Posts filed under ‘Kpop’

Then, now and forever: CNBLUE’s Re-Code album review

Urin gwageo hyeonjae miraee isseo

CNBLUE’s new EP, Re-Code, dropped recently, and it’s the band’s first South Korean release in more than 3 ½ years, with the members spending much of that period serving their mandatory 20-month Korean military service. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge for CNBLUE during that time, including a major personnel shakeup, and their latest release pivots hard toward a new musical sensibility. Unlike their last Korean release, 7ºCN,  back in 2017, Re-Code features more acoustic guitars and no trap beats, a development that is not on trend at all in the pop music world and which to my mind is wholly refreshing. One of the tracks even features a spot of whistling and for the most part there are no electric guitar solos. 

This is going to be an epic post since it’s CNBLUE’s first Korean release in nearly four years. In particular I’m gonna do a deep dive into the title track, Then, Now, and Forever, as it’s an exemplary piece of pop music that explores unhappiness and depression in an notably grown-up way. The song is a driving, midtempo rock song that’s a raw and delicate expression of the vulnerability and numbness that comes from trying to forget and to continue living despite loss and insecurity, and for me it conjures up all the feels during this year of COVID-19. 

The syncopated tick-tocking guitar riff that opens the track, overlaid with a delicate woohooo melisma before the start of the verse establishes the dreamy, sad tone for the song. This carries through into the verse, which sets the stage with its melancholy lyrics. (trans. @buin_jungshin, FNC entertainment)

Oneul nalssi malgeum

(The weather today is sunny)

Ohueneun meokgureum

(But there will be dark clouds in the afternoon)

Nae maeumeun gyesok biga naeril yejeong

(I expect it will keep raining in my heart)

Then the meter of the lyrics doubles in a singsong beat, echoing the childlike reference to friends and playing.

Chingudeura mianhae

(I’m sorry, friends)

Oneuldo nan ppajilge

(I’m going to sit out again today)

Neohui mameun aneunde

(I know how you feel)

Sigan jogeumman jullae

(But won’t you give me some time)

Gyesok mami sseuril yejeong

(I expect to still be heartbroken)

This wistful beginning then charges into the intensity of the pre-chorus and after that the song doesn’t look back as it travels through its heartbreakingly fraught emotional territory.

At the beginning and the end of the day

Now, at the thread of parting

We are bound together, tangled

Like a knot

Some days I’m fine

Sometimes I miss you like crazy

Sometimes I hate you so much

Again

The ebb and flow of the song’s structure is also a refreshing change from the mechanized beats of most pop music these days. There are several pauses, including between the first pre-chorus and the chorus and after the bridge, which allow the song to breathe in a human rhythm that is absent in pop songs that use a preset drum track. This gives the song life and power, expanding and elongating the song’s tempo and giving it a lovely, fluid aliveness that meshes perfectly with the instrumentation of guitars, organ, drums and bass. 

Backbone

Drummer Kang Minhyuk and bassist Lee Jungshin supply a strong, steady backbone for the track and their reliable work does a lot of heavy lifting in the song. The rapid ratatat drum that underscores the first line of the chorus also elevates the emotion from the pre-chorus, and the church-like organ riff, the guitars, and the flowing bassline create a Spectoresque wall of sound that drives the song’s intensity. Whereas the chorus churns along mostly in a major key, the final repetition of the hook (urin gwageo hyeonjae miraee isseo) ends the song on three notes (G, D, Bflat to A) that form a perfect G minor chord, lending a melancholy and longing to the outro. The track’s final flourish on the piano closes the song like a caress, a beautiful moment of stillness after the passionate, driving beat of the second half of the song.

UPDATE: This amateur musicologist just realized a key element of the song that I’d missed before, which is the switching between two time signatures. The song’s verse and prechorus is in 6/8 time, which creates a looping, circular mood that accentuates the sensation of being trapped or stuck in a rut. The chorus and bridge then switch to 4/4 time, lending an urgency and drive to that section of the track. Swapping smoothly between the two time signatures is one of the things that makes the song feel fresh and unpredictable and which emphasizes the tune’s emotive power.

Credit must also be given to Jung Yonghwa’s effortlessly virtuoso vocal performance on this track. He goes from a breathy whisper to throbbing sustains to a clear falsetto to belting in the blink of an eye, imbuing each line with emotion and meaning and exploiting the dynamic range of his voice to mesh perfectly with the song’s swings from sadness to frustration to deep mourning. He’s developed his voice into a powerful and evocative instrument and his control over it is flawless. The chorus includes a sweet falsetto immediately followed by another belt, which is no mean feat, and more vocal fireworks occur at the end of the bridge where he lets loose with a gorgeous descending vocal run that literally stops the song in its tracks. This is closely followed by another breathy vocal fill that leads to full-out belting during the last chorus. Throughout the song Yonghwa’s performance embodies and elevates the song’s emotional core. Watching live recordings of the song further reveals his control and range as he navigates the complexities of the song in real time with ease. 

Nobody but you

The song’s beautifully crafted structure, Yonghwa’s virtuoso vocals, its emotionally charged, poetic lyrics, and the buzzing rock guitar and throwback Hammond organ over the pulsing backbeat all make for highly satisfying listening on many different levels. Although it can be read as a simple breakup song between lovers, to anyone familiar with the past four years of CNBLUE’s existence the song means much more. Despite great popularity for most of their careers, starting with their highly successful debut in 2010, things fell apart for the  members around 2016 when the South Korean media attached various controversies to the band. Former lead guitarist Lee Jonghyun left the band in mid-2019 under a cloud of controversy, and a long silence about the issue followed, even after the rest of the members were discharged from the army in March 2020. Because of COVID-19 their normally busy touring schedule ceased, which only led to more speculation about their future. So this song, released more than a year after Yonghwa’s military discharge, is the first public statement they’ve made about their status as a band.

Mournful

Though the song might not specifically be about their former band member it’s definitely about the loss of their past musical existence and in some ways, about the end of their youth. Many of CNBLUE’s past songs feature vocal duets between Yonghwa and Jonghyun and Jonghyun’s guitar playing played a very prominent role in defining their musical color. Many of those songs would now be very difficult to play live, so if nothing else CNBLUE may be mourning the loss of their excellent and extensive back catalog. 

The album’s other tracks are also outstanding and it’s notable how different they are from one another. The second track, Til Then, is a musical palate-cleanser after the intensely mournful rock groove of Then, Now, and Forever. Opening with a lively round of whistling followed by a mellow acoustic guitar riff, the melody’s upbeat mood is nonetheless belied by the angsty lyrics. (trans: @cnbstaraccord)

I’m not allowed to laugh out loud

I’m not allowed to express my mood

“Don’t get cocky with me”

I get it, I’m okay with anything

Laughing like you’re happy in this world

Sounds like another world’s story 

It’s a slightly depressing peek into Yonghwa’s constrained life as a South Korean idol and celebrity where every move is controlled and any mistake can have grave professional and personal consequences. The somewhat grim lyrics exist at odds with the light, perky music, reflecting the cheerful facade over the dark interior life that the song recounts.

As with Yonghwa’s solo Japanese release earlier this year,  Re-Code includes a city pop track, In Time. The song harkens back to the lounge/jazz/disco hybrid genre made popular in Japan and other parts of Asia in the 1970s and 80s and exemplified by tracks such as Mariya Takeuchi’s Plastic Love, Naoko Gushima Candy, and Tatsurō Yamashita’s Love Space, and by modern-day practitioners