Posts filed under ‘Kpop’

Shake That Brass: Amber Liu at Slim’s

amber

Voting with their cell phones: Amber Liu at Slim’s, 2018

Amber Liu played at Slim’s last Friday and her spunky charm was in full effect at the sold-out show. Probably best known as the soft butch rapper and singer from the Kpop girl group f(x), Amber has a solid following of her own as a solo performer, as evidenced by the enraptured crowd at her Slim’s show. Her San Francisco concert was the last stop in a short seven-city North America tour that took her to clubs in major cities including New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Opening act Justin Park put on a pleasant R&B set featuring Park’s fluid tenor and cheery personality that didn’t seem too dampened by a leg injury that limited his mobility and kept him from much dancing or moving around on stage. Throughout his short set he copiously thanked the audience for their support and otherwise gave off good vibes that warmed up the crowd for Amber’s performance. But the crowd didn’t need much encouragement to give their idol all the love and after a short break the fans were rewarded with Amber’s appearance. She got right into it by singing two of her self-composed tracks, White Noise and High Hopes, that demonstrated the poppy EDM style of most of her solo tunes. Although she made her name as a Kpop performer, at Slim’s Amber performed almost all English-language tracks, and her songs reflect a level of introspection and self-searching that goes beyond the usual pop music banality. Her pleasant and surprisingly sweet voice, combined with her engaging personality made for an easily digestible live music experience

Another nice touch was the concert’s live drummer, which really made a lot of the songs pop and differentiated Amber’s performance from her studio tracks, which like a lot of pop music these days leans a bit too much on the drum machine and trap beats. On several songs Amber was also joined by a couple backup dancers and the kicky choreo allowed her to show off her moves.

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Fans

Despite her relatively young age (26 years old) Amber is a showbiz veteran, having debuted more than nine years ago in South Korea and racking up experience in the grueling and intense Kpop scene where she not only performed with f(x) but also appeared on numerous television shows and toured extensively. This experience was in full effect in her onstage confidence and the easy banter she shared with her audience. Throughout her lively and enjoyable show Amber kept up a humorous patter that echoed the amusing and self-effacing persona she’s honed on her youtube channel. She also thanked her fans for supporting her and allowing her to be who she is, a clear reference to the gender-nonconforming identity she’s embraced from her days as a member of f(x) when she helped to queer Kpop. She also gave a little bit of Taiwanese American fanservice with a quick shoutout to the Boba Guys, San Francisco’s famous bubble tea shop.

amber good

Amber being Amber, Slim’s 2018

Amber closed her set with her outstanding dance track Shake That Brass, which had the audience clamoring for more. Appearing one more time onstage for the encore, she belted out a cover of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, but not before humorously admitting that she’d pre-recorded a backing track in case her live performance faltered. It was during moments like that where Amber’s buoyant personality really shone through, and which made her show a fun, lively, and upbeat experience.

 

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December 17, 2018 at 7:58 am 2 comments

I Can’t Live Without You: Jung Yonghwa’s Special Forces

Resolve

CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa’s latest solo single, LETTER, dropped on May 21 last week, which is a bit odd considering that he’s been in the army for the past couple months, but the circumstances surrounding his enlistment in early March were anything but ordinary. He entered the military under a white-hot spotlight but still managed to keep his dignity and poise despite the intense scrutiny he was under the time. This is evidenced by the release of this latest single, which for all intents and purposes probably would not exist without Yonghwa’s resolve and strength of character.

Happier days

2017 was a fine year for Yonghwa and CNBLUE, full of music and accomplishments, and the band seemed to be leaving the ugly spectre of 2016 behind. In the beginning of January 2018 things continued to go along smoothly, with Yonghwa’s successful variety show Island Trio just completing its first season and another, TalkMon, just starting. Yonghwa was appointed an honorary ambassador to the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics and had booked several dates for his solo Asia tour into the early spring. There were hints of a CNBLUE comeback in South Korea as well as in Japan and CNBLUE members were riding the wave of each playing leading roles in popular Korean dramas the year before.

Character assassination

Then out of the blue on January 18 came a blind item in the South Korean media accusing the leader of a popular idol band of receiving preferential treatment in admissions to graduate school at Kyung Hee University. After several hours of frenzied speculation the idol turned out to be Yonghwa, but his purported crime was almost laughable. Instead of taking his entrance interview on campus at KHU, due to his busy schedule one of the college’s professors went to Yonghwa’s studio at FNC Entertainment, his agency, and interviewed him there. No big deal, right? Unfortunately the press played this up as a sin on the level of killing and eating the president’s daughter on live television and Yonghwa was vilified for several days for what was essentially a clerical error. The press dug up and revealed his confidential entrance test scores (he did pretty well, actually, getting a 98 out of 100 on the practical score because DUH he’s a professional musician), Korean netizens ruthlessly scrutinized his intentions for wanting to go to grad school, and the general public assailed his honesty and assassinated his character by suggesting that he went through the back door in order to gain admission to KHU. This despite the fact that out of the eight people who applied to the program, all eight were admitted, and that KHU had to ask Yonghwa several times to apply since they were short of students. All of this speculation took place over a few days and in the meantime Yonghwa’s character was viciously attacked and his professional reputation was seriously damaged. He was edited out of a couple television shows he’d recorded earlier and the last two shows of his solo tour were cancelled.

And to add insult to injury, on January 26 Yonghwa announced that he was enlisting in the army effective March 5, so all of his future events were effectively ended. Whether punitive or not on the part of the South Korean government, this clearly was a surprise. As an ambassador for the Pyeongchang Paralympics, which began March 9, Yonghwa would surely have been prominently featured.

Pre-shitstorm

The chain of events was astoundly swift and the shitstorm was intense. It seemed like one minute Yonghwa was posing for pictures with the president of South Korea and the next he was being accused of cheating, lying, and avoiding military service, all within about a week.

But although the judgment in the press was rapid and cruel, Yonghwa didn’t waste a lot of time moping around. Apparently once he knew of his enlistment date he went into creative overdrive, with the results being a pair of completely revamped concerts held in Seoul the weekend before he entered the army and the recording of five new songs, complete with music videos. These songs are scheduled to be released one at a time until his enlistment ends in early December 2019, and LETTER is the first of these. He also participated in the creation of a photobook, wrote the lyrics for a song for his labelmates AOA, recorded 90 short voice messages to be released weekly for fans, and recorded at least one new song with CNBLUE. In some ways this rigorous work schedule must have been a respite from the insanity of the Korean press savagely slandering him every day. It was probably a relief to retreat to the bliss of his studio where he could create music in peace instead of having to deal with the endless recriminations of the relentlessly pursuing media.

LETTER, the new single, is a lovely and understated track, with Yonghwa’s controlled yet emotional delivery carrying the song. It’s deceptively simple, with a spare arrangement of strings, piano, drums, percussion, and vocals, but the song’s structure and build are outstanding. Yonghwa sings the song’s plaintive first verse to a straightforward piano accompaniment, then jumps immediately into a hooky earworm where he belts the refrain, alternating the English phrase “I can’t live without you” with Japanese lyrics. The somewhat lower pitch of the song adds to its melancholy, especially in the last line of the chorus, which features a particularly sweet and melodic vocal run ending in a subtle octave jump. Yonghwa’s rich, husky vocals are spot on as he easily hits the chorus’s high notes after purring the softer lines of the verse, throwing in a bit of delicate falsetto as well as some growly lower tones. He knows exactly how to express emotion with his voice without resorting to gimmicks or over-singing.

The song’s lyrics outline an ill-fated romance between a couple who alternate between affection and quarreling, yet at the end of the song Yonghwa affirms his commitment to the relationship despite its troubles. This reflects a maturity and growth in thinking from his past compositions such as COLD LOVE (2014), which laments a lost relationship without hope of reconciliation, or LALALA (2013), which expresses regret for a recent breakup. The ambivalence of the love story in some ways reflects Yonghwa’s love/hate relationship with the South Korean press and public, with his agency, and with his career, all things that benefit him but which also have hurt him terribly.

Prodigious

Like many very talented people Yonghwa makes what he does look effortless. But unfortunately the flip side of this is that people don’t appreciate the amount of work it actually takes for him to do what he does, so a lot of his labor goes unrecognized. As an example, even during that dire month or so when the South Korean press was excoriating him on a daily basis he managed to produce a huge amount of work. Yet judging from the quality of his final concerts just days before enlisting as well as the beautiful simplicity of his new single he managed to keep up his superhuman standard of excellence despite the immense stress he was under. In part his prodigious amount of work during that time was probably a coping mechanism during the chaos of those final six weeks after his enlistment was announced, as a balm against the haters who were attacking him as well as an FU to those trying to destroy him. Rather than backing down or giving up he instead doubled down on his creative output.

Yonghwa enlisted on March 5 and after he finished his five weeks of basic training he did well enough to be recruited for South Korea’s special forces, an elite commando regiment that trains much more intensively than standard troops. In recent history only one other South Korean celebrity, Lee Seung Gi, has qualified to be admitted to the special forces, although another notable alumnus is current South Korean president Moon Jae-In. While most idols are content to spend their mandatory military service in the regular forces, Yonghwa instead committed to this much more difficult and rigorous regiment, which is stationed right near the border between North and South Korea and which is a part of South Korea’s first line of defense against any threat’s to the country’s security, including that of its restive neighbor. This is no cushy desk job or civil service position—it’s hardcore military training in the coldest part of the country, not far from the DMZ, and under harsh and exacting conditions. By choosing the special forces Yonghwa is shutting down anyone who slandered him during his recent controversy or who doubted his desire to serve his country.

The real deal

It may be surprising to the casual observer that a Kpop idol would choose such a difficult path but Yonghwa is very driven and this gives him the chance to further test himself to his limits. Also, according to some accounts serving in the regular South Korean military can be a bit monotonous, filled with a lot of tedious physical tasks, whereas the special forces is the real deal. Yonghwa is an intense person who is easily bored so he might prefer hard training as opposed to just killing time in the regular military.

I also wonder if Yonghwa is harboring a little bit of rage at how he was treated by in South Korea before his enlistment. It couldn’t have been easy for him to swallow all of the abuse he endured, but he’s not the type to lash out at others, so this gives him a socially acceptable outlet for any anger or frustration he might be feeling, allowing him to forget his past troubles and to focus on the special forces’ intensive training.

Stronger

The special forces will also make him physically stronger, which can be interpreted as a way of making himself less vulnerable in order to defend himself against the crazy industry he’s in. Maybe he’s also figuring out that being the good boy and playing by the rules is no protection and that it’s useless to try to be perfect—respectability politics never work so he has to learn to fend for himself.

It couldn’t have been easy for Yonghwa to go away in the middle of such a fruitful period in his career. There is not enough time in the world for a person like him to accomplish all he wants to do and to have his time cut short so abruptly is a cruel blow. As a creative person I know the utter frustration of having to abandon a project halfway through, or to have something cut short without coming to fruition. It’s almost like a physical pain, a halt, an abrupt and unnatural end when something can’t be completed, and Yonghwa’s two-year military service may seem like a long hiatus for an artist in the midst of making work.

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Military man

But two years is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Fashions in pop music go by in an instant but those with true talent withstand and transcend trends. Yonghwa and CNBLUE have already proven that they are more that just a flash in the pan and they have the drive, the skills, and the ability to be around for a long, long time.

Will Yonghwa be the same lighthearted person he used to be once when he comes back from the army? Onstage he radiates an infectious joyousness—will he lose the playfulness that makes his live performances so magical? Will the military make him stern and hard-bitten? I think not, but he may carry with him some of the grief and sadness from his recent hardships. But although the bright-eyed boy may disappear, the man to come will be stronger and bolder and will shine more incandescently than ever.

UPDATE: As of Aug. 7, 2018 the other three members of CNBLUE have enlisted as well. CNBLUE becomes the first Kpop group to all enlist together in the same year and by doing so they’ve made sure their hiatus is only about two years. There has also been some kind of re-calculating in the South Korean military that’s shortened the time for all those currently serving, so Yonghwa’s return date has moved up about a month, to early November 2019. The other three members should be back shortly after that, around March 2020, so it won’t be too long before CNBLUE returns to the stage together. Great news all around.

UPDATE 2: To put Yonghwa’s whole university admissions brouhaha into context, here’s a bit of background. It was basically a made-up controversy to cover up the real political scandal when former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was about to be arrested for corruption, right around the time that South Korea was ramping up to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. When the world’s attention was about to focus on South Korea the country’s powers-that-be wanted to divert attention away from any taint of political scandal, especially since President Park Geun-hye had just been arrested and charged with corruption the year before in 2017.  So as is often the case with idols and Kpop stars when the public needs to be distracted from various wrongdoings by the government or the wealthy business sector, South Korea’s media threw Yonghwa under the bus.

UPDATE 3: On October 8, 2018 Yonghwa’s agency FNC Entertainment announced that he had been cleared of any suspicion of guilt or wrongdoing in the investigation of charges of preferential treatment. Of course the damage had been done long before during the initial witch hunt in January but it’s still nice that he was officially vindicated after all that. Ultimately it was the South Korean media as well as the netizens who so gleefully dragged Yonghwa who ended up looking shady, as their initial condemnation of him has proven to be unfounded. Not a good look for them at all, while Yonghwa’s character and ethics again stand up to a harsh and unnecessary test. I hope these fiery trials are helping to forge and strengthen his resolve, and that he’s able to emerge stronger and more brilliant than ever once his enlistment ends.

May 26, 2018 at 7:38 am 11 comments

Life Is A Party: Jung Yonghwa’s DO DISTURB and SUMMER CALLING album reviews

that girl

Oh my god we did it again, That Girl, 2017

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I ride for Jung Yonghwa, CNBLUE’s leader and lead vocalist, so the recent releases of not one but two of his solo projects have vastly improved my life.

In CNBLUE’s latest releases Yonghwa has experimented with a range of different instrumentations and musical styles, and with both DO DISTURB, his solo Korean album, and SUMMER CALLING, his Japanese release, he further expands his musical repertoire. Yonghwa also continues to collaborate with several producers who each have their own musical style, including Justin Reinstein, the producer of BETWEEN US and IT’S YOU, two of the strongest tracks from CNBLUE’s last release 7°CN. In his two solo albums Yonghwa tests the limits of his pleasantly raspy voice and for the most part the results are impressive, as he goes from deep, throaty growls and soul shouts to high, sustained falsettos.


DO DISTURB opens with THAT GIRL, and this track is without a doubt a smart, sophisticated jam. It’s full of musical tricks and surprises, beginning a funky, thumb-popping guitar lick and a sample that proclaims “Oh my god we did it again.” The track features the rapper Loco and it beautifully mixes in his percussive flow. THAT GIRL has a really strong, deep groove, so momentarily interrupting the flow with a drop right before Loco’s rap, which takes the place of a pre-chorus, breaks up the monotony of the song’s heavy beat. Loco’s rap has a jazzy, freeform style and it makes its appearance in the song like a hard bop transition—sudden, jarring, and without warning, yet completely right. Following this Yonghwa jumps right back in again with the song’s mad catchy chorus, establishing the hook that continues throughout the track. The second time Loco raps it’s equally breathtaking, as most of the instrumentation again drops away and a liquid trap beat rides under his rhymes. This time around, instead of going right into the chorus Yonghwa croons a sexy bridge over the beat that brilliantly links the rap to the melody. He then follows this by belting a powerful sustained note (“tired”) that punches up the energy of the song even more. These crazy switch-ups, with Loco spitting fire, Yonghwa purring and belting, and the insanely hooky backbeat, are what makes this track rise above the usual pop music production and keeps the sound fresh and surprising. The song moves all over the place while remaining anchored to its swinging groove.

The album’s second track, CLOSER, completely changes up the mood. A lush and poppy track produced by Justin Reinstein, the song creates a shimmering, dense soundscape that’s a perfect bed for Yonghwa’s powerful and pristine vocals. The soaring chorus is particularly lovely, as it shifts the song’s chromatics and makes for an exhilarating break. Yonghwa has said that he can write ten songs like this a day, so if he ever decides to stop being a star he’ll never starve because he’s got the three-minute pop song down pat.

The third track, PASSWORD, marries Yonghwa’s vocals to a deep house track and not surprisingly his voice suits the classic house-style production really well, as he alternates between smooth sustained notes, belting, and rhythmic purring. The production on this track has the house sound down perfectly, from the muted horns and flexible bass line to the slight reverb in the vocals on the chorus. The lyrics also match the house style, with a couple nice hits of ra-tata, a few sweet woohoos, and some smexy English (“baby, turn me on”). This song is made for the clubs and it sounds like Yonghwa had a lot of fun singing it. Yet under the housey mix the song is actually quite jazzy.


The fourth track, NAVIGATION, is one of those out-of-left-field songs that defies classification. I don’t even know how to describe this song, it’s so astoundingly strange. Yonghwa has made a song based on GPS voices and it works perfectly as a dreamlike track that feels like driving down the road to nowhere. The English refrain “left to the right, up to the down” perfectly encapsulates geographic dyslexia as well as Yonghwa’s peculiarly sideways thinking. Songs like this and ROYAL RUMBLE, last year’s standout track from both EUPHORIA and 7°CN, demonstrate how startlingly unexpected Yonghwa’s tunes can be.


Something has happened to Yonghwa’s voice over the past couple years and that is that he’s become an excellent singer. He’s always been a good rock vocalist, with a flexibility and ferocity in his delivery, but on DO DISTURB he’s suddenly become amazing at other genres as well. This is especially evident in NOT ANYMORE, a mid-tempo 90s throwback R&B jam where his vocal virtuosity is off the hook. On this track Yonghwa effortlessly ranges from sultry crooning to belting to beautifully sustained high notes, bending the melody at the climax and hitting a gorgeous falsetto at the top of the song. Like Stevie Wonder, his voice is full of melodic flexibility, supple and smooth in one moment, then ragged, raw, and full of passion in the next. The only time he falters somewhat is on the very highest notes, where there are some signs of strain in his voice and the richness found in his mid and lower register is absent.


DO DISTURB’s closing track, LOST IN TIME, is absolutely gorgeous. This is what Yonghwa can do. Even before I read the translation of the lyrics, Yonghwa’s plaintive, emotional delivery effectively conveyed the melancholy of the simple, evocative melody. His vocals are completely on point in this song, with a stunning octave jump and a beautiful sustained high note at the crescendo, his tone and vibrato gorgeous, rich, and full of emotion. I suspect that this song would have been released as a single if it wasn’t so stylistically similar to ONE FINE DAY, the title track from Yonghwa’s previous solo release. In order to avoid pigeonholing he likely wanted to get away from releasing emo ballads and instead focus on a different kind of tune.

In addition to DO DISTURB, which was released in the Korean market, Yonghwa also dropped SUMMER CALLING in Japan about a month after DO DISTURB. As well as four tracks from DO DISTURB, the album also includes three other songs that demonstrate his further growth as an artist. All three of the additional tracks are completely in English and each has a very different sound from the others.


The title track, SUMMER DREAM (produced by Reinstein) is a fast-paced song that includes some rapid-fire English lyrics that demonstrate a vast improvement in Yonghwa’s English-language skills. Beginning with SOMEONE ELSE, the b-side from this spring’s CNBLUE Japanese single SHAKE, Yonghwa has suddenly become fluent in writing in English. Whether or not he’s getting a little help from an uncredited collaborator, his English lyrics are now really, really good and his previous awkwardness with the language has vanished for the most part. Not only is he much more fluent but he now can use English the way that he uses Korean, musically and poetically as opposed to only being about the meaning of the words. SUMMER DREAM’s imagery is strong and consistent throughout and the song’s lyrics turn on a dime. For example, the song repeats this couplet twice:

If we could stay forever bound
Could stop the world from turning ’round

In its third iteration this variation appears:

I wish I knew a way around
Could stop the world from turning ‘round

This alternates with this couplet, also repeated twice, at the same point in the melody.

I burn the moment in my mind
I feel our hearts are intertwined

Again there is a slight variation in the lyrics in the third iteration.

I burn the moment in my mind
A time again I’ll never find

These slight yet sophisticated changes make the song’s story progress from hope to resignation and move the mood from joy to sadness and from hope of the future to longing for the past. The song’s driving beat and the rapidity of the lyrics also suggest the inevitability of loss. It’s a beautifully structured song that demonstrates Yonghwa’s mastery of melody, lyrics, and performance.

The two other English-language tracks on SUMMER CALLING are equally interesting. Though Yonghwa has been compared to Bruno Mars, in these two songs I’m hearing a bit of another famous mixed-race polyhyphenate, the legendary Prince.


LIFE IS A PARTY opens with Yonghwa flexing his falsetto as he effortlessly swings through this flirty, dancey tune. The lyrics show off a pleasant swagger as Yonghwa confidently explains why he’s the superior choice of a mate.

I don’t do this for just anyone
But I know that he can’t be the one for you, girl

(Come on)
With the setting of the summer sun, I toast my glass and fight
“Everybody living it up, until I’ve got you, I’ll never stop”

Life is a party
Don’t you waste it with him, darling

Yonghwa’s sweet cockiness and his clear, flute-like falsetto, along with the track’s spare, funky synth-based production, calls to mind Prince’s Minneapolis sound.

 


MAKE YOU MINE similarly echoes Prince tracks like LITTLE RED CORVETTE and IF I WAS YOUR GIRLFRIEND. Though not as overtly smexy as the Purple One’s, Yonghwa’s lyrics are still mildly racy and create vivid word pictures.

Slowly tracin’ all the droplets
As they’re drippin’ off your hair it’s
So amazing how you find
Another way to blow my mind

do disturb

Artistic growth, Yonghwa, 2017

Yonghwa has recently stated that his current favorite song is DESPACITO, Luis Fonsi’s Spanish-language mega-hit. He may like the song for its music but he also has to be aware that this is one of the few non-English language songs to cross over to mainstream success in the US and around the world. His fondness for the track may reflect some of his own longing to gain global popularity and break through the cultural and language barriers still holding back Korean musical acts in the US. His fellow Kpop star G-dragon (leader of BIGBANG) is currently on a world tour that’s been selling out most of its venues, with the notable exception of some of its North America dates, attesting to the difficulties Asian stars continue to face in breaking into the US market. Despite this history, South Korean rapper Jay Park has just signed to Jay Z’s label Roc Nation and Kpop boy group of the moment BTS collaborated with The Chainsmokers’ Andrew Taggart on their latest release. Yonghwa may get lucky and grab the brass ring in the US sometime, but until then he’s selling out shows and otherwise doing just fine across Asia, both with CNBLUE and on his own.

With these two solo releases Yonghwa is clearly enjoying spreading his wings and continuing to expand his musical horizons. In THAT GIRL’s music video he even manages some passable dancing, which is a pretty far reach from CNBLUE’s usual rock band turf.


CNBLUE just dropped a new song, STARTING OVER, which mixes a retro Ray Charles-inspired piano line with Yonghwa’s sweet, soulful vocals and which takes the band’s sound in yet another direction. It’s a pleasure see Yonghwa continue to challenge himself and take creative risks, which can only bode well for his ongoing artistic growth. I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.

September 21, 2017 at 6:55 am 5 comments


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