Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Big Phony - Long Live the Lie (2014)

So Big Phony's musical career has been full of surprises since I first encountered him at the 2K11 Seoulsonic show in Los Angeles, moving to Korea shortly thereafter. And while he did produce a series of demos, it was only in 2014 that he released his next album. Actually, his next albums: 2014 would feature the simultaneous and separate release of his next two albums, Bobby and Long Live the Lie, not as a double album. I think part of the reason for this is that Long Live the Lie is a particular departure for Big Phony, being an electronica album instead of the folk sound that he'd been operating in for most of his career until this point, which was a bit of a surprise. However, Long Live the Lie quickly quells concerns as the album effectively makes use of the electronic palette to deliver as intimate a sound as you'd expect from an acoustic Big Phony.

Big Phony actually teamed up with Enik Lin of IAMMEDIC for this effort with Enik taking Bobby's songs and producing the beats for most of the tracks. And Lin's collaboration returns a result that kind of reminds me of what happened when Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello teamed up for The Postal Service, with Enik's sometimes throbbing and sometimes breathy atmospheric production altering the texture of Big Phony's vocals and songs without actually changing the substance.

The difference in sound is apparent from the opening track, "A Charge to the Blood", which instantly drops the hum of the bass tone and electronic percussion. Yet Big Phony's initial sound isn't entirely absent as Big Phony's acoustic guitar shows up loops throughout the track and his voice only gets mild treatment, lyrics describing the titular experience.

The tracks here mostly in the moody or atmospheric mode, especially with the back to back "No Need to Hang Your Head", with its airy affected falsetto backing vocals and the sweeping sculpted noise runs with twinkling of electric keyboards, and the equally emotional "The Hours", which fills the arrangement with the gentle humming of synthesizers against a thumping muted bass heartbeat as Bobby pours out hints of desperation through his yearning vocals, electronic bleeps and bloops exploding like digital fireworks in the song's hope-touched chorus.

The most upbeat moment on Long Live the Lie is the title track with a four-to-the-floor bass thump and an electric snare and crystalline keyboards powering forward as Bobby displays perhaps his most animated vocal performance in the overdubbed rising chorus. Another deviation on the album includes the hardly augmented "Bedford Stop", which features an arrangement retains the core guitar-and-singing arrangement and just adds layers of strings and a few electronic flourishes. This leaves it sounding a great deal more organic than the other tracks on the album, even with its electronically touched production and so it doesn't really fit aurally with the other tracks even if the song is a lovely meditation on a fictional sister. Finally, the closing track, "Waiting on a Breeze (Without a Word)", has a kind of dynamic scope that you could even call modern rock with its soaring arrangement on the chorus and its moody verses, the hissing percussion breaking into drum machines and rose-synthesizers as it reaches its peak.

And all of this works so very well that it's a wonder that Big Phony hadn't already worked within the genre, although much credit should probably also go towards the transforming production and arrangement of Enik Lin. Enik manages to create soundscapes that work well with Big Phony's song, finding and enhancing moments of poignancy and elevating them with the electronic tools he has available. Big Phony's surprising musical experiment is an oft moving success with only the otherwise good "Bedford Stop" feeling out of place. Long live Long Live the Lie. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. A Charge to the Blood
  2. All Bets Are Off
  3. The Great I Am
  4. No Need to Hang Your Head
  5. The Hours
  6. Bedford Stop
  7. Long Live the Lie
  8. Help of a Ghost
  9. Empty Bottles
  10. Waiting on a Breeze (Without a Word)

Links:

Monday, May 18, 2015

Bobby Kim - Holy Bumz Presents (1998) / Ground Zero (2005)

Prior to his current status as a soul singer and member of Buga Kingz, Bobby Kim had been active in the Korean music industry since 1994 as a member of the reggae-pop group Dr. Reggae and a brief solo career before his 2004 reinvention with Beats Within My Soul. So while you might consider Beats his first album post-reboot, Bobby Kim's first album is technically from this 1990's solo run: Holy Bumz Presents. It seems like the rights to publish the album eventually changed hands and so in 2005, the album was re-released under the title Ground Zero, while retaining most of the same tracklist, losing the remix of "Remember Last Christmas". It's this later revision that I got a chance to listen to.

