Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Younha - Peace Love & Ice Cream (2009)

Younha's second Korean album, Someday, turned out to be a welcome return to form for the former Oricon comet after a minor stumble on A Perfect Day to Say I Love You. Still with the same label, Younha's third album ended up being split into two half-albums, Peace Love & Ice Cream and then Growing Season. And, after the enjoyable Someday, I have to say that Peace Love & Ice Cream is a bit disappointing due to the somewhat generic nature of the songs and the lack of musical identity for Younha.

Now, I'm not saying that Younha absolutely needs to be a rocker, but most of her best work in the past has been on the more rock side of pop rock tracks, with a healthy dose of her piano work. However, even her one rock song on Peace Love & Ice Cream, "Break Out", ends up feeling a bit more like a pop song than a rock song because of both the music that surrounds it, and the songwriting lending more of a pop construction with some rock guitars. The pop aspirations of Peace Love & Ice Cream are most obvious on the final original track, "Luv U Luv U Luv U", which is a generic dance pop track through and through.

Like with the special edition of A Perfect Day to Say I Love You, the album opens a bit on a dull side with the title track. A European originated piano pop track, this isn't too far from Younha's previous light pop work, but like the aforementioned work, it isn't terribly memorable. It would work fine as an album track, but to be both the title track and a single from the album suggests that it's the strongest work on the half-album and it's merely passable. The other single, "1, 2, 3", is another light pop song that borrows a little from "ABC" by The Jackson 5 for a simple declaration of infatuation. Younha's vocals do show a little unexplored range on this track, but the arrangement is pretty fluffy, minus the use of actual horns and Younha's own piano solo and the hook isn't successfully followed by an interesting chorus, rendering the song a bit forgettable as well.

I suppose it's almost telling that "사랑하다", a fairly standard Korean ballad, ends up being the one of the strongest original tracks on the album, because it gives Younha a bit more dynamism to work with on which she delivers. But it, like every other track on Peace Love & Ice Cream is a singular presence as there is no greater cohesive theme or sound to the entire half album, bouncing from light pop, to edgier pop rock, to straight dance pop and ballads in between. The lack of a specific musical identity further muddies the musical experience, further lending to the feel that Peace Love & Ice Cream is a generic music experience.

And with the songwriting and arrangement simply being mediocre on the album--every track is outshined by the Korean version of "My Song And...", originally from Someday--Peace Love & Ice Cream ends up being Younha's weakest release among her albums. Granted, this is only part of the whole experience, but if we're going to start so weak, it's hard to keep up hope that the following part will be any better. At least Younha herself performs well, but she's limited by the dullness of her material here. Even her original piano piece, that worked well as a bridge on Someday, ends up suffering because its simple instrumental work is sandwiched between already relatively forgettable tracks.

I know some Younha fans will still want this and, honestly, Peace Love & Ice Cream is still rather innocuous pop, so even if it's not terribly memorable, it's also neither particularly grating. It's not a bad album. But I can only hope that the second part redeems the weak showing of the first. 6/10

Tracklist:

  1. Peace Love & Ice Cream
  2. Black Rain
  3. Break Out
  4. 1, 2, 3
  5. She Is
  6. 사랑하다
  7. Luv U Luv U Luv U
  8. My Song And...
  9. 1, 2, 3 (instrumental)
  10. 사랑하다 (instrumental)

Links:

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Killers - Hot Fuss (2004)

It seemed like when The Killers released their debut album, they were everywhere. Probably because they were everywhere as I heard their music on the radio all the time and I didn't even listen to radio then; the album lived up to its name. Yet, it wasn't until a few years later that I ever really paid attention to their music because I ended up with a roommate who was really into them. And after hearing Hot Fuss on repeat a few times, it seeped into my brain and I picked up a copy of the album.

I think one of the reason that Hot Fuss works to well at first glance is because it loads up all of its singles at the top, making for a high octane beginning experience. The second half of the album doesn't quite hold up as well, but the density of singles at the top of the album does make it a pretty memorable experience and the album tracks do manage to keep up, even if they're not at the level of the singles.

What The Killers present on Hot Fuss is rock filtered through a deep New Wave lens, clearly influenced by groups like The Cure, Joy Division, and some post-punk bands from the 1980's. It's heavy on synthesizers, distorted vocals, and percolating alt-dance rhythms as well a sense of drama. And for the first five tracks it not only works, but works well.

Whether it's the unrequited desire of "Mr. Brightside" reverberating through the undulating synths and bass as frontman Brandon Flowers gets increasingly agitated in the verse or the gospel choir showing up in the marching bridge of "All These Things That I've Done" repeating "I've got soul / but I'm not a soldier" in between the ringing guitars and gliding verses, the first five tracks are packed fill of earworms. That's not to say the singles are perfect. The chorus of "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" loses a bit of momentum after the high octane Duran Duran-inspired guitars and vocal dynamism and "Somebody Told Me" instrumental opening feels a bit clunky in its transition to the more helicopter rhythm section. But it's hard to complain about both because the hooks are so good and the energy so great.

Of course, that also means when Hot Fuss lets go of the energy, it also isn't quite as sparkling. "Andy, You're a Star" is probably a welcome respite from the heavily arranged bluster that came before it, but the midtempo rock workout of "On Top" never really recaptures what The Killers provided earlier in the album. That's not to say it's particularly weak as "Change Your Mind" has some nice synthesizer passages behind its pleasant melody line and "Midnight Snow" might not quite have the same hooks, but its alt-dance and The Edge-inspired guitar riffs are still pretty enjoyable. The spare Prince-like arrangement of the rhythms on the moody album closer, "Everything Will Be Alright", also breaks open into quite the pretty piano work.

And any album that manages to start so hot is hard to forget, even if it slows down and isn't able to regain that initial magic. Plus, the remaining album tracks are still a decent listen and well integrated into the sound of the album, even if these aren't tracks that you're going to really be looking for outside of the context of the album. As such, Hot Fuss still lives up to its title and certainly positioned The Killers as the New Wave revivalist frontrunners of the mid-2000s for a good reason. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. Jenny Was a Friend of Mine
  2. Mr. Brightside
  3. Smile Like You Mean It
  4. Somebody Told Me
  5. All These Things That I've Done
  6. Andy, You're a Star
  7. On Top
  8. Change Your Mind
  9. Believe Me Natalie
  10. Midnight Show
  11. Everything Will Be Alright

Links:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Younha - Someday (2008)

Although it had some decent tracks, I have to admit that I found Younha's first Korean album, A Perfect Day to Say I Love You, to be inconsistent, with many of the compositions meandering and failing to transition well between its parts. Younha's capacity for singing and piano helped a lot, but it was still a slide backwards from her Japanese first album. For Younha's second album, she switched labels to Lion Media as well as producers and principal songwriters, and I think the last of those changes really helps create a much stronger overall album, as well as giving Younha a little bit more space to flex her own creative abilities. While her second album, Someday, isn't perfect, especially lagging a bit in the second half, it's a much stronger overall album, one that matches her first Japanese album.

Younha's producer knows what her strengths are and the album is accordingly packed with pop rock tunes, from the opening track of "Gossip Boy", opening on her piano lines before crashing into a simple pop verse and the kind of catchy chorus that you can easily imagine backing yet another television series. Someday's lead single, "텔레파시", also cashes in on this, but gives Younha's piano performances even more attention and Younha's synergy with her piano is evident especially on the post-chorus piano licks, but the arrangement is also helped by group "hey" shouts and the irrepressible rock rhythm section. It's pretty much everything you might want from a pop rock single.

Sometimes the rock gets a little more serious, the slashing strings and rumbling guitars of "Hero" alongside the composition makes you wonder if it was written for the opening credits of an action cartoon and the title track is full of rock ballad dramatics, but Younha also manages to pull these off well and they sequence well against the pop rock of the aforementioned tracks.

Someday transitions in its second half to a largely different sound--which makes sense given that the principal songwriter for the first half of the album is Hwang Chanhui. Hwang does also contribute to the ninth track, "Best Friend", which sounds much more in line with the first half of the album, even as a mid-tempo pop rocker, but the tone changes drastically from the interlude track "Rain & The Bar" as the following track it transitions into, "빗소리", has a more adult contemporary pop sound, with bits of country in the arrangement, meshing into pop on the chorus. Yet, despite the change in tone, the track works pretty well where it is.

"Rainbow" and "Strawberry Days" takes someday more towards a light pop sound, the latter's swaying arrangement and verses working better than the former's more straightforward pop. The album also includes a couple of pop ballads in a row at the album's end, with only "My Song and..." being notable for its all English lyrics that manage to make sense. It's not that the ballads are particularly weak, but they do kind of lose the momentum of the album, especially stacked next to each other and become less memorable.

Two final tracks of note are "기억", which has Epik High's Tablo returning a favor for Younha's guest spot on Pieces, Part One and giving Younha a song of her own, guesting on it as its emcee. It's a much more solid effort than Wheesung's contribution to A Perfect Day to Say I Love You, but its electronic composition does feel a bit out of place next to all the pop-rock around it and it definitely sounds like it's an Epik High track more than a Younha one. Finally, Younha herself writes an instrumental piano piece for the album in "For Catharina", which is a nice little almost soundtrack-like moment.

As can be put together from this review, Younha is still clearly best in her element on the piano driven pop-rock song, which utilizes well her solid singing and piano talents. Some of the diversions from her typical sound, like the lovely "빗소리" also win thanks to good composition and it's this composition that really makes Someday a much stronger overall listen than its predecessor. Even if the album does start feeling a little long towards the end, this is more due to the sequencing putting too much of the same thing next to each other--the songs themselves are perfectly acceptable album tracks with at least the basic sense of song dynamics and build-up to catharsis covered.

It's true that Someday's hooks aren't quite as grippy as A Perfect Day to Say I Love You's, but I'm happy to trade that for the consistency of better written tracks, which help Younha's own performance to shine a little brighter. Someday is Younha's Korean album equivalent to her Japanese breakout, Go! Younha and fans of the singer, as well as pop rock will probably appreciate what the album has to offer. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. Gossip Boy
  2. 기억 (rap mix version) (featuring 타블로)
  3. Hero
  4. Someday
  5. 텔레파시
  6. Rain & The Bar
  7. 빗소리
  8. Rainbow
  9. Best Friend
  10. Strawberry Days
  11. For Catharina
  12. 미워하다
  13. My Song And...
  14. 울지마요
  15. 기억 (original mix version)
  16. 텔레파시 (instrumental)
  17. 미워하다 (instrumental)

Links:

Friday, July 17, 2015

Switchfoot - Hello Hurricane (2009)

Hello Hurricane marks a return to independence from Sony BMG for Switchfoot, starting up their own label, lowercase people, to produce their 2009 album. The resulting album has a bit on common with its predecessor, Oh! Gravity as like Oh! Gravity, it also hits on a variety of familiar sounds and themes and features a less produced sound.

Interestingly enough, Hello Hurricane is also the first Switchfoot album that feels like it's actually packed with a number Christian praise songs, which might have been an undercurrent to some past albums like The Beautiful Letdown's "On Fire". The first of these songs is "Your Love Is a Song", which is filled with lyrics praising God's love against a kind of anthemic rock that encourages sing-alongs on both the chorus and the verses. And "Always" is pretty much a straight praise-song declaration of love, complete with "hallelujah"'s and grand statements. And its these grand statements that usually fail to resonate with me in Christian worship music so these moments on Hello Hurricane also fail to connect with me.

However, there is also quite a bit to appreciate on Hello Hurricane, like the opening track, "Needle and Haystack Life" and the finding of hope in the transient minuscule experience of human life set to sweeping U2-like anthem. "Mess of Me" captures some of the more aggressive rock that Switchfoot has previously demonstrated, while "The Sound (John M. Perkins' Blues)" again seems to draw from U2 for its electrically charged bass and Jon Foreman's cry of the title, inspired by John M. Perkins' work towards racial reconciliation.

Switchfoot even finds room for some fun energetic rock in "Bullet Soul", but like with Oh! Gravity., the diversity of sound present on Hello Hurricane does dilute some of thematic focus that drove the band's better albums. What's more, the collection of songs here is generally not as strong as the band's past work, neither as inspiring or as thought provoking and I think part of this has to do with the generalization of Foreman's lyrics away from his personal point of view. And also because the band seems to be simply too comfortable with the sound that they'd long crafted.

That doesn't make Hello Hurricane a bad album, or even a disappointing one, since it will probably satisfy Switchfoot fans craving more music from the band. However, so many years after their strongest albums, the band doesn't really seem to be pushing itself, lyrically, thematically, or sonically, and I think that results in Hello Hurricane just being an average, modestly enjoyable album. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. Needle and Haystack Life
  2. Mess of Me
  3. Your Love Is a Song
  4. The Sound (John M. Perkins' Blues)
  5. Enough to Let Me Go
  6. Free
  7. Hello Hurricane
  8. Always
  9. Bullet Soul
  10. Yet
  11. Sing It Out
  12. Red Eyes

Links:

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Younha - 고백하기 좋은 날 (Special Edition) (2007)

So when no label or agency would give Younha a chance in Korea, she left for Japan where she made a bit of a splash singing the theme song to the popular anime series "Bleach". And then, after a little more success in Japan, she returned to Korea, dropping a single called Audition which got enough mainstream success that it led to a first full length album, A Perfect Day to Say I Love You. This album kind of follows in the pop-rock precedent set by her debut Japanese album Go! Younha, but adjusts a little more towards Korean tastes and Korean songwriting. While the collection here has its merits, the results are a touch uneven, particularly in the songwriting and arrangement, resulting in an album that doesn't quite reach the degree of success as Younha's debut in Japan.

There are two versions of this album floating around, the original release, which is one track shorter and features a dramatically different ordering of the tracks, and the special edition, which modifies the tracklist, switches out "연애조건" for a remix, has different instrumentals, and throws in a Korean adaptation of "マイ☆ラバ" with the phonetically similar "마이★러버". In retrospect, I almost wish I got the original release instead because I think it's a stronger sequencing, mostly because the special edition begins with the utterly mediocre "연애조건", that never captures Younha's strength as a singer and is just a little too easy listening for an opening track.

The album fixes this in short order throwing in the back to back hit singles of "비밀번호 486" and "마이★러버", both of which actually do capitalize on the rocking sound that made Younha a hit before, the former being probably the strongest original song on the album--yet still outclassed by the superior pop of the Korean language remake. Still, with Younha's piano skills on display, plenty of fun rock guitars, and Younha's energetic delivery, the candy pop rock of "비밀번호 486" is pretty fun, even if the production feels a little sparse at times. The opening track on the original album, "Delete" is pretty close to "비밀번호 486" in its effectiveness, being a bit more dramatic, but it shows off Younha's vocal potential the best thanks to its belting chorus... even if it sounds like the songwriter was cribbing just a bit from Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone".

I think I'd like the ballads on A Perfect Day more if they were more consistent. Sometimes they fall straight into standard Korean pop ballad territory, like with "꼬마 - I Cry", with its sweeping melody and drop-offs of arrangements for the penultimate chorus. When the songcraft and arrangement work like on this track, it's still fairly enjoyable. "속마음" with its almost shapeless songwriting, isn't at all memorable and I think that's the problem that strikes about half of the songs on this album. Even the title track, which boasts a great chorus melody gets bogged down in rather uninspiring verses and is overlong.

And it's not just the ballads that struggle as some of the lighter pop tracks, like "Hello Beautiful Day" and "앨리스" are a bit mediocre--working as a forgettable album tracks (and featuring some very stale Korean pop style backing vocals) that just barely work to hold the album together. Even popular Korean singer Wheesung's contribution to album, on which he features as a rapper, falls a bit flat because of uneven builds, songwriting, and a rather lackluster performance the man himself.

Younha herself performs admirably throughout the album, supercharging through the more energetic rock tracks and even getting some great belting lines out. She also delivers well on the ballads, both when performing more quietly and through the dramatic passages. That she manages to deliver well as a singer and pianist says a lot about her potential. It also suggests that it's mostly the songwriting and production that ends up lacking a bit on her debut album, not Younha herself.

The special edition is perhaps most unfortunate in that its inclusion of "마이★러버" draws a comparison to the generally stronger songwriter and arrangement of its Japanese predecessor. It's just a step better than everything else on the album because it's simply more consistent--the transitions are stronger, the arrangement doesn't dawdle, and the verses are just as enjoyable as the choruses. That's not to say that there aren't good tracks on A Perfect Day--most of the more energetic rocking tracks do work out pretty well and even some of the ballads have their moments. But since half the tracks are a bit forgettable, A Perfect Day to Say I Love You ends up living in the shadow of Younha's previous work in Japan. That's not to say that A Perfect Day is bad, just mediocre with flashes of goodness. And Younha as a singer is much of that goodness. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. 연애조건 (remix)
  2. 비밀번호 486
  3. 마이★러버 (Korean version)
  4. Fly
  5. Hello Beautiful Day
  6. 꼬마 - I Cry
  7. Delete
  8. 어린욕심 (featuring 휘성)
  9. 속마음
  10. 앨리스
  11. 고백하기 좋은 날
  12. 오늘만
  13. 비밀번호 486 (instrumental)
  14. 연애조건 (remix) (instrumental)

Links:

Friday, July 10, 2015

Switchfoot - Oh! Gravity. (2006)

While I would say that Switchfoot had more than fifteen minutes of fame thanks to several major hits during their tenure with big label Sony BMG, but perhaps the copy protection malware that Sony put on Nothing Is Sound combined with that album's darker and more cynical viewpoint resulted in diminished public interest in the band. By the time their sixth album, Oh! Gravity. was released, the mainstream had seemed to cool on the band and Switchfoot's own relationship with Sony BMG also seemed to be cooling as it would be the band's final release with the big label.

Sonically, Oh! Gravity. is a little different from its predecessors in that the amount of production is scaled back a little, giving the record a bit more roughness. It also doesn't have quite as pronounced an overall thematic viewpoint, blending in both the inspirational tone of The Beautiful Letdown and the cynicism of Nothing Is Sound, resulting is a bit more of a synthesis for the band. Unfortunately, I think this works to weaken the identity of the album a bit, bouncing from the existential angst of the screaming "Circles" to the more peppy pop-rock of "Amateur Lovers" is a little jarring.

That's not to say that the album doesn't feature a number of strong individual tunes. In fact, both the opening title track and "Dirty Second Hands" are dizzying melanges of musical kitchen sinks, with exploding pianos in the orchestration of the former and frequently shifting meters in the latter. Then there's the protest of materialism in both the criticism of culture in "American Dream" and the frightening reflection of one that got caught up in that dream with "Faust, Midas, and Myself".

In terms of positive tracks, "Awakening" is another inspiring anthem like "We Are One" from Nothing Is Sound while "Head Over Heels (In This Life)" is a kind of more rocking counterpart of "On Fire" from The Beautiful Letdown. But even at its most compelling, which can be fairly compelling, Oh! Gravity. still feels just a bit short and I think it's because of the rather broad tonal diversity of the album, which slightly saps the overall direction.

Of course, one could say that this mixing of tones and messages makes Oh! Gravity. the most Switchfoot of their albums with Sony BMG as it captures the diversity of the band's musical and lyrical output and it's certainly a solid record for a casual listen, but I never seem to be drawn back to it the way I am with its two predecessors. Those two I would recommend to those that like alternative rock altogether; Oh! Gravity., while still probably a must for Switchfoot fans, is just a good album from the band that I've seen do much more than good. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. Oh! Gravity.
  2. American Dream
  3. Dirty Second Hands
  4. Awakening
  5. Circles
  6. Amateur Lovers
  7. Faust, Midas, and Myself
  8. Head Over Heels (In This Life)
  9. Yesterdays
  10. Burn Out Bright
  11. 4:12
  12. Let Your Love Be Strong

Links:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Kim Sa Rang - Human Complex Part. 2 (2014)

Kim Sa Rang follows up the first part of his fourth album, Human Complex Part One with Part Two just about a year after the first's release, resulting in a complete album broken into two discs. Just as the first part felt a little abbreviated, the second does also, but seeing as though they are clearly halves of the same album, that makes sense. The second part is basically a musical continuation of the first, although like the first it has its own sequencing to make it a complete listen as well. And like the second, it's a decent album, similarly playing on the same sound.

The half-album (and the whole) has a distinguishing moment at the top as the opening track and single, "Love Up", blends its modern rock with a touch of electronica, with a crashing cascade of dance synthesizers transitioning away from the rock band sound that opens the track, a touch of British rock sensibilities showing up on the chorus melody and the backing vocal arrangement. From there it's pretty much a dominantly modern rock run with the occasional hit of synths, with Kim letting his voice get gritty on the faster "Magical", but never losing the radio friendly sound in the process.

He slows downs at the start of "You Again", which also features some ethereal production with ringing guitars and dense echoes building a bit of a texture as the song builds up to its anthem delivery. "처음" is a slower paced cousin to "Love Up" and "Goodbye" is as straight a modern rock song as Kim has every composed. From there, we end with "Demon Complex", an electronica outtro as per Kim's normal tendencies.

Overall, this is pretty much everything you might expect from Kim Sa Rang since U-Turn and he doesn't really deviate from the modern rock sound he established there. There are no surprises here, but Kim does manage to put together a set of songs that are fairly pleasant to listen to and will satisfy his fans that liked his previous few releases as well as those that like radio friendly modern rock. 7/10

Note: Kim Sa Rang has released a completed four album, entitled Human Complex Integrated, that combines part one and two into a single release and adds a few bonus tracks at the end, kind of making both parts one and two unnecessary except the most ardent of Kim's fans. As such, if you haven't gotten the first part and you're only just reading this now, you can skip both parts and just get the combined album, which might prove to be a different listen when placed end on end along with the additional tracks.

Tracklist:

  1. Love Up
  2. Magical
  3. You Again
  4. 처음
  5. Goodbye
  6. Demon Complex

Links: