Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Neon Bunny - Happy Ending (2012)

After experiencing Neon Bunny's enchanting pop-rock on her debut album Seoulight, I really wasn't prepared for what she would come up with next for her follow-up EP, Happy Ending. That's not to say that there isn't continuity between the Neon Bunny of Seoulight and of Happy Ending, but rather that Happy Ending marks a noticeable departure from the pop-rock sound that drove Seoulight, expanding on the synth-pop elements of that album and driving the sound much more towards dance. But, like her debut album, Happy Ending is a fantastic record without a weak track among the tightly coordinated four tracks.

The opening track, "비눗방울", retains the closest sound to Seoulight, with a smooth vocal delivery from Neon Bunny complete with overdubbing and practical instruments. Of course the guitar and bass are played in a much more funky manner than on Seoulight and combined with the bright synth hits and dance beats, it's clear that Neon Bunny and producer Cliff Lin are moving the Bunny in a different genre direction. This is obvious from the deep opening bassline on "Plastic Heart", which pairs that bass, dance beats, and New Wave synths with Bunny effecting a more whispery vocal style, not unlike that of fellow electropop singer I Yungjin of Casker.

Happy Ending's single, "왕자님" fulfills the promise of New Wave synthpop delights with a series of synth hits and handclaps atop that same deep verving bassline as Neon Bunny sings a rather blistering brush off of a rich guy that's trying to win her over with his status. Featuring a gurgling synth instrumental break and a perfectly addictive chorus, it's certainly not the only track worth making a single on the EP, but it is obviously the catchiest here.

Happy Ending closes with "첫사랑", continuing with all the same elements (synth, claps, deep synth bass) that help drive the rest of the EP, but especially lays down on the synths, using vibrating synth to add further energy to the bass. It, like the opening track, also capitalizes on the Bunny's capacity for sustained melodies.

And then, fifteen minutes after the EP started, it closes. It's a bite-sized exposure to what Neon Bunny is capable of doing when injected with a New Wave verve, a dose of sass, and a dance beat and she delivers pretty well. In fact, Happy Ending's most disappointing characteristic is that when it ends, I simply want more, which I think actually doubles as praise. And while I loved Seoulight and the change in genre caught me a little off guard at first, eventually, I came to realize that Neon Bunny is just as much in her own element here making synthpop as she was making pop rock. Which is to say that I love Happy Ending too and I'm looking forward to seeing what the noble Bunny might come up with next. 9/10

Tracklist:

  1. 비눗방울
  2. Plastic Heart
  3. 왕자님
  4. 첫사랑

Links:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

디바 - Funky Diva (1997)

A few years ago, I was cleaning out my music shelf and was on the verge of adding Diva's third album, Millennium to my sell pile, but eventually decided that the hip-pop trio had enough going for them to hold onto the album. Now, faced with their first album, it's clear that the trio has pretty much been doing the same thing for at least for their first three albums. But because they have such a particular sound, it's hard to hate it, no matter their weaknesses and that is true of their debut album, Funky Diva, too.

Funky Diva is produced by I Sangmin, known best for his contributions to Roo'Ra, a group that Diva member Rina would eventually switch over to. But while Diva is clearly not Roo'Ra, Diva's first album is influenced by its producer's overall sound while establishing one of its own. And what makes Diva stand out is snappy rapping, helium-laden thin vocals, and crazy bending notes and anti-harmonies. And yes, the group really sounds like its working to caterwaul sometimes, but this also somehow actually gives the group a rather unique character.

One of Diva's most compelling aspects is their hip-hop side, demonstrated on their opening track, "골드". The Rina and Vicky in particular are quite snappy on their attack when they are rapping, giving their delivery a memorable dismissive bite. They are not amazing rappers, but they manage to carry the attitude to sell it nonetheless. But there's also a lighter than air element to their delivery that robs their rapping and singing of weight as the women bring up their voices to the extend of their ranges and are immersed in just slightly dischordant harmonies. When combined by the thinness of their singing voices, it creates a rather distinct disharmonous overall tone that isn't catchy, but yet neither unpleasant.

Diva bounces around between some more hip hop and some more pop tracks with the latter absorbing some '90's house production, like on "그래" with its bright melody crossed with the aforementioned intentional dischordant singing and broken up with a few raps and group name call-outs in helium mode. The overall production, divided between three producers, is overall the same super thin synth produced sound that you hear in pretty much all mid-to-late 1990's Korean pop, with slight nods to New Jack Swing, like the rhythmic structure of "슬퍼한만큼" combined with the lower swinging bassline. But like much of that same Korean pop, the production remains pretty subpar, neither buoyed by prominent hooks or insistent rhythm.