In his initial solo concept, he was positioned as both a rapper and singer, perhaps more in the idol pop tradition, and this would carry forward into at least the first album with his group Buga Kingz after which he would rap increasingly less and focus mostly on singing, but it's clear on Holy Bumz Presents that Bobby's strength is clearly his singing over his rapping from even his opening track, "아픔", as he only has a couple short verses where he raps, but spends most of his time singing the hook with his textured, soulful voice. Granted, the beats by Bobby himself lend itself a little more towards the hip hop styles that were prevalent in Korea in the late 1990's, themselves an echo of the kind of sounds that were popular a few years prior in the United States.

Bobby spends a little more time rapping on the second track called "Free Style", but it's not really obvious that the raps on "Free Style" were actually performed impromptu. The beats are packed with '70's and '80's style funk cuts, but it's a bit too blunt to be particularly memorable. The rest of the album actually takes a noticeable shift in sound as hitmaker I Yunsang takes over the songwriting duties, resulting in a string of tracks that lean more often on pop end of the spectrum, from the New Jack Swing influenced "Lonely Night" all the way through the R&B ballad of "그녀의 머리카락", with Bobby returning to songwriting duties on the collaborative final track, "My Recipe".

Honestly, I Yunsang's contributions on the album are actually stronger, probably because he's just a much more practiced and polished songwriter and producer, so even when Yunsang edges closer to hip hop with the big fat beats of "뿌리", it's a bouncier and more engaging work, with its group chants and tradeoffs between Bobby and guest rappers. Yunsang provides Bobby with a variety of interrelated hip hop styles to work with, like the atmospheric "I Wonder" and the festive rap-pop closer "".

There's even a throwback to Bobby Kim's reggae work with "붉은얼굴", which is an enjoyable composition, although I have to admit that the reggae sounds a bit like an affectation rather than wholly genuine because of the toaster. These guys might be genuinely into the life, but I retain some measure of reservation about the Dr. Reggae crew. The album also has a Christmas track which seems to be an inexplicable presence on a lot of 1990's Korean pop records. Granted, "Remember Last Christmas" is actually a surprisingly catchy track, but it kind of renders listening to Holy Bumz Presents out of Christmas season a weird sensation as you could find yourself listening to a Christmas song in the middle of summer.

Still, I think both Bobby and Yunsang manage to keep enough attention on Bobby's strongest skill, soulful singing, and that, along with Yunsang's knack for writing catchy hip-hop or R&B influenced pop songs makes Holy Bumz Presents a pretty engaging listen, even with a few tracks that don't quite play as well. Granted, Bobby hasn't fully mastered singing at this point as he sometimes hits his notes too hard, like on "용서", but it's obvious even this far back that singing would be his forte and rapping would probably fall into an occasional thing he does. I'm still not entirely sure what Holy Bumz are, but what they present is admittedly a modestly catchy 1990's Korean rap-pop album that fans of Bobby Kim or 1990's Korean hip-hop and pop might be interested in checking out. I don't regret doing so. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. 아픔
  2. Free Style
  3. Lonely Night
  4. 뿌리
  5. I Wonder
  6. 용서
  7. 붉은얼굴
  8. Remember Last Christmas
  9. 그녀의 머리카락
  10. My Recipe
  11. Remember Last Christmas (remix)
  12. [hidden track]

Links:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Big Phony - Kicking Punching Bags (2010)

A couple years after releasing Straight to Bootleg Volume 01, Big Phony moved to Los Angeles, hooked up with a new producer and released his follow-up studio album, Kicking Punching Bags. Those familiar with Straight to Bootleg will find a lot familiar here, although all the shared songs now have the polish of being recorded in the studio, resulting in a somewhat different listening experience that justifies a purchase for fans of Big Phony's singer-songwriter music.

Kicking Punching Bags is admittedly a short album, capping at eight tracks and thirty five minutes, and while those listening will undoubtedly wish there were just a little more, that's certainly a better place to be than feeling like it was too long. And so the album never wears out its welcome.

It opens with Big Phony's strongest single from Smoking Kills, "I Love Lucy", finally dressed up with studio production. Like most of the rest of the album, the studio production doesn't actually take the songs away from Big Phony's folk style, but instead adds arrangement elements like a gentle brushed drum kit, a gentle bass line, and a lovely lap steel, giving the track an emotive atmosphere, including a beautiful lap steel solo.

"Words That Define" remains almost as spare as the affecting original demo, the lap steel adding a faint atmosphere and accompaniment to Bobby's guitar, "The Bully" getting a similar light-touch treatment. "Talk of Town", which was one of the tracks to actually get a studio version on Straight to Bootleg, actually gets another studio update with Bobby taking his voice into a calmer performance while the arrangement gets a slightly more country shuffle in the rhythm section. I don't know if I'd say it was a necessary update, but I think the new rhythm arrangement is pretty attractive.

The album's four new inclusions fit right in. "Where's My June Carter?" continues with the theme hinted at the end of "Words That Define" as Big Phony wonders why he hasn't found his match in a relationship. But of all the tracks on the album, I think "Short Intermission" is the most interesting, being an introspective piece that engages in some soul searching as Bobby arpeggiates, the lap steel guitar creating soundscapes while Bobby's voice reaches a bit of vulnerability, lending the song both space, quiet, and a bit of dynamism as he let's his voice climb a little on the chorus before getting quieter on the end of it.

In the end, the most noticeable element of Kicking Punching Bags is the production--this is the first release since 2005's Fiction & Other Realities that Big Phony has released a fully produced album and the first such album that's aurally consistent. The production is clean and accordingly spare, putting the focus on Bobby's compositions and gentle performance, but it's also a touch more memorable than previous productions, with the backing band's performances accordingly more coherent as well, resulting in a strong sonic thread throughout the whole album.

That almost kind of makes Kicking Punching Bags almost Big Phony's first full album as the artist he has come to be known as, both thanks to the production, but also the fact that this is the first album length release that was fully produced. And I think that makes Kicking Punching Bags perhaps the best entry point for people new to Big Phony as his musical identity is solidified here and the album contains some of his best work from his early career. Lovely work, as before. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. I Love Lucy
  2. Where's My June Carter?
  3. Words That Define
  4. Short Intermission
  5. The Bully
  6. A Country Apart
  7. Unwritten Songs
  8. Talk of the Town

Links:

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Leessang - Unplugged (2012)

I think it was with Hexagonal that Leessang elevated their music by going broad, inviting artists of widely disparate genres to collaborate with them without losing the bluesy core of their hip hop sound. Asura Balbalta continued that trend and managed to make a strong collection of songs despite treading the same ground. Leessang's eighth album tweaks that formula a little and the resulting album, Unplugged, is a decent listen as a result, although the tweak isn't enough to entirely overcome the wear that the formula has taken over the years.

The tweak to Unplugged's production is hinted at in its name. Granted, the album is still built with amplified instruments so "unplugged" is a bit of a misnomer, but all the included arrangements forego purely electronic construction. This actually makes their 2013 Los Angeles show, where they were supported by a full band instead of a recording, make a lot of sense as the show was done within a year of Unplugged's release. The power of the live performers over computer performance is admittedly much more noticeable during a live show than on a studio album and so the impact is muted. However, the choice does influence the kind of productions that are on Unplugged and the resulting tracklist is still quite pleasant.

The album actually opens with a throwback to the classic Leessang sound with "너에게 배운다 (My Love)", featuring a dramatic set of raps from Gary and the gruff soul-styled chorus from Gil. This is perhaps the oldest school sound on the album and I think part of my impression of Unplugged feeling a bit worn comes from this being the opening track. It's good, but this is well treaded ground on the part of the duo.

Similarly, this feeling of deja vu doesn't fade because the second track, "Someday" brings Yoon Dohyun back for another guest feature, recalling his previous guest feature on Hexagonal. Granted, it's still a pretty solid rock song and has a nice handoff from the pre-chorus to the chorus between Gil and Yoon, the later's soaring rock vocals elevating the whole experience. The third track, "겸손은 힘들어" stays right on track, adding in some funk elements to the rock-soul blend that would sound like a proper fit into any of the last three albums, except with no quirky guest spot from Jang Kiha to distinguish it, but Gary's second verse rap has some pretty memorably cocky delivery in line with the lyrical content of the song. This cockiness is also what makes "Casanova" enjoyable even if its style again reaches old school, like on the post-chorus.

I think the only two tracks that are at all considerably different for the duo are "HOLA", which integrates a heavy dose of Latin rhythms and sounds into the arrangement and uses Leessang's vocal muse Jung-in to good effect and the straight ballad of "사람들은 모두 변하나봐", which brings in not only Jung-in, but Bobby Kim and even Simon D for singing duties. It's honestly a surprising change of pace from everything before and everything that will follow that it's a great addition at the midpoint of the album.

But the rest of the album is pretty much what you've come to expect from Leessang at this point, even with the largely live arrangements, which generally tended to befit the duo's sound to begin with. Still, I can't really complain all that much since Leessang on cruise control is still rather enjoyable and there's not really a dud on the album which goes through a variety of tones from dramatic, to cocky, to sunny. And so Unplugged is pretty much an average Leessang album, which happens to reach a pretty decent bar even in that regard.

Unplugged will please longtime fans, new fans, lovers of soulful hip hop, and mainstream pop listeners too. And so it will probably be an enjoyable listen for you too, even if not quite at the level of its predecessors. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. 너에게 배운다 (My Love) (인트로)
  2. 너에게 배운다 (My Love)
  3. Someday (피쳐링 윤도현 of YB)
  4. 겸손은 힘들어
  5. HOLA (피쳐링 정인
  6. 행복을 찾아서 (인트로)
  7. 행복을 찾아서 (피쳐링 조현아 of 어반자카파)
  8. 사람들은 모두 변하나봐 (피쳐링 정인, 쌈디 of 슈프림팀, 바비킴 of 부가킹즈)
  9. 별을 따라.. (목소리: 쥬비)
  10. Casanova (피쳐링 쥬비 of 부가킹즈)
  11. 개리와 기리 세변째 이야기
  12. 울고 싶어라
  13. Bururi (피쳐링 정인)

Links:

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Big Phony - Straight to Bootleg Volume 01 (2008)

Big Phony's Straight to Bootleg Volume 01 holds a bit of an interesting place in his discography. On Big Phony's Bandcamp page for the album, the description reads: "'Straight to Bootleg, Volume 01' is mostly comprised of demos and home recordings." The three produced exceptions come at the end of the collection of songs, making Straight to Bootleg something more akin to a compilation or a something similar to what you might call a mixtape in hip hop. A handful of the included demos do eventually get full production treatment on later albums, but not all, and many of the included tracks display Big Phony's poignancy and capacity for crafting wonderful folk songs, making Straight to Bootleg an appreciable listen, despite its largely unproduced nature.

It's, of course, not technically a bootleg, since Big Phony released it himself and it's not a recording of one of his shows, but the the fact that these are mostly homemade demos does give the listen a feel akin to an intimate live performance, much like the one I witnessed when I saw Big Phony at Hotel Cafe last year. And so the title, I imagine, is suggesting in Big Phony's self-deprecating way that these songs skipped production and the stage altogether and is released "as such" without the benefit of studio cleanup or being performed in front of a live audience.

What's included here are fifteen songs, twelve with minimal production--almost exclusively just Big Phony singing with his guitar and occasionally overdubbing himself on backing vocals. This is continuing Big Phony's march towards the folk genre that was hinted at by what was chosen to be paired from Fiction & Other Realities on Smoking Kills and my encounters with his following albums prior to Long Live the Lie. This is actually a pretty good thing because Big Phony is really good at writing and performing these songs.

He does still carry a bit of his influences in his songwriting and performance, but Big Phony has some truly striking works on display here especially on the second track, "Words That Define", where he gets quite personal, singing about his family and his perceptions and memories about them. It's a poignant and revealing work, which is where these songs are most effective. This also happens again on "The Bully", where Big Phony describes memories of a bully, someone managing to humanize his abuser in this interesting tension between bitterness and pity.

Of course Big Phony also includes the "I Love Lucy" demo here, previously a hidden song on Smoking Kills, and a clear gem, which eventually got a full studio version on Kicking Punching Bags. Another strong single contender here is "Girls Like You Don't Go for Guys Like Me" and the title captures it all, but the pitiable lyrics really work well with the generally self-deprecating tone that Big Phony carries with both his music and on stage. The song also has a cute little whistling section during a break. Finally, the album also includes an amusing story about being high on "Here's to the Laughable State", which gets a studio version in the final three tracks.

The transformation between the two versions is interesting to witness because while the production cleans up the recording and mixing and adds strings, the demo pretty much captures most of what's going on in the song without a great deal of change. This is also true of "Talk of the Town", which adds some more distinctive backing vocals and a small drum kit--both demonstrating that Big Phony's music lends itself well to the demo format as the simple production works well.

"All in a Day" is an adorable little sad song of infatuation that is the only track on Bootleg that doesn't have Big Phony on his guitar, instead performing on a keyboard in a simple 6/8 accompaniment. It also happens to be the one studio track on the album that doesn't have a corresponding demo. However, it's so simple with just Big Phony, the keyboard, and some faint backing vocals that it fits the aesthetic of the album well and would have been the perfect track to close with.

But I think the strongest reason for which to recommend Bootleg is that despite the fact that most of the songs are studio-produced, the whole nearly hour-long listen is consistently captivating, Big Phony casting a spell with his storytelling and constantly active folk rhythms and picking on his guitar, always adding texture and motion to his pieces. Perhaps leaving off the final two studio takes would have made for a more conclusive album, but at the same time, this isn't really a straight album thanks to its conception as primarily a collection of demos, so I think that's excusable.

The thing is that even if Big Phony were to release an album that contained all these demos in final studio form, I'd still be happy to listen to Straight to Bootleg Volume 01 because there's something truly charming about listening to Big Phony in the most intimate of performances with this collection of home recordings--because in a lot of ways, it's akin to seeing Big Phony in a one-man show. And every one of the included songs works well in that context. A lovely collection of wonderfully presented music that fans of Big Phony and appreciators of well written, intimate songs will definitely want to put their ears to. Recommended. 8/10

Tracklist:

  1. Someone
  2. Words That Define
  3. Talk of the Town
  4. I Love Lucy
  5. Girls Like You Don't Go for Guys Like Me
  6. Proof by Name
  7. The Bully
  8. Here's to the Laughable State
  9. Still No. 1
  10. Fix or Providence
  11. How to Die
  12. Fifteen Minutes
  13. All in a Day (studio take)
  14. Talk of the Town (studio take)
  15. Here's to the Laughable State (studio take)

Links:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Rock'N Roll Radio - Shut Up and Dance (2013)

Somewhere in the last five years or so, New Wave influenced dance rock became a major sound in the Korean rock scene and now bands that draw upon the sounds of the '80's seem to be everywhere. Rock 'N' Roll Radio is one such band that I first encountered during the 2K14 Seoulsonic North America Tour in San Francisco. Their performance was pretty good and their songs catchy, so I picked up their CD to give it a listen. Overall, they stick to their influences in terms of their compositions and arrangements, but largely create an enjoyable album.

Musically, the band ranges a little across the New Wave sound, whether more moody and Joy Division-like on "불빛 아래서" or a little bit more energetic like The Koxx on "Mr." with its spidery guitars from Gim Jin-gyu. The guitarwork on the single "One Week" even recalls the machine-gun sound that The Edge pioneered in the '80's while the rest of the track captures a kind of mood piece with its long wordless vocals from Gim Naehyeon.

Of course, their title track and primary single captures the title well with those same spidery guitar licks alongside a dance beat and group chants. I wouldn't say that the whole album is driven to dance as the moodier pieces don't quite have the necessary propulsive energy, but between the opener "Red Moon"'s funk licks and shimmering drums, the four-to-the-floor thump of Choe Min-gyu's kick on "You Never Know", and the hum and throb of I Minu's bass on "Because of You", well more than half of the album will get bodies moving at a decent tempo.

Granted, there isn't much here that transcends the band's '80's New Wave and '00's New Wave Revival influences here, but at the same time the band does seem to have nailed down their voice pretty well that their tracks never come across as having been too strongly influenced by any particular artist or band. On Shut Up and Dance, Rock 'N' Roll Radio seems to have effectively come out of their musical oven fully baked, blending enough dance tunes and moodier atmospheric pieces to continuously sustain its fifty-eight minute run. And even if there aren't enough shining singles to go crazy over, building a fourteen track album that never has any low points--that is continuously engaging--is still quite a feat.

So I'm just going to shut up, dance, and look forward to what the band might produce next. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. Red Moon
  2. 낸들 어쩌겠어요
  3. Mr.
  4. One Week
  5. You Never Know
  6. Breakdown
  7. Because of You
  8. Ocean
  9. You & I
  10. Shut Up & Dance
  11. 날 도와줘요
  12. Neverland
  13. 불빛 아래서
  14. 눈동자

Links:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Big Phony - Smoking Kills (2006)

From what I can gather from its listing at CD Baby, Big Phony's Smoking Kills is a promotional EP sold at shows and I do remember seeing the disc being sold after the 2K11 Seoulsonic show in LA, but after looking at the tracklist, it's clear why it's considered more of a promotional disc than a proper release: the tracklist is entirely culled from Fiction & Other Realities, the album that preceded it. As such, Smoking Kills ends up being of limited significance for most who would be interested in picking up a Big Phony release.

While the recordings on Smoking Kills are the same as the tracks on Fiction & Other Realities, Smoking Kills does provide one notable difference: the hidden piece at the end of original "Everything-Always" is not on the EP and instead, a demo version of "I Love Lucy" has been appended tot he end of "Parade in My Head". "I Love Lucy" is admittedly one of my favorite songs by Big Phony and for early fans, the EP did afford a way to take home the song that Bobby would play at his shows back in 2006.

However, fans coming to Big Phony now can actually get the "I Love Lucy" demo on Straight to Bootleg Volume 1, as well as a collection of other demos and, when you add that to the fact that the rest of the tracks are already available on Fiction & Other Realities, that kind of limits the reasons to pick up Smoking Kills.

So here are some of the reasons I thought of that someone might want this EP:

  1. You are a huge fan and must have everything Big Phony.
  2. You're looking for a bite sized (twenty seven minute) amount of Big Phony's earlier music.
  3. You just saw the show and are interested in taking home some music, but don't want to commit a lot of money.
  4. You just want the more folksy Big Phony songs from Fiction & Other Realities.

That's all I could think of. The selection of songs is pretty good here and it definitely pairs down some of the tunes that are more singer-songwritery, with a lot less band and production presence here, getting most ornate with "The Last Day of the Season"'s orchestration. In some sense, that gives Smoking Kills a kind of focus that Fiction & Other Realities doesn't have.

However, this is ultimately an edited down tracklist that you could replicate with a playlist or a custom CD after you buy Fiction & Other Realities and Straight to Bootleg Volume 1, so unless you fit one of those aforementioned four categories, I recommend that you just get to the two official releases instead. Still, in a vacuum, Smoking Kills is a solid listen, so whether you buy the EP or build it from the other two releases, I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it. 7/10

Tracklist:

  1. Dying Unaware
  2. Holiday Bust
  3. Parade in My Head / I Love Lucy
  4. The Last Day of the Season
  5. Everything-Always

Links: