Thursday, February 4, 2016

Acoustic Collabo - I Do (2014)

Between their 2012 EP Love Letter and their second album, I Do, Acoustic Collabo underwent a significant shakeup, with guitarist/songwriter Kim Seung-jae departing the duo for his own project. Rather than the dissolution of the group and vocalist An Da-eun going solo, Acoustic Collabo took on guitarist Woody Kim to stay with the formula that's worked for them thus far.

Alongside Kim Seung-jae's departure, their primary songwriter, Windmill, also didn't return for I Do so the album was produced with the help of a bunch of songwriters for hire, but they largely stick to the musical style that's worked so well for Acoustic Collabo so far and An actually steps up and contributes three songs herself, composing, writing lyrics, and arranging them entirely, adding a bit of continuity to the album's voice.

Unfortunately, the resulting album feels just a little more generic than their past two works and part of that is because it starts so with "휘피람", a rather plain piece of slow acoustic pop that somehow gained the status of single. The second track, "응원가", opens with a more familiar acoustic guitar push and asks more of An, even if it's not much, but the little more required of both An as a vocalist and Woody Kim as a guitarist, backed by some light percussion and guitar backup results in a more enjoyable piece.

It's actually unsurprising that "응원가" is more vocally demanding though, as it's written by An and the other two pieces by An, "사랑한다 말할까봐" and "Dream" both give her vocals plenty of attention and push them, even though the latter two do push a bit further away from the acoustic pop sound into ballad pop territory, only kept in line with the rest of the album by a limited arrangement, but elements like the synth-strings on "사랑한다 말할까봐" and the generally dramatic ballad pop melody of "Dream" do feel at the verge of departure for the group.

The production on I Do is a bit more shiny and straight pop-oriented than past albums, adding much more instrumentation into the arrangements, like the keyboards and percussion elements on "My Heaven" or the presence of piano on a number of tracks. This does pull the album a little further away from the "acoustic" part of the duo's sound, but I can see how it makes the duo's sound even more appealing for mainstream consumption and the presence of the acoustic guitar at the center of the arrangements does keep the duo's sound at least somewhat grounded.

There aren't any standouts here, but as with Acoustic Collabo's previous EPs, I Do benefits from being relatively brief at nine tracks if you don't count the instrumental versions at the album's end and totaling about thirty-three minutes. Unfortunately, the push towards more mainstream pop sounds in arrangement, while perhaps making the album more appealing in terms of production, also kind of makes Acoustic Collabo sound a bit more like generic pop and I Do isn't particularly distinctive as a result. But it is still precisely the kind of undemandingly pleasant coffee-shop acoustic pop that would probably satisfy those that would pick up an album by a duo named Acoustic Collabo. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. 휘피람
  2. 응원가
  3. I Do
  4. 사랑한다 말할까봐
  5. My Heaven
  6. One More Kiss
  7. Dream
  8. Love You
  9. 미안
  10. I Do (instrumental)
  11. Dream (instrumental)

Links:

Monday, February 1, 2016

타블로 - 열꽃 (2011)

Tablo had it hard a little after Epik High went on hiatus while Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz were off serving mandatory military service. He became the center of an internet witch hunt as a group of angry netizens could not handle the fact that Tablo wasn't just a celebrity musician, but one that also managed to graduate the prestigious Stanford University with both a bachelor's and master's degree in three years. While Tablo did publicly vindicate himself, the amount of vitriol and death threats that came at him and his family led him to public withdrawal as well as removing himself from his longtime label, Woolim.

After a time out of the public eye, Tablo was eventually convinced to sign with YG Entertainment, one of the big three mainstream Korean music labels, and with YGE, he produced his first solo album, originally released in two parts and then a complete album called Fever's End. Those familiar with his work with Epik High will actually find Tablo's solo work quite familiar, as Tablo did much of the songwriting and arranging for the trio and so the various sounds of their last few releases make their presence here as well and will certainly appeal to Epik High fans and, by extension, fans of pop-tilted hip-hop.

The sounds tend a bit more towards a mix of the moodier electronic elements of [e] like on the Jinsil assisted "나쁘다" that might also be likened to "One" from Pieces, Part One, to the similarly moody more acoustic arrangements found on "Tomorrow", the pianos over the beat resembling the group's EP Lovescream.

But Tablo is the central voice of this particular album and moody as the album is in its arrangements, Tablo does allow himself to get more fiery on "출처", which brings in his Epik High mate DJ Tukutz on the turntable and even gets a bit more minimalist on "Dear TV / 해열" as an English-language track which opens with a spare rumbling beat that gets some spare synths, especially after Tablo finishes his verse. But even with Tablo front and center, the album has no shortage of guest contributors, ranging from veteran songstress Lee So-ra contributing her haunting vocals to the opening track "" to new labelmate Taeyang assisting on "Tomorrow". Na-ul of Brown Eyed Soul provides an especially emotional hook to the first single, "Airbag" while Tablo himself continues singing the hooks himself on some tracks including the closer "유통기한" and brings in actor Bong Tae-gyu for the hook of "고마운 숨", which also features Yankie as the lone fellow emcee on the album.

Fever's End is not a revelation by any measure, but for those missing Epik High during the hiatus following Epilogue and prior to the revamp of their sound on "99". Tablo doesn't push his chops as an emcee here, except perhaps lyrically on a few points, including "Dear TV", but I don't think that's the point of Fever's End, which sounds more like a soothing recovery from a dark spot for Tablo. And the album is no worse for it with the closing track selling the struggle.

The album is varied in arrangement, but consistent in tone and mood and more importantly, seems like a collection of genuine personal expression from Tablo, certainly a singular artist on YGE's roster. And that is perhaps the most compelling element of Fever's End. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. (feat. 이소라)
  2. 나쁘다 (feat. 진실)
  3. Airbag (feat. 나얼)
  4. 밀물 (scratch by DJ Friz)
  5. 밑바닥에서 (feat. Bumkey)
  6. Tomorrow (feat. 태양)
  7. 출처 (scratch by DJ Tukutz)
  8. Dear TV / 해열
  9. 고마운 숨 (feat. 얀키 + 봉태규)
  10. 유통기한

Links:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Acoustic Collabo - Love Letter (2012)

Love Letter, Acoustic Collabo's second mini-album, continues their straightforward acoustic indie pop sound, building upon the diversified arrangements introduced in Unplugged to help add more depth to their recordings, but without losing the core of their appeal.

This is most noticeable in the opening "발걸음", another instrumental effort with Kim Seung-jae's guitar at the forefront. However, rather than just being guitar and percussion, the arrangement gets decked out with flute and strings as well and while it never is more than an instrumental bookend to the mini-album, it does a good job of leading into the first proper song of the album, "바람이 부네요".

Continuing the presence of the flute, the arrangement of "바람이 부네요" is very much a bossa nova driven work, like "Sweet Love" from Unplugged, but at a faster tempo as An Da-eun comes in to contribute vocals, with Soulman helping to fill in a bed of background vocals.

Soulman continues his lush backing for An on "고백" and this song strips down some of the arrangement to just Kim's guitar and some light percussion, harkening back to Acoustic Collabo's core aesthetic. Predictably, Kim's guitar becomes even more noticeable on "그대라서", which he wrote, and strips down the arrangement even more to just the guitar and Soulman's backing vocals, but it's a nice simple finale to the mini-album's main tracks.

Love Letter closes with another light instrumental guitar piece from Kim, this time sans all the other instrumentation and sort of makes Love Letter a bit of a progression from the greatest amount of complexity in arrangement to the most bare at the end. But outside of the pleasant, but ultimately lightweight bookends, the three core songs are pretty much everything you'd expect from Acoustic Collabo and nothing more. And like Love Is the Key, the brevity of the mini-album helps keep the music focused and enjoyable, much as you'd expect from a pop album.

The added amount of instrumentation to some of the earlier tracks does help build on Acoustic Collabo's musical dimensionality, but even with these lusher arrangements, the duo is still largely just doing well what they've always done. So Love Letter is unlikely to convert those that don't like the acoustic indie pop sound, but fans of Acoustic Collabo and other simple acoustic indie pop groups will likely also enjoy Love Letter too. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. 발걸음
  2. 바람이 부네요
  3. 고백
  4. 그대라서
  5. Waltz for U

Links:

Thursday, January 21, 2016

DJ Magik Cool J - Summer Composer (2009)

I was initially introduced to DJ Magik Cool J via his work with the pop group Aquibird and ended up following him to check out the music of his hip-hop duo, Cloudancer. Having enjoyed all of his collaborative work thus far, I started seeing if he had worked with any other groups, but I discovered that he also had released a solo album called Summer Composer in 2009 so I picked up a copy of it. In the liner of the album, DJ Magik Cool J notes that the album is composed of a selection of tracks from his daily composition exercises from long before Aquibird, starting in 1998 up until the release of the album. The result spans a couple of DJ Magik Cool J's preferred genres, but they're tied together well by his musical touch and while Summer Composer might not be the kind of addictive pop work that he places into Aquibird or Cloudancer, it's a relaxing, contemplative listen.

The album is primarily instrumental bedroom productions and that's apparent by the bookending pieces, "Time for Longsleeves" and "Time for Shortsleeves", the former introducing the low-key ambient electronica that comprises about half of the album, with its bubbling bright synths against more horn-like synths on the main melody. It's just a touch moody, but also gets across the almost contemplative morning mood that DJ Magik Cool J composed most (if not all) of these pieces in. It's album ending partner features harder hip-hop beats on the rhythm but the bubbling synths and the contemplative mood remains continuous.

The one near-single on the album is also the only song with vocals, "Pretend Song", which continues with the moody production, but includes DJ Magik Cool J himself on the vocals and manages to be quite catchy, to the point where finding a remixed version with Aquibird wouldn't be surprising. Another interesting point is the bright "Windhill" with its upper register box-like synths building an interesting rhythm upon a bed of high synths.

Towards the end of the album, starting with "Roundabout", DJ Magik Cool J brings a bit of funk to the album, although in a more cool jazz-inclined variety rather than the get-up-and-shake-your-booty kind. Because of this, if perfectly fits the larger theme of the album, even as the tracks bleed more hip hop like on "Magikoology" with its righteous flutework, reminding me a bit of The Beastie Boys's The Mix-Up. Even when DJMCJ ups the tempo like on "Fundamental House Science" with its congas and funk guitar, the work stays relatively cool thanks to the counteracting blue synths reinforcing the surprising consistency in tone for an album which features work spanning over a decade.

And all this makes Summer Composer actually quite enjoyable to listen to, thanks to DJ Magik Cool J's consistency of sound and mood. Part of this might be because these are emblematic of his morning composition routine, but Cool J still pushes around different genres, meshing together elements of ambient electronica, funk, and hip hop into a blend of music that is relaxed enough to be an easy listen throughout, but also contains enough content that it manages to evoke a noticeable mood in its sweep of sounds. Fans of DJ Magik Cool J's other work will certainly want to check this album out as will those that appreciate the aforementioned blend of genres. Nicely done. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. Time for Longsleeves
  2. Summer Composer
  3. Pretend Song
  4. Meridian Walker
  5. Manic Depressive Man
  6. Windhill
  7. Strobe Soul
  8. Winter Here All the Time
  9. TV Said It Will Rain
  10. Roundabout
  11. Magikoology
  12. Anybody Here?
  13. Fundamental House Science
  14. Time for Shortsleeves

Links:

Friday, January 8, 2016

Gary - Mr. Gae (2014)

2012's Unplugged was Leessang's last showing, but while the duo's absence from music was felt, in 2014, Leessang's Gary released his first solo EP entitled Mr. Gae. A four-track effort, Mr. Gae might possibly be best known for its racy 19+ music video for "조금 이따 샤워해", which was banned for broadcast due to its loads of obvious sexual innuendo, but that didn't stop the included tracks from gaining both critical and commercial success and with good reason. While the EP is short and a little all over the place, every included track is single-worthy.

The album opens with "XX몰라", which XX's out the strong language in the title. This is demonstrative of Gary's desire to push limits on this EP and with Mr. Gae he has greater freedom to do so being a solo effort. The composition opens with a flanged synth that sings because an interesting blend of synthesized and orchestral instruments come together with a hip-hop flavored deep "hey" sample drives the show. Gary's flow is his usual straightfoward effort, but runs well against the fetching dynamic arrangement and his singing of the hook of the romantic track seals the deal. It's a fine opening track that emphasizes Gary's strengths and letting him try new things musically.

This continues in the infamous "조금 이따 샤워해", which actually has a rather dark laugh sample opening after an engine. What follows after then is a sexy R&B-meets-hip hop beat from producer-rapper Gray as Gary describes his desire to stay in bed with his lover after lovemaking while Crush smoothly sings the hook and the bridge. Everything works well in the song, which captures the intimacy of sex in relationships in hip-hop form.

"술 취한 밤의 노래" pushes a little closer to Gary's work with Leessang with its accordion laced and bouncy jazzy-blues arrangement, furthered with longtime Leessang collaborator Jung In as the featured vocalist. Like the other tracks, this is a dynamic track that features a pretty great vocal run from Jung In as she sings and scats and manages to throw in a laugh amidst it is, representing well the madness of drunkenness.

The title track, which closes out the EP is something else. It starts off with a real hard hip-hop beat and the emcees hitting their rhymes equally hard during their verses, broken up by strong hook. But the track's ending, where the whole thing flies off into EDM crashing and cutting is a really interesting transition that maintains the whole intensity of the former hip hop sound and leaves the listener potentially reeling before the EP's silent end.

And it's that little moment in the title track that symbolizes the many ways that Gary is pushing out of the sound of Leessang that the duo had well cultivated over the many years. Gary himself as a rapper always had good flow, most distinctive in his runs of syllables and timing, but as part of Leessang, Gil was often the one handling the song composition duties and so much of their output was colored by Gil's presence. However here, Gary has his hand in much of the production and some of the composition too and this really gives Mr. Gae a distinct flavor compared to his work with Leessang.

As an EP as Gary pushes his boundaries to find his sound, I think Mr. Gae works well. It's wildly diverse as every track represents a significantly different sound under the larger banner of hip-hop, but Gary's presence as a rapper and sometimes singer does well to hold the whole thing together. The result, a fantastic exploration of Gary's sometimes brash and always entertaining space as a solo musician. 9/10

Tracklist:

  1. XX몰라
  2. 조금 이따 샤워해 (feat. Crush)
  3. 술 취한 밤의 노래 (feat. Jung In)
  4. Mr. Gae (feat. Juvie Train & 계범주)
  5. XX몰라 (instrumental)
  6. Mr. Gae (instrumental)

Links:

Monday, January 4, 2016

Bye Bye Badman - Bye Bye Badman (2011)

I first discovered Bye Bye Badman through live performances on YouTube and while I instantly took to them and picked up a copy of their eponymous debut EP, it took me a while to get around to actually listening to it. By the time the disc showed up in my queue, I didn't quite remember what drew me to them, but putting their EP in my player and spinning it, it was immediately clear why: the band is deeply inspired by 1990's British rock and it comes through deeply in their music, although they also avoid sounding like copycats as well, resulting in familiarly fun little EP.

I imagine that the band named themselves after The Stone Roses song and given their influence on and presence in British rock of the 1990's, it makes sense that Bye Bye Badman makes the kind of the music that they do. The five piece open with a keyboard organ solo on "Between Black & White", an organ-propelled rocker with great energy and atmosphere. It also happens to be the only track on the EP that features any Korean as the rest transition to English.

"Out of Here" opens with a bouncy start-stop rhythm section as bandleader Jeong Bong-gil comes in with a mix of singing and whispering, playfully rolling along the one-two rhythm section driven song with Kwak Min-hyeok's lead guitar and Koh Hyeong-suk's keyboards coming into support in force on the chorus. This is probably the most straightforward fun album on the track that makes the most of its high dynamics.

The more subdued, echoing electric guitar that opens "Fixable" shows the band taking the music into more echoing territory, but the time that the rhythm guitar shows up, Jeong Bong-gil's vocals take on a Liam Gallagher-ish tint and the band shifts accordingly into the broad sweep of rock that characterized Oasis during their '90's heyday. However, the quiet passages that intersperse the track are, like with "Out of Here", a welcome contrast to the otherwise crescendic song.

The band pushes more garage with "She Don't Know", which isn't quit swaggering, but does throw's plenty of "fucks" around liberally, which is kind of jarring considering the more tame nature of the rest of the song, but one thing this track's lyrics highlights is just how well immersed Jeong Bong-gil is with British rock as while he sings with a touch of a Korean accent, his English lyrics are also peppered with British verbiage and tends towards that pronunciation as well.

The EP closes with "Devil's Cantata", which displays the dynamics that the band works with so well and replaces Koh's keyboard with a classy grand piano. It's a track with a few moods, ranging from brooding quiet passages, to explosive emotional bursts to shuffling tethers between, rich orchestration helping to fill in towards the end.

There are times where the EP does split a few too many different ways as Bye Bye Badman does feel at times like they're trying to hit every major style that was prevalent in British rock of the 1990's, but the band is fortunately held together well by Jeong's vocal style and propensity for dynamic fluctuations in their arrangements, which keeps most of the tracks on the EP quite engaging. It's enough of an appetizer that I'm curious to see what would come of an album from this group and I think that makes it a pretty successful debut EP for Bye Bye Badman. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. Between the Black & White
  2. Out of Here
  3. Fixable
  4. She Don't Know
  5. Devil's Cantana

Links:

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Scomic Strip - Scomic Strip (2013)

There's precious little information about the band Scomic Strip readily available out there, but their eponymous first album got distributed by Mirrorball Music and a few of their tracks got music video treatment and uploaded to Mirrorball's YouTube channel, which is how I discovered the group. After sampling a pair of their post-rock leaning tunes, I picked up that first album and gave it a spin. If you've heard the singles they released with music videos than you pretty much know what you're getting here: low-key post-rock with a very small touch of dream pop on a couple tracks.

The album starts off in a strange way with "Dolnara", which almost sounds like it's picking up in the middle of a recording, but aside from the curious start, it sets the tone well for what the band is doing, which is the blending of guitar, production effects, and sometimes drums to create what's basically a rock music wallpaper for your ears. Scomic Strip never lets itself get too dynamic, avoiding surges and crescendos with a couple exceptions.

And think that's too bad because tracks like "빛이 탄다" and "산책" actually feel like they move somewhere instead of idling around and noodling with the sounds already in the kit. The most notable deviation from the low-key post-rock sound is the presence of vocals on "선물", which is the only point that you could really verify the dream-pop label that some seem to give the group. It's also unfortunately that the group only produces a single such standard song because it's one of the better moments on the whole album, alongside the more dynamic tracks.

And all this is indicative of the band's low-energy, low-key approach. Even the amusingly titled remix of Googolplex's "Blind" is perhaps ironically called a dance remix because it's minimalist approach is more likely to still your heartbeat than get your toe tapping or your head nodding. On the plus side, the band's bag of production tricks does add texture to their various tracks like the capturing of ambient chatter and the various effects pedals used by the group.

I do think there is an audience for Scomic Strip and that would be those that are generally deeply involved in post-rock music, but I feel like most of this album doesn't quite manage enough dynamism for the average listener. Those looking for chillout or background music might have it here, but the general engagement level is a touch low--I frequently found my attention wandering during focused listening sessions. But if you like post-rock and want something that doesn't demand as much attention as the more bombastic acts out there, Scomic Strip's first album will be right for you. 6/10

Tracklist:

  1. Dolnara
  2. White Out
  3. 선물
  4. 매티
  5. Phone 01
  6. 빛이 탄다
  7. Box
  8. 산책
  9. Ggum
  10. 大地
  11. Phone 02
  12. Googolplex - Blind (Scomic Strip xTENDED D@ance REm!x)

Links: