Sunday, December 21, 2014

Humming Urban Stereo - Baby Love (2007)

I think Humming Urban Stereo's third album finally sees Lee Jeereen making the full length album format work for his project, aided in part by incorporating the best tracks from Monochrome into its tracklist. In some ways that does make one of the two discs discs feel a little redundant, but it doesn't hurt Baby Love, which turns out to be an enjoyable listen from start to finish.

Whereas Purple Drop exhausted a little too much at the top due to a far too heavy focus on dance, Baby Love sticks a little closer to the core pop sound that drives the Humming Urban Stereo project, keeping even the excursions engaging and mostly rooted in the sound of the album. The only place where Baby Love distracts is unfortunately is at the start of the album with "Rainbow", which partially sounds more like an Instant Romantic Floor track during YeSlow's brash rap passages due to the arrangement's speedy breakdown. Fortunately, the rest of the track, especially with Shina-E's vocals, still sounds like the Humming Urban Stereo you got Baby Love for.

As with previous Humming Urban Stereo works, you get a mix of Latin rhythms, female vocals ranging from Humming Girl's cuter delivery, exchanging with Lee Jeereen's Brown Bunny in the title track, and to more bolder dance vocals from Shi-un on "Triangular" and Simone on the excellent disco track "Space Loves Disco".

As mentioned, Baby Love also includes the best tracks from Monochrome, "Sera un Zorro" (now called "Siempre, Sera un Zorro"), Insomnia, "지랄", and "Erotic Actress", which eats up a quarter of the album's proper runtime. And honestly, they fit in perfectly here, so it's hard to complain, although I wished that they were at least remixes or different arrangements so that Monochrome isn't made redundant. The album concludes with a couple of semi-bonus tracks, including a highly enjoyable chiptune remix of Purple Drop's "Hawaiian Couple" from YMCK and an alternate version of "Mambo Mood" from earlier in the album.

Look, if you like Humming Urban Stereo's sound, Baby Love pretty much provides everything you're looking for. Granted, the album's strongest tracks are the holdovers from Monochrome, but even the new album tracks all carry that stylish lounge sound that you want from Humming Urban Stereo, with enough of a beat to wiggle in your seat, but also pleasant and relaxed enough that it can be background music. And I think that makes Baby Love an album success for Lee Jeereen. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. Dark Circle
  2. Rainbow
  3. Mambo Mood
  4. Triangular
  5. Space Loves Disco
  6. 간이역
  7. Siempre Sera Un Zorro
  8. Baby Love
  9. Insomnia
  10. Ozon
  11. 지랄
  12. Waltz Sofa #3
  13. Erotic Actress
  14. Hawaiian Couple (YMCK mix)
  15. Mambo Mood (Bunny's Kid Scat version)

Links:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

이승환 - His Ballad (1999)

Before the rise of dance-pop in mainstream Korean pop music and alongside folk and trot, one of the most dominant pop forms was the ballad. It's a legacy that still endures in the Korean mainstream today whereas both folk and trot have seen a bit of a demise in contemporary Korean music. Many of the balladeers that flowered in the 1980's maintain mainstream careers to this day and one such singer is Lee Seunghwan. Debuting in 1989, Lee Seunghwan gained prominence not only as a tremendous performer and interpreter, but Lee, alongside his frequent collaborator, You Heeyeol, was also a writer of several of these hits.

In 1997, after five successful albums, Lee released his first compilation album, His Ballads, collecting a number of his many hits and several strong album tracks into an eighteen song collection. For some reason, two years later, this album was re-released with a reduced tracklist under the same name and then in 2003 further reduced one track and made the first of a two-parter.

All this said, I have to admit that I am not the greatest fan of balladry. While I appreciate a strong ballad now and then, the idea of listening to an album that is predominantly ballad usually is repellent to me, so no matter what his reputation for performance and songcraft, I was really hesitant to give Lee Seunghwan's ballad compilation a chance. However, I have to admit that Lee Seunghwan delivers exactly the kind of performance that makes His Ballad a surprisingly continuously engaging listen--one that I rarely had any desire to skip past any tracks and even desire to listen to in repeat.

Part of this is because the compilation takes care to include a variety of ballads--the styles range from the crescendic, highly cathartic soft-rock fueled "천일동안" to the intimately arranged acoustic ballad of "내가 바라는 나", even dipping into shades of R&B on "침묵의 기록". Because of the variety, the emotional energy rises and falls throughout the compilation and the culling of five albums of material really helps put mostly the strongest material up front. The album is even blessed with a few duets throughout, teaming with Gang Suji for "그들이 사랑하기 까지" and a collection of fellow ballad artists on "마법의 성".

The diversity of tracks on display also emphasize Lee Seunghwan's own range, sometimes exploding with powerful emotion on choruses without losing the sensitive timbre and at other times, Lee can glide along a more mellow melody, capturing intimacy and warmth. The songwriting, shared between Lee Seunghwan and a handful of fellow songwriters, stays firmly in the realm of soft pop, but also remains strong throughout, the selections almost all capable of standing either as full singles or perfect for inclusion in soundtrack duty. While some of the arrangements are a bit dated, like the '90's lite-funk of "너의 기억" and the soft-synth of "그가 그녈 만났을 때", many of the songs retain their strength thanks to organic instrumentation and having solid songs to build from.

The only real weak point on the album for me is actually the second track, the super-lounge-jazz of "이상과 현실" is just so overplayed by balladeers that even Lee's voice doesn't really help distinguish itself from its many peers. But that somehow manages to be the only real complaint I have of this collection of ballads and that's something that really surprised me. Lee Seunghwan proves himself a captivating performer and even an engaging songwriter on many of his ballads and His Ballad represents him well in demonstrating why he was so successful in the past and maintains a mainstream spotlight even today, having released his eleventh album, Fall to Fly 前 just this year. This collection of ballads is better than it has any right being. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. 천일동안
  2. 이상과 현실
  3. 너의 기억
  4. 그들이 사랑하기 까지
  5. 다만
  6. 화려하지 않은 고백
  7. 애원
  8. 마법의 성
  9. 그가 그녈 만났을 때
  10. 내가 바라는 나
  11. 침묵의 기록
  12. 눈물로 시를 써도
  13. 한 사람을 위한 마음
  14. 텅빈 마음
  15. 가족
  16. 내 어머니

Links:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Deli Spice - 聯 (2012)

Deli Spice's Open Your Eyes was perhaps too familiar for a band that had taken a five year hiatus from recording new material, but it seemed like the band had really come back together since and in the following year, they even released their first official EP, . A six-track twenty-seven minute long effort, it features four new songs and two alternate versions of tracks from Open Your Eyes and, in many ways, it's kind of a companion to the aforementioned album both in sound and in its impact.

The opening title track brings Deli Spice back to its obvious modern rock roots with its slow and steady piano and guitar build-ups and cathartic vocals from Sweetpea, ranging for almost seven minutes. This is the kind of sound that they've been making since their debut album and also a popular one among their modern rock peers. As such, its most distinguishing factor is Sweetpea's vocals, which, like Open Your Eyes, really immediately stamps the EP with a strong Sweetpea influence, something that shouldn't be surprising considering that most of the tracks on the EP are his work.

The second track, "공사중지명령", is one you really don't want to listen to while driving in your car because of the frequent presence of an emergency vehicle siren, used as a sound effect and an instrument. The use of the synths and electronic percolation should be familiar to those that listened to Open Your Eyes, backing vocals on the chorus helping give it a bit more heft, although it suffers with a slightly awkward transition to its instrumental break. But its energy helps distinguish it on the album.

"바람을 타고" is slightly faster than mid-tempo modern rock track, again with small bits of electronic production efforts like the programmed synth beats shimmering in the background as Sweetpea drives the chorus with his voice. I think in many ways, Deli Spice is turning out to be the band he turns to for music that doesn't fit the singer-songwriter folk style of his solo releases, because, aside from the more energetic arrangement, if this track were slowed down and arranged more simply and acoustically, then it would be at home on one of his albums.

This is confirmed by the final new track, "팔찌를 자르며", which is itself a slower track, given a pleasant country vibe thanks to the presence of a slide guitar, harmonica, and the close harmonies, taking the overall sound much closer to a Sweetpea track. It's still a song that you'd want in a band format thanks to the instrumental interchange and the backing vocals, but the open production and intimacy of the vocals and lyrics puts it in a much smaller space than the other tracks as well as putting the emphasis on Sweetpea himself.

Not that it's really a bad thing, since Sweetpea is in many ways the reason why Deli Spice still stands out from the many other modern rock bands that have popped up in Korea since Deli Spice made it a thing. While there isn't really an outstanding single, nor does a track that stands out in terms of Deli Spice's more recent songs, aside from the country excursion of "팔찌를 자르며", the songcraft is still pretty strong on most of the EP making it pleasing to listen to. Yeon's more rock band focus in particular will please those that wanted more of that sound from Deli Spice rather than the electronics of Open Your Eyes. Specifically, "레인메이커"'s 설문대 version gets a nice rock band revision with punchy guitars, a searing synth run, and some nice backing chorus work, including a larger group chorus towards the end that gives the track a lot more life than on Open Your Eyes. It's a tremendous improvement and I think that makes Yeon certainly worth exploring for fans of the band or of Sweetpea's solo work. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. 聯 '연'
  2. 공사중지명령
  3. 바람을 타고
  4. 팔찌를 자르며
  5. 레인메이커 (설문대 version)
  6. 이젠 다 지나버린 일 (normal stereo version)

Links:

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Turbo - New Sensation (1996)

While the one thing I was really able to praise Turbo for on their first album was their attempt to bring electronic dance music ("EDM") to the Korean mainstream, on their second album, they let go of their focus on electronic dance music and embrace more pop and turn out a much improved album. That's not to say that the inspiration from electronic dance music isn't present on New Sensation, tracks like "노스트라다무스 (사랑의 예언)" and "상처" are definitely dance tracks, but the greater diversity of the album and the improved songwriting and arrangement actually make the whole effort much more appreciable.

The most amusing moment on the album happens on its "Prologue" as rapper Gim Jeongnam proclaims "acid house!" over and over, despite the fact that the production shows none of the hallmark screeching effect of the subgenre. But while even the "acid house" adaptation of "생일 축하곡" (which we know as "Happy Birthday to You") lacks actual acid, about a quarter of the albums tracks fall under techno or house, retaining the group's grounding in EDM, including the first single, "Love Is ... (3+3=0)", which manages to utilize an inversion of the guitar riff from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a hook pretty well. The other thing that's quite obvious from the single is that the arrangements and lead singer Gim Jongguk's vocals have considerably improved since the debut album.

While Gim Jongguk still reaches into high register on New Sensation his control over his voice has improved that he doesn't need to be drowned in chorus for effect. The other improvement is that the arrangements and the songwriting better fit his high pitched vocals. This is especially noticeable on how the backing vocals no longer create disharmony with his singing and how the melody lines remain clean, letting his vocals soar instead of getting chopped up like on "검은 고양이" from the first ablum. In fact, Gim's future as a more diverse singer becomes apparent on the album's first non-dance track, "어느 째즈바 ...", a ballad in the vein of George Michael's "Careless Whisper", complete with 80's saxophone. "어느 째즈바 ..." also happens to be a surprisingly engaging single even if its spacey production creates a little distance from Gim Jongguk's vocals thanks to charismatic performance from Turbo's two Gim's and it thankfully breaks up all the higher energy dance tracks well.

And not only is "어느 째즈바 ..." a welcome diversion from the pulsing techno, but the preceding single, "Twist King", the sole contribution for 280km/h Speed's producer/songwriter, Ju Yeonghun, is a bright, friendly dance-pop confection with bright horns that is the kind of inviting track that not only gets serious dance-fiends moving, but its "Wipe Out"-sampling phrases, horn hits, and grippy rapping from Gim Jeongnam might also get those dance-fiends' parents on the dance floor too. Along with the techno cover of Sanullim's children's song, "개구장이", this is precisely the kind of pop infusion that makes helps make New Sensation much more accessible, but also taps into the bright pop crossover potential of the group that wasn't quite explored effectively on the first album.