So perhaps one of the reasons that Funky Diva remains somewhat memorable is simply because of its willingness to forego good singing for interesting singing. Only one of the three can really keep a tune, with one singer prone to flying off melody at jagged angles at high pitch--interesting for sure--and the last frequently bending flat or sharp on pitch. And while this comes across of poorly performed at first, it's clearly a deliberate performance and production decision as in the melange of the production, it stands out and is delivered with enthusiasm even when lacking in technical proficiency.

No, Funky Diva is not impressive in either of its genres inherently by the power of the trio's musicianship or even their attitude. However, the very fact that they manage to sell their often off singing and the otherwise mediocre production makes Diva as interesting in their debut as in their third album. Of course, this all sounds terribly dated considering the vast advancement in production capacity in Korean music since. But aside from Pipi Band, you will be hard pressed to find another group in Korean popular music of this era that manages to make weakly performed vocals and rap somehow tolerable. And that might certainly be interesting to some listeners. 6/10

Tracklist:

  1. 골드
  2. 비몽
  3. 슬퍼한만큼
  4. 그래
  5. Lady First
  6. 하얀 장미
  7. 원 (怨)
  8. Luv Ya
  9. 12월의 드라마
  10. Yesterday Once More (Miami remix version)
  11. Gold (radio version)
  12. The Award

Links:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dave Brubeck - Time In (1966)

After the enormous success of Time Out in 1959, The Dave Brubeck Quartet continued that series for years, issuing a total of five entries using experimentation with time signatures as a theme. While most of these were quite strong, it's clear by the time that the Quartet recorded Time Changes, that the group was perhaps reaching the end of the series, with Changes actually only half being a proper "Time" album, the second side being an experiment in orchestrated jazz. Time In marks the last album in the time series, seven years after Time Out, demonstrating that the Quartet was more interested in exploring more than just time signatures.

Not to say that the individual tracks are written in common time--they are built on uncommon jazz meters as is evident from opening track, "Lost Waltz"--but at this point, the play with time signature no longer seems to be an inspirational factor for the Quartet. This is most evident in the genre shift that the Quartet embraces, producing several tracks that are much more hard bop than cool jazz, starting with the appropriately bluesy "Travellin' Blues" with Paul Desmond finding an airy blues in his alto sax and Brubeck a more grounded response in his piano, hugging tightly to the musical traditions of the form.

"He Done Her Wrong" drifts a bit into gospel-influenced jazz, Joe Morello even hitting a tambourine for percussion while bonus track "Rude Old Man" takes the trio into R&B and bonus track "Who Said That?" is as straight blues as you've ever heard from the Quartet. But hard bop isn't the only genre stretching the Quartet is doing on the album with bebop making an appearance on "Cassandra" and "Forty Days" being itself an excerpt from a jazz oratorio.

But these genre shifts, more than the usage of uncommon time signatures, are the most notable element of Time In. I don't know if those time signatures are simply just old hat to the group now so that they are no longer challenged by them or if they just wanted to tie the otherwise genre-focused album to the Time series, but like Time Changes, Time In really does seem to drift from what the Time series was doing it before. Perhaps that's the meaning of Time In as time is no longer the focus, but merely the form on which the band explores their music. And also like Time Changes, while the album is pretty enjoyable, that Time is no longer the major theme sort of results in the album being both a little disappointing as well as resulting in an album without a strong sense of unity.

Time In might have been an even stronger album had it been more of a focused exploration of hard bop, using uncommon time signatures when it might have been inspirational for the composition at hand. As it is, Time In is certainly an enjoyable album with particularly strong moments as the Quartet explores hard bop, while not neglecting their longstanding core cool jazz sound with the lovely "Softly, William, Softly". But it's also one where the strong parts don't quite unite to an excellent whole. Still recommended for Brubeck fans, but like Time Changes, this one isn't essential. 7/10.

Note: While the album cover puts it under Dave Brubeck's name, it is performed by the classic Quartet and the cover notes essentially treat the album as a Quartet album. As such, I also consider it a Quartet album, rather than a Brubeck solo album.

Tracklist:

  1. Lost Waltz
  2. Softly, William, Softly
  3. Time In
  4. Forty Days
  5. Travellin' Blues
  6. He Done Her Wrong
  7. Lonesome
  8. Cassandra
  9. Rude Old Man
  10. Who Said That?
  11. Watusi Drums

Links:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (2013)

Daft Punk's alienated Human After All took such a sharp turn from 2000's super party jam Discovery that the reaction from critics and casual fans was predictably unenthusiastic. The duo went from 70's and 80's influenced joy to the robotic minimalism of android overlords that was nowhere near the party of Discovery. Human After All was in 2005. A long time ago. It took Daft Punk eight years to come out with their fourth album and the result goes straight back to the sounds they explored in Discovery with equally predictably enthusiastic applause.

Not to say that the fourth album, Random Access Memories, is really treading the same ground as Discovery, but instead treading the same spirit. But it is as much of a sharp turn from Human After All as Human After All was from Discovery as the duo ditches much of their electronic production suite for good old fashioned instruments and human collaborators, resulting in a highly organic album. But, like Discovery, one that is celebratory, catchy, and soaked in bright lights of disco.

The album gets right to business with "Give Life Back to Music" with the scratchy funky guitar stylings of Chic's Nile Rodgers instantly apparent within a few seconds, and combined with the bass guitar and the electric keyboard gives the music instant disco appeal. Despite the more organic instrumentation and performance, the vocals are still delivered through the duo's preferred talk-box, retaining a portion of the duo's identity. Rodgers' other disco burners include the talents of guest vocalist Pharrell Williams and easily are two of the album's singles. The collaboration connection to disco extends further as venerable disco producer Giorgio Moroder joins in on a track bearing his own name where he narrates his own career story and philosophy as Daft Punk brings a beat inspired by it.

That's not to say that disco is the sum of the album. Even the second track, "The Game of Love" and "Within" are funk slow jams, "Instant Crush" is a synth rock track featuring Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, and Paul Williams drops by to contribute to "Touch", a progressive dance tune that starts out a folk tune, goes disco and ends with a space-faring chorus and the meditative R&B of "Beyond". Even a bit of Human After All shows up in the dance instrumental of the closing track, "Contact", with its boisterous drums and crescendic noise-synth-tone.

But each of the slower moments add a necessary break to the higher energy moments and a meditative contrast to the more exuberant tunes and so not only is there not a bad track on the album, but the album has a sweet flow that builds up to peak moments and eases you out before taking you back. It's not quite the party music of Discovery, but it's every bit as accessible, joyful in its embrace of the dance sounds of the 70's and 80's, playing it straighter than the more playful and intentionally cheesy past album. This touch of gravity is brought by the choice of collaborations and the weight of live instrumentation and seems like an appropriate change for the duo after the much darker Human After All.

With such a technology-inspired title, perhaps it's a bit of a surprise that the album feels so organic, but it makes sense as it's the opposite of the preceding Human After All, in many ways finding living bubbles of the music past in the technology-obsessed music present. And despite its similarities to their past success in Discovery, Random Access Memories ends up being its own beast thanks to its highly collaborative nature and electro-acoustic production. But like Discovery, Random Access Memories is so ridiculously catchy and accessible it's hard to do anything to find yourself being moved to its groove. And that is the mark of another masterpiece from Daft Punk. 10/10

Tracklist:

  1. Give Life Back to Music
  2. The Game of Love
  3. Giorgio by Moroder
  4. Within
  5. Instant Crush
  6. Lose Yourself to Dance
  7. Touch
  8. Get Lucky
  9. Beyond
  10. Motherboard
  11. Fragments of Time
  12. Doin' It Right
  13. Contact

Links:

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Changes (1963)

Time Changes, the fourth entry into the popular "Time" series by the The Dave Brubeck Quartet, is a bit of a strange beast. The thirty-nine minute album is split into two sides, the first continuing the Quartet's use of atypical time signatures in the composition of their tunes. However, the second side actually tries something else entirely by presenting a concerto, written by Dave Brubeck, which, while using waltz time, is a rather distinct departure from the band's typical oeuvre for series. And maybe because of this, the album feels a little out of place in time.

That's not to say this is a particularly weak album as the included tracks are all as enjoyable as the average album from the quartet, but rather that half of the album doesn't really feel like it belongs in the series because of how much of a departure it is for the quartet.

The first side of the album is pretty much everything you'd expect from a Dave Brubeck Quartet "time" album. You get a pair of waltzes in "Iberia" and "Shim Wha", the latter giving drummer Joe Morello plenty of space to work his instrument and the former giving Brubeck lots of showtime to his often complex and rapid piano-work. The second track, "Unisphere" is a more Desmond-oriented affair in 10/4 time. "World's Fair" is a rather complicated track that shifts its time signature over the course of the track, propelled forward by the instability of its measure but kept aloft by deft improvisation.

The compact disc version of the album also contains "Theme from Elementals", which is a condensation of the improvisational segments from the side two concerto, "Elementals". And because of the fact that "Elementals" eats up a whole side of the album, in the end, Time Changes largely ends up being about "Elementals".

As a project, "Elementals" follows Brubeck Plays Bernstein Plays Brubeck and is a predecessor to the similarly Quartet-meets-orchestra experiment of Brandenburg Gate: Revisited. As a concerto, it seems largely in keeping with the music of the times, particularly in terms of being similar to soundtrack and scoring work of the time. Brubeck's work is a bit modular in the sense that you can read certain segments being made to accommodate improvisation and Brubeck himself does jump in with in piano fairly early, plinking some accents here and there with Desmond jumping in a little later. The Quartet's rhythm sections also get some prescripted moments to shine as well. But, like with Brandenburg Gate: Revisited, the preexisting structure does limit what the Quartet could do in terms of improvisation.

There are certainly several moments where the Brubeck in particular works well with the orchestra, his improvisations typically adding angular counterpoint and when the whole Quartet comes into together to improvise, they're as solid as they usually are, which is noticeable if you listen to the "Theme from Elementals" track. And the piece overall is still fairly enjoyable and often dynamic. But again, the orchestra team-up aspect of the piece largely overshadows that it's also an exploration of time and really yanks the focus away from the titular and series aspect of the album. After listening to "Elementals" I've usually forgotten entirely about the previous side, which suggests an imbalance in the album.

That's not to say that Time Changes isn't a bad listen as every track is rather enjoyable. However, even while "Elementals" is impressive with its scope and attempt to blend improvisation with a pre-written orchestra, it, along with all the tracks that precede it, are ultimately just average for the Quartet. Which is to say that this album is a solid listen for fans of the Quartet and cool jazz as well as those wanting some Brubeck but interested in checking out the orchestra experiment. Non-devotees of the Quartet or the genre will probably find Time Changes to be inessential, but decent. 7/10.

Trackslist:

  1. Iberia
  2. Unisphere
  3. Shim Wha
  4. World's Fair
  5. Cable Car
  6. Theme from Elementals
  7. Elementals

Links:

Monday, October 6, 2014

Daft Punk - Human After All (2005)

I think it'd be quite difficult to figure out just how to follow up on a previous album like Daft Punk's Discovery. It was simply an electro-organic orgasmic pop-dance party, but being a music making duo, of course they did eventually have to release a new album. From there, it's a decision of making more of what was so successful with Discovery or trying a completely different path in hopes of finding something new. And Daft Punk chose the latter. Their third album, Human After All, approaches dance music from an almost opposite angle: minimalist, repetitive, distant, and robotic and, at first, this is quite alienating. However, given time and patient listening and the human--and the genius--in the tracks starts to become clear. While it's never going to be a party-starter, I think that there's a lot to appreciate in this album.

The deeply voicebox affected opening title track is an immediate clue to what the duo is up to on the album, with its gear-like synthesized beats moving in precise mechanical fashion with blasts of modulated guitars. The robotic nature of the album becomes even more apparent on the following three tracks with the initially minimalist "The Prime Time of Your Life" slowly building its synthesized waveform or noiseform beats, modulated voice-box vocals slowly building towards its increasing speed until it becomes a blur. And then there's the appropriately named "Robot Rock", which happens to be one of the singles of the album with its back of forth of guitar hits-with-voice-box and awesome dancing guitar runs, all in perfect repetitive time.

The two more aggressive tracks on the album are "Steam Machine" and "The Brainwasher". The first is aggressive like it just discovered the industrial music of the '90's, filled with a harshly whispered onomatopoeia-like "steam", released under a rage-like pressure. The second is similarly industrially inspired with its thumping bass and noise-blasted guitars, a harsh claim of being a brainwasher appearing periodically throughout the track, filled with flanged phasered intensity. These are perhaps the least accessible tracks to those that liked Daft Punk's previous albums because of just how harsh and aggressive they are, but they become appreciable for those very qualities if you can appreciate such music.

Between these two tracks also lies the most organic track on the album, accordingly titled "Make Love", a downbeat tune built around a little guitar loop and keyboard chords. It's a little bit of a rainy night stuck between the fiery furnaces of the tracks before and after, and a welcome and perhaps necessary reprieve, given the high intensity.

In many ways, Human After All goes right back to Homework for some of its inspiration and this is made most apparent in the album's super-catchy second single, "Technologic", which features a single pitched-up vocal and repeats a series of verbs that you can do with technology. In many ways this is the successor to the track "Teachers", both in its repetition and vocal choice. Similarly, highly repetitive tracks with high aggression levels like "Rock 'N Roll" would be right at home on Human After All, so while this album might feel like a departure, it's all in keeping with the kind of music that Daft Punk does make. Technologic also ties Human After All to Discovery's more joyful "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" thanks to its repetitive vocal affectations.

Whereas Discovery emphasized joy and an organic sense to its synthesis of the past to make its music, Human After All is interested in precision and the electronic. This is the kind of music that reaches far back to the genre's roots with groups like Kraftwerk and their minimal droning tunes like "Autobahn". But Daft Punk still wants to get you to dance, so part of Human After All is interested in the factory--a place where humans work, repeating motion after motion under it's becomes almost dance-like. The loops they devise are like clockwork, an assembly-line of gears and cogs, fueled by the energy of steam and technology, powering its pummeling piston-like beats. And perhaps in building the record out of their most robotic sounds, Daft Punk exposes how we are like those robots. And rather than robots being found to be humans, humans are found to be robots, and that's why we dancing machines are human after all. 7/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Human After All
  2. The Prime Time of Your Life
  3. Robot Rock
  4. Steam Machine
  5. Make Love
  6. The Brainwasher
  7. On/Off
  8. Television Rules the Nation
  9. Technologic
  10. Emotion

Links:

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Jazz Impressions of New York (1964)

In addition to creating original music, covering standards, and loads of touring, The Dave Brubeck Quartet was also responsible for creating several soundtracks. In addition, the Quartet was known for a series of records called "Jazz Impressions", where they would take a particular place and produce an album inspired by their experience with it. Jazz Impressions of New York are where these two modes of album-making coincide, being a collection of music written for the short-lived television show, Mr. Broadway, as well as an album inspired by the New York setting of the show.

As the Quartet has previously demonstrated, they have a capacity of working within limitations without losing their identity. So soundtracks are simply a new kind of limitation to work with: in writing music for television, Brubeck has to consider scenes, themes, and time limits, but those end up being constraints that don't hinder the Quartet's music. In fact, the adventurousness of the Quartet up to this point continues to show up in their music here with several tunes written in waltz time and the Quartet also captures the metropolitan nature of the city by dipping into related genres like bossa nova ("Broadway Bossa Nova") and rumba ("Upstage Rumba").

The waltz-time tracks, including "Theme from Mr. Broadway" and "Spring in Central Time" manage to catch the pace and energy of New York quite well as Brubeck's piano creates runs on the keys that are inspired by foot and car traffic and Desmond's sax provides a contrast with his flowing, melodic performances, showing up appreciably on the latter track to capture the more idyllic nature of Central Park. But even Desmond gets in on the energy of New York on the show's theme, arpeggiating in lively succession.

The efforts of the Quartet here are particularly successful in that the compositions are strong enough on their own without picture that if you didn't know that Jazz Impressions of New York wasn't a soundtrack, then it'd be easy to just mistake it as just another entry into their "Jazz Impressions" series. It's a perfectly acceptable entry from the Quartet. However, the soundtrack album isn't quite as memorable as their most impressive work as few of the included tracks stand out from both the Quartet's long history of music-making nor within the greater cool jazz movement to which Jazz Impressions of New York belongs. As far as television soundtracks go, it's strong work, but in the greater discography of the Quartet, it's merely just good.

As such, while Jazz Impressions of New York isn't an essential album by the Quartet, I would still say that fans of the Quartet's work will want it and even less dedicated jazz listeners will still find it appreciable. It's clear that the Quartet has potential in soundtrack production from this album and perhaps will be able to get to even greater places in future work. And Mr. Broadway's soundtrack? Worth a listen for sure. 7/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Theme from Mr. Broadway
  2. Broadway Bossa Nova
  3. Autumn in Washington Square
  4. Something to Sing About
  5. Sixth Sense
  6. Spring in Central Park
  7. Lonely Mr. Broadway
  8. Summer on the Sound
  9. Winter Ballad
  10. Broadway Romance
  11. Upstage Rumba

Links: