[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.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 1.01.22

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] BIGBANG’s “Blue”: a spur-of-the-moment, this-is-just-too-good review

I don’t have much to say, because I am absolutely blown away.

BIGBANG is not a strong vocal group and will never be, if we hold TVXQ as our vocal standard for male groups. But I find I don’t care. Particularly, G-Dragon’s singing starting at 0.44s is just so heartbreakingly perfect and well-paced with the midtempo bass. Sometimes I can’t stop myself from melting.

The song itself– it builds on Korean ballad idioms, but it moves away from it, a bit like SM The Ballad did with “Hot Times“, as it is less concerned with sounding so sad and emotive, having excessive held high notes. What we get is a song that is melancholy, but at the same time, uplifting. “Blue” is something to curl up to on a rainy day with a cup of hot tea and a biscotti or two.

I lied slightly, I am a bit bothered by the voice qualities, for example, sandwiching TOP between the smooth chorus and BIGBANG’s token smooth singer, Taeyang. However, I’ve always had a problem with the cohesiveness of BIGBANG’s sound, so this is nothing new. I am also bothered by the token white girl, which they also had in the MV for “Tonight.” I know they are trying for an international flavor, but the video could have been handled just fine without a token white girl, who is just like a thin layer of frosting on top of an already very substantial cake of interesting sets, and an interesting song. Heck, if you have an interesting song, all you need is a video of yourself singing it, and that is about all the music video you need. If YG insists on putting a token international girl in the videos, then I better stop seeing these waif couture models, and maybe, I don’t know, a really sexy italiana? An African-American? Pouty dark-haired French?

Despite those small bothers, I can say for certain this song can be certified as one of the best things that has happened to kpop in the last two years, probably even better than SHINee’s Korean “Lucifer“. Listening to BIGBANG, I am immediately reminded of EXO, the new group of SM that is in the stage of pre-debut with its never-ending teasers, who also pre-released a midtempo ballad, “What is Love?” Everyone kept commenting how similar it sounds to TVXQ’s “Before U Go“, which actually were both produced and written by Yoo Young-jin, one of the perennial favorites in SM’s arsenal of songwriters. But listening to BIGBANG’s “Blue”, which G-Dragon wrote and produced, I can honestly say that I have never heard anything like this before from G-Dragon. Of course, their previous comeback hints at the electro thump, but this sound, it’s completely fresh.

It is fresh– something that is rarely said in kpop nowadays. As we clear away the conventional EXOs and BAPs and missAs, I’m glad that we still have BIGBANG to look forward to.

[kpop] SM, YG, Cube slated to debut new groups in 2012.. wait, who cares about Cube and YG again?

SM is set  to debut a group codenamed M1 in 2012, supposedly “male-SNSD” with seven members. YG is set to debut a new girl and boy group. Cube is readying its guns with a seven-member boy group.

supposedly SM's new boy group, M1

YG and Cube new groups? Who really cares (as much)?

If there is one thing SM is ridiculously good at, it’s aggregating people together together into groups that work, well, ridiculously well. Sure, you may not have the best music, you may not have the most talented members, but something magical happens, and you have groups like Super Junior, SNSD, SHINee, TVXQ*.

Someone interjects at this point and says, “Wait, what about BIGBANG?”

BIGBANG is a popular group, but it’s not a cohesive group. It’s not just me, but other reviewers have commented how individual the members of BIGBANG feel in their latest album together. Note that I do not mean ‘individual’ as ‘special’, but as ‘not working together as a group’. They’re individuals collaborating on an album, not a group pulling an album together. Of course, 2NE1 has a very good group dynamic, but the fact they are modeled as female BIGBANG feels somewhat of a cheat to me.

B2ST is just not popular enough. When I mean popular, I mean, Super Junior, TVXQ, BIGBANG popular. B2ST has not made it there yet, and neither has Cube. Cube is a formidable company, but since SM is the big gorilla in the room already, SM can afford and attract the better choreographers, better producers, better everything, than Cube can. So to some extent, Cube suffers a bit from the inferiority of the product it can make on average (though there can be exceptions) compared to what the 9000 kg gorilla can do.

Even S.M. The Ballad was a ridiculous exercise in how well SM can push people together and have it work amazingly– in the recorded tracks, the performance and in real life. Watching their interviews, it was so clear why they debuted Jino (supposed member of M1!) instead of including Ryeowook, Yesung, or Onew in S.M. The Ballad; someone needs to fulfill bashful cute maknae, and it works. Kyuhyun fit perfectly as a hyung (despite being maknae of Super Junior), Jonghyun settled into his virtuosic status, Jay was the ‘bad boy’ (I say this with reservations, because Jay naturally has an unsavory look about him). The result was magic. Magic in their two lead singles, magic in their interviews, magic, magic, magic– even though this was a very low-key debut right before Christmas. SM just has talent sitting in its closets, bursting out of their ears.

The interactions between their performers, as people, fit together so consistently well; that is why SM artists dominate the television waves and variety shows. They are entertaining. They are entertaining together. I can’t say anything to how the SM artists behave themselves in the dorm, but the balance in the outward personalities and their strengths always manages to astound me. SM groups are good at everything– they may individually not be much, but the sum of their parts is staggering. YG stays away from overexposure on variety shows to develop their artists’ talent, and I respect that, but you will never have a completely versatile group, and in that, SM reigns supreme.

So I’m sort of excited to see the blend SM has whipped up this time.

Also, I want to see Jino again!

courtesy of puffshroom, i.e., I'm too lazy. From left to right, Jay (TRAX), Kyuhyun (Super Junior), Jino, Jonghyun (SHINee)

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