up the cheesy dancing during Replay. When he sings Jonghyun’s vocalizations, there are some periods of uncomfortable tightness, but mostly it’s smooth and doesn’t feel so forced as it usually does. Like Replay, Taemin still has several periods of rigidity when singing in the progressively higher parts.

Huge shout-out to the guitarist supporting him both– especially for Experience— I would attribute a lot of the great flavor of Taemin’s performance to him and the other instrumentalists. Live bands make a big difference, which is why Sketchbook and Muzit performances are always a step-up from the average music show performance.

Watch Replay at 17m16s, and Experience at 23m45s.


Key sings an older song, A Story of a Couple in Their 60s, placed in a lower range than SHINee normally sings– even for Onew. His rendition is excellent, especially when considering his broad lower range, which reverberates and projects. Like Taemin, his voice becomes stretched and too throaty when he reaches higher, but his lower parts are simply glowing. Easily the best I’ve ever heard Key.

Watch A Story of a Couple in Their 60s at 8m22s.

Bonus! Some thoughts on SHINee

Not the best Dream Girl performance from SHINee, though the live band is amazing. Seriously, I’d listen to this again and again just for the badass live band in the background. All of them are sounding strained, especially Taemin and a little for Onew, Jonghyun is way too nasal, Minho’s singing is surprisingly all right– he fudged the rap part big time, though.

The live band, though! A+! Instrumentalists are the best, after all.

There’s no live band in the Sherlock performance, sadly. Largely the same verdict as before, though Jonghyun mellows out in this performance and has a broader voice. SHINee is too shouty in both these performances.

[review] SHINee’s “I’m Your Boy”


1. Downtown Baby 

This single can be seen as a follow-up to Lucky Star and Dazzling Girl, endearingly pop and catchy but not a particularly creative or more-than-ephemeral song. The vocals are all stylistically more consistent, warm, broad, and light– even Minho. Jonghyun in particular sounds more mild than usual, a tone he usually reserves for ballads and not for upbeat singles like Downtown Baby.

There’s nothing much to complain about this single, nor is there much to especially like.  Continue reading

[review-in-haikus] Taemin’s debut, Ace

In the spirit of being lazy creative, Taemin’s debut album, Ace, will be entirely reviewed in haikus.


1. Ace

Falsetto breathy
Too many nosebleeds from dance
Strangely his style

2. Danger

Hair so moppy mess
Beats good, voice over-processed
In lives warble heard

3. Experience

Sounds stupid at first
Cheap excuse for a dance break
Vocals passable

4. Pretty Boy

Another stupid
At least Taemin doesn’t rap
Stretched voice too throaty

5. Wicked 

Too much brass, doo-wop!
Non-compelling, non-subtle
Not Taemin’s style

6. Play Me

Ace’s bland brother 
Falsetto: breathy weakness
I prefer Reynah

[classical] everything it should be: Czech Philharmonic’s Dvorak and Smetana

Two weeks ago, I randomly thought to myself, I’d love to hear Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony in e minor (“New World”) live. I randomly googled for performances in DC; to my delight, the Czech Philharmonic was giving a free performance of it in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. A Czech orchestra playing the quintessential Czech composer! For free!

On the bitingly chilly and wet Monday evening, I trekked over to the National Cathedral (which is irritatingly situated so there is no metro within 20 minutes walking distance) and sat through close to one hour of speeches by eminent politicians, furiously complaining on Facebook chat to one of my classically-minded friends that “I’m never going to hear the music.”

Once the Czech Philharmonic finally started playing, I couldn’t stop the tingly feelings in my spine and my hands unconsciously making small motions loosely following conducting movements. The warm, golden strings reverberated in the National Cathedral, the brass rang clear yet smooth and rounded, and the orchestra was like a well-oiled, luxury vehicle, refined, deliberate and cohesive. They had both restraint and spontaneity, purpose and whimsy. It was a nuanced performance, yet with breathtaking vistas overall. I can confidently say this is one of the best orchestral performances I have ever heard– certainly, the Czech Philharmonic was a step beyond just understanding Dvorak. They had the experience and supple musicality to execute their visions well and in full.

The recording that I listen to most often is the two-piano arrangement by Duo Crommelynck. The arrangement distills the essential lines very clearly and cleverly; Patrick and Taeko have a raw energy that is particularly, I think, suited to Dvorak’s folk melodies and rhythms. Yet, listening to the Czech Philharmonic interpret this music in real time reminded me why the cold brilliance of the piano can never match an orchestra. Of course, any reasonably good pianist can create warmth, but at its core, the piano is a percussive instrument. Strings have no such bite, and the tender moments are all the more moving– the sound swells in a way that pianos cannot.

The Czech Philharmonic also played a selection from Bedrich Smetana’s My Country. I often think of Smetana as a lesser Dvorak, but perhaps I have not given Smetana a long enough listen. The selection was a little heavy-handed in motif repetitions; while also a common occurrence in Dvorak’s music, Dvorak tends to vary the repetitions much more whereas Smetana sometimes seems to be needlessly doing recycling. As this is a paragraph of complaints, I will lodge one more– the National Cathedral is not a good space for an orchestra. It is long and narrowly tall, more suited for chamber music than a full-bodied orchestra. A better venue would have been the National Shrine, more open and airier.

In the future, I’ll keep an eye out for the Czech Philharmonic, especially if they are playing Romantic or Classical repertoire; they’re just begging for a Yo-yo Ma Dvorak cello concerto collaboration. I also have a funny feeling that they’d be absolutely fantastic with Samuel Barber’s cello concerto as well. One can only hope.

[piano/review] NCPA & Yuja, an atmosphere of little magic

After seeing Yuja kill it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing a Prokofiev concerto, I knew that I had to see her in D.C., playing Ravel’s piano concerto in G major. Ravel is rarely so unbridled and exuberant as in this piano concerto, which I know like the back of my hand, thus I was especially looking forward to this concert.


The China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra (which I will heretofore refer to as NCPA) started off with a suite named Five Elements by Chinese composer Chen Qigang. It was overall a fascinating piece, using Chinese traditional music as the base. The composer utilized many tessitura extremes of the instruments, and I imagine, had meticulously written in dynamics– there were many subtle shifts in dynamic that the NCPA rendered particularly well. The piece also called for using the violin as a percussive, slightly off-key instrument, which I found to be novel, and further underlined the subtle atonality of the piece. Much of Five Elements reminded me of Peking opera in which each singer may be singing in a different key. Yet, the disharmony was skillfully fused by the orchestra to create a cohesive sound.

The next piece performed was Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, the piano solo played by Yuja Wang. First, I will comment on Yuja’s rendition: she was mostly on point for the concerto, limber and striking the bass with incredible confidence. Yet, sometimes I felt that the piano did not project well and was too soft particularly at the higher register, which could have been due to the piano itself– dead from C5 up, notes dying quickly if one does not take care to adjust one’s playing. The whole second movement was plagued by this problem. It was especially evident at a few tender moments in the second movement when the left hand was playing the standard dance chordal accompaniment, and was louder than the melody-playing right hand (left hand: mf, right hand: between a p and mp). There are several remedies, none of which are mutually exclusive: she could have restrained her left hand, pedaled more generously, been more meticulous about the movements of her right hand to keep the notes ringing for longer. I noted this issue back in March, but it seems like Yuja has not adjusted.

Under the direction of conductor Lü Jia, the NCPA is a new orchestra formed in 2009; this is its maiden tour in the United States. Nonetheless, without considering their fledgling status, NCPA handed in a disappointing performance. The concerto begins suddenly with a whip-crack, and I remember feeling unsettled– the whip-crack was not nearly as loud or spontaneous as it should be, an impression I carried with me the entire performance. The NCPA has many good individual players, but they do not play as a well-oiled machine together. For example, while the pace of the concerto was standard, the piece felt weighted and sluggish at many points. This concerto was inspired by Ravel’s travels in America and being exposed to jazz; if anything, this piece should have moments of exhilaration and fleetness. It also took the orchestra and Yuja several measures each time to fit to mood changes: sparkling, plaintive, what-have-you. There were also a few noticeable technical glitches: the flautist during her solos was having trouble with her pitch, and during the second movement where the flute trades off its held note to the oboe or clarinet, someone was noticeably off-key, around half a semitone. Perhaps I have been spoiled by listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra live for the past four years, but I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows quite high.

When it came time for applause, the audience felt largely the same way, consciously or unconsciously feeling the lack of enthusiasm and wonder in the performance. For the Yuja’s Prokofiev concerto in Boston, people leapt to their feet right away and she had to come for more than five rounds of applause. For Yuja’s Ravel concerto in D.C., perhaps 20% of the audience got almost grudgingly to their feet during the second round of applause; applause ended after the third round. In many ways, Ravel’s piano concerto is rather the more accessible than Prokofiev’s to an American audience, and if both performed with the same aplomb, I believe the Ravel would garner more popular praise. Yet, response was muted, just like the performance itself.

In contrast to their inertial rendition of the concerto, the NCPA flipped around completely and performed Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major with abandon. While Dvorák does call for a certain expansiveness and goldenness, Dvorák never intends to have a ruckus in the house. Brash and abrasive at times, NCPA was smashing table lamps and shouting at neighbors. I felt a queer parallel to modern Chinese classical music, especially the subgenre that is based on traditional forms and/or has nationalistic sentiments. This modern form is straightforward, broad, and at times, unforgivingly brash and spectacular; essentially, a typical Chinese boast. I doubt that the orchestra members or the conductor was thinking of purposefully playing in this fashion, but Symphony no. 8 came across as such. I do think that musicians have the right to interpret, but they also must consider the composer and their background and vision.

In the third movement, the NCPA finally relaxed and produced a beautiful cohesion, which I believe was helped by the melancholy melodic line with plenty of major and minor thirds– in Five Elements, the NCPA handled atonalism well, and as expected, handled the Bohemian harmonic nuances well. I was particularly drawn the fine colorations and expression by the lead oboist.

Finally, the NCPA played two encores, the first Antonin Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance No. 3 and the second, Liang Xiao’s What a Wonderful Night. Again, I felt that the NCPA let it r-r-r-rip during the Dvorák, but this time, for some reason, they felt like they were actually enjoying themselves, keeping a breathless pace. What a Wonderful Night, another piece based on Chinese musical idiom, continued to highlight NCPA’s comfort with the weird things that are out of the Western tonal tradition, with beautiful subtle color changes laced throughout, the string players reverently plucking in an imitation of the guzheng and other traditional plucked Chinese instruments.

Reflecting on the concert afterwards, I wished the concerto could have been something like the Yellow River Piano Concerto or something markedly modern composed after the 1960s, but of course, a Ravel piano concerto will tend to draw more concert-goers than the Barber. This would have played to the NCPA’s strengths much more, though it would not have solved their problems as an orchestra. All told, the NCPA has the necessary ingredients to become a good orchestra, but this alone is not sufficient– it needs more guidance and coaxing in tightening and shaping its sound and movement.

[review] SHINee, Misconceptions of Us

Misconceptions of Us is a repackaged album with two new songs, Selene 6.23 and Better Off. I have previously reviewed Misconceptions of You (Dream Girl) and Misconceptions of Me (Why So Serious).


Selene 6.23

Yiruma, a famous Korean pop pianist, composed Selene‘s instrumental. A bit about what I think about Yiruma: he’s not a classical pianist or composer, despite some people insisting on labeling him that way. He may play as well as a classical pianist but for me, Yiruma is the kind of music you’ll hear in the elevator five years down the road. It’s tired and true, and while it may be popular in the short run, it’s nothing new– and so it is with his instrumental for Selene 6.23. Some swelling strings and a spare piano melody; if the song is going to be any good, it has to come from SHINee.

This song is a little different than usual SHINee songs as each individual singer sings more lines at one time– e.g., we do not hear Taemin come in until the second chorus. The chorus is sung by individual voices– mostly Key, Onew, Jonghyun– without a blended “voice” as we usually hear on lead singles. It’s actually quite nice, you can really focus on each singer.

Both Minho and Key were better than they usually are. Minho still sounds carefully controlled but alas is no longer a frog; his voice color more or less blends in with SHINee but you can still tell he is uncomfortably holding himself in a higher register. His voice, for the most part, still sounds from the throat and floats through the head. It makes zero sense that they gave him the high parts of the song when he could just have taken a part from Onew or Taemin; Onew and Taemin would be able to handle the higher register just fine.

At times Key has a problem with ending his phrases– they’re abrupt and without any vibrato, so sometimes it sounds like you’re in front of a warm, crackling fireplace and then you are thrust in the cold. It’s still a problem in Selene 6.23. However, he surprised me in the second chorus, as he starts quite low and sounds eerily like Onew in his breathing, delivery and control (1.53s). I am divided about Key– sometimes he shows pockets of brilliance and then reverts to his bad habits; he’s been like this since debut, even more so lately. It’s like he cared a lot about his singing at debut but has been lax about it in the last few years. It’s troubling.

Jonghyun and Onew kill it, of course, when they trade back and forth and double up in the chorus, it is evident that they are the vocal souls of SHINee. It’s been a while since I have heard their voices so together on a recording– and only them two, explicitly. Selene 6.23 just confirms that their voices blend incredibly well; Onew’s voice especially, has aged well.

Taemin was a weak presence on this album as a whole and while his parts were non-offensive for Selene 6.23 and Better Off, that is all they were. Neither special nor bad. It sometimes puzzles me to see Taemin as a solo artist now because his presence on a SHINee song can sometimes even be less than Key, despite having more lines.

Better Off

Like Selene 6.23Better Off is an inoffensive mid-tempo ballad. Check out Reynah’s piano arrangement instead.

Key, two thumbs down.

Business as usual.