And while some of the album tracks end up feeling like filler, the sequencing of the album works well enough to keep the listen fairly enjoyable, at least until the album tapers off towards the end with perhaps one too many ballads. But at its best, New Sensation is the album that proves why this duo made a mark in the Korean mainstream pop scene, blending its EDM with dance-pop and even one effective ballad, improving on almost all aspects of their songcraft and albumcraft and better suiting its material to lead singer. Which makes New Sensation one of the more consistently enjoyable albums from 1990's Korean pop scene. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. Prologue
  2. Love Is ... (3+3=0)
  3. 노스트라다무스 (사랑의 예언)
  4. Twist King
  5. 어느 째즈바 ...
  6. 바람의 철학 (바람부는 날)
  7. 우리들의 천국
  8. 개구장이 (techno mix)
  9. 평화로운 세상
  10. 하늘만큼 땅만큼
  11. 상처
  12. 변심
  13. 지난 겨울
  14. 생일 축하곡 (acid house mix)
  15. Love Is ... (instrumental)
  16. 어느 째즈바 ... (instrumental)
  17. Twist King (instrumental)

Links:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Humming Urban Stereo - Monochrome (2006)

So Humming Urban Stereo's Purple Drop wasn't quite up to the standard set by Very Very Nice and Short Cake, but once it found its footing, it gave us a slightly more dancified helping of the kind of jams that got me into Humming Urban Stereo in the first place. Then, within the same year that Purple Drop was released, Humming Urban Stereo dropped an EP entitled Monochrome and, while it's considerably shorter than Purple Drop, it manages to be the true successor to Very Very Nice and Short Cake and a highly appreciable burst of stylish indie pop.

This is apparent from the warm classical guitar that opens "Insomnia". Humming Girl joins in shortly thereafter singing in her cute way before the percussion and bass comes in to drive the music forward. It's all highly organic and intimate, even with a sample and horn hit breakdown in the middle of the track. Like the best of Humming Urban Stereo, it's an indie pop song with a nice dance beat, built on organic acoustic instruments and later augmented by some samples and production technique from I Jirin.

And I Jirin, as Brown Bunny, comes in on the following track, "", to handle vocal duties on a slow jam. And his warm vocals match the lounge vibe of the song well, a simple, but pretty, piano melody taking over during the instrumental break. It's not unlike "Cocomi" from Short Cake, and like that past song, it fits in perfectly into Monochrome thanks to its organic arrangement.

This is followed by the other major single, "지랄", which has a more downbeat tone with Shina-E singing about the injustice of her lover moving on blithely without her. It's got a nice groove in its rhythm section, but its primary point of enjoyment is the solid songcraft and performance from Shina-E. Humming Girl returns for ?Sera Un Zorro", which is sung entirely in Spanish with a Latin percussion rhythm and lovely flourishes from flutes, horns, and the ever-present piano. The shift in genre is anchored by the overall tone and arrangement of the piece--very distinctly Humming Urban Stereo.

"Date" is a bit more of a background tune with Humming Girl and a flute handling most of the duties, but like "님", it provides a bit of a energy contrast, which is necessary for the higher energy dance tune of "Say It's So", also built upon Latin rhythms, synths, and horns, resembling a sound slightly more expressed in Purple Drop, but the arrangement is again built upon real instruments. Despite its dance rhythms and machine gun vocal chains, "Say It's So" never becomes a full fledged booty shaker. Neither does the closing track, "에로 여배우", which adopts a much more conventional dance kick and hi-hat based rhythm, bringing in Lucite Tokki's Jo Yejin to help power the track.

And the thing is that everything on Monochrome is familiar--I Jirin is making use of many of the tropes that he loves, like the vocal "bop", the accelerating repeated vocal sample, and looped guitars and pianos--but the execution on this EP is just tighter and more consistent. The songs here, with the exception of "Date" and "님" are all single-worthy and those two aforementioned tunes act as excellent buffers for the increased intensity of the following tracks. Furthermore, even though it's an EP, it feels like a complete musical voyage, in part thanks to its thirty minute seven track length, but also because it completes multiple transitions and repeated themes and motifs, but without the listen getting stale.

And the result is stylish, nearly immaculate indie pop. Perhaps it's the format of an EP, like the double EP effort that comprises the first album, but Humming Urban Stereo seems to work excellently when the musical journeys are a little more compressed. And so like the first album, Monochrome is a high watermark for the project, a truly commendable and enjoyable listen. 10/10

Tracklist:

  1. Insomnia
  2. 지랄
  3. Sera Un Zorro
  4. Date
  5. Say It's So
  6. 에로 여배우

Links:

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Turbo - 280km/h Speed (1995)

One of the genres that only really started to take root in Korea in the 1990's is electronic dance music. While many of the early idol groups of the 1990's used elements of electronic dance music in their productions, they were often still predominantly building pop music with doses on dance, hip hop, and other genres. And while there were producers actively making dance-focused music at the time, few received mainstream success. The exceptions to the that rule in the mid-1990's were Clon and Turbo, both of which would lay the groundwork of mainstream dance music until their respective disbandings in the early 2000's.

Turbo is particularly notable because of its member Gim Jongguk who managed to successfully transition to a solo music and variety show career and continues to both make music and perform in variety shows in the present. However, the mainstream vocalist began as part of the duo known as Turbo.

Like a lot of mainstream music, Turbo isn't purely electronic dance music, but blends it with pop and hip hop, taking the one singer, one rapper model used a year later by their counterparts in Clon. Musically, their first album, 280km/h Speed, splits between more house and more techno influences and while some tracks, like "초상화" are straight ballads, most have a throbbing techno or house beat pulsing through them. This is evident from the techno-pulsing intro track, "Turbo's Theme".

The album quickly transitions into their first single, "나 어릴 적 꿈", and sets the pace for the rest of the album, which is mostly an electronic dance beat upon which Gim Jongguk sings and Gim Jeongnam jumps in one in a while to rap in a squeaky register that matches Gim's vocals well. The track also instantly dates itself and the album as a product of the 1990's Korean pop scene which was at the time getting most of its inspiration from Western music from a couple years prior, so the beats sound a bit recycled.

One of the more curious songs on the album is "검은 고양이", simply because it's so goofy--literally being a song about a black cat complete with the onomatopoeia calling out the cat's meows as "nero nero". It also managed to be a relatively successful single for the duo. The other interesting track is "떠나가는 너", which manages to blend a house synths with a rolling hip hop beat in an unexpected combination. The following track, "나의 일기", also gets a little kooky with its almost anti-climactic playful horns and sound effects and Gim Jeongnam's continuous rapping almost acting as a rhythm line for the track as the percussion and bouncy bass line.

But aside from those moments, the album is primarily rooted in techno and consequently has some aggressive electronic energy. What else is quite aggressive on the album is the arrangement, which often uses a screeching choral structure behind Gim Jongguk's vocals as well as pressing the melody a little flat, resulting in a somewhat caterwauling sound. This teams up well with the equally screeching rap and is in keeping with the overall singing aesthetic of Korean mainstream pop of the mid to late 1990's, but it hasn't worn especially well, especially when connected with the somewhat cheaper recording and mixing also prevalent during this era.

Still, Turbo is one of the earliest mainstream Korean groups to put a spotlight on techno and house music and produce music centered in those genres, so that makes them trailblazers in a way, opening up many local ears to the pulsing dance beats that would inform a number of other acts to follow. And that makes 280km/h Speed an interesting note in Korean popular music history while also fitting right in with their many musical peers in other ways. The singles nor the album tracks on the album are particularly strong enough to really suggest this album as a must, but it might still interest fans of Gim Jongguk and those that like early to mid 1990's mainstream dance music. 5/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Turbo's Theme
  2. 나 어릴 적 꿈
  3. 수유할 수 없는 사랑
  4. 검은 고양이
  5. 초상화
  6. 죄와 벌
  7. 선택
  8. 잿빛하루
  9. 떠나가는 너
  10. 나의 일기
  11. 나 어릴 적 꿈 (acid house mix)
  12. 나 어릴 적 꿈 (techno mix)
  13. 검은 고양이 (X-Mas mix)
  14. 두 아빠
  15. 나 어릴 적 꿈 (instrumental)

Links:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

악마를 보았다 (2010)

I Saw the Devil was a continuously tense and often gruesome examination of the destructive spiral of vengeance. But, helmed by Gim Jiun, it was also a surprising pretty affair, offering a visually sumptuous environment for the horror to happen. The film also supports a rather apt score from Mowg, who would also later score Gim Jiun's The Last Stand, which manages to aurally synchronize with both the elements of beauty and fear present in the film.

The soundtrack is noted as containing "selected music from the motion picture", which is primarily composed of the film's score by Mowg, a few scraps of dialog from its leads and what I believe is the end credits song by Bak Gwanghyeon. Mowg's compositions are varied, opening with the Latin American-influenced "Devil's Bossa", a classical guitar driven piece that is enriched by strings. It's kind of a mysterious tune in that it contains as much warmth as melancholy. This is not as true with the following "Jooyeon's Theme", which is a wall of foreboding strings and an unsettling piano running underneath it all. It's dramatic, epic, and it instantly recalls the horrific opening moments of the film.

This string-driven sound also extends to the overall film's theme as well as "Kyungchul's Theme", helping to paint the darkness of the film, also showing up in protagonist "Soohyun's Theme" after an extended noodling on the piano. The strings are grandly arranged, but subdued in tone, matching the pretty, but dark overall visual tone of the film.

And then, aside from larger character or overall film themes, we have some pieces of score that accompany the actions in the film, the film piece we hear being "River of Death", which accompanies the opening tragedy that sets off the film's series of events. "River of Death" is a little different than the later action pieces because of its inclusion of the aforementioned strings to add tension, much like in the later pieces "Pension" and "Revenge", both of which draw their inspiration from perhaps Bernard Herrman's work on Psycho. The other action set pieces tend to be much more spare, like "잠 못 이루는 도시의 밤" with its flute paired with a what might be a harp plucked violin composing most of the piece. There's also the contrabass and percussion driven "Police & Kyunchul" and "Killer Jam". These works are primarily atmospheric, the spareness of the composition keeping the focus on the action, but underscoring it with unsettling tritones and diminished chords.

In between all this are dialog quotes from the film which actually work well on the soundtrack to anchor the music to different points along the film's chronology. It's a handy way of aurally revisiting the film and give context to what we're hearing, which is mostly presented chronologically. The overall soundtrack is fifty minutes long and isn't a bad way to re-experience the film in part thanks to chronological tracklisting, pieces of dialog to anchor the score, and judicious selection of score. I never felt like I was being overloaded with everything in the film despite the soundtrack running twenty-six tracks long, but part of that is because few of the actual pieces exceed four minutes.

All that said, the soundtrack does have its moments of haunting beauty, especially in the character or overall film themes, but this is strong--not exceptional--film scoring work and so I don't know if this will serve casual listeners as well as it might interest fans of the film. As such, I'd only think it's a must for the biggest fans of I Saw the Devil and perhaps those that like beautiful, but brooding film scores. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Devil's Bossa
  2. Jooyeon's Theme
  3. River of Death
  4. Soohyun's Dialog 1
  5. Soohyun's Theme
  6. 잠 못 이루는 도시의 밤
  7. Soohyun's Dialog 2
  8. Jooyeon's Theme 2
  9. Police & Kyungchul
  10. Catching Taxi
  11. Soohyun's Dialog 3
  12. Killer Jam
  13. Murder
  14. Pension
  15. I Saw the Devil Piano
  16. Kyungchul's Dialog 1
  17. Kyungchul's Theme & Strikes Back
  18. Soohyun's Dialog 4
  19. I Saw the Devil (main theme)
  20. Kyunghcul's Dialog 2
  21. Revenge
  22. Soohyun's Dialog 5
  23. I Saw the Devil 2
  24. I Saw the Devil Piano (version 2)
  25. Soohyun's Theme (version 2)
  26. 사랑하고 싶어

Links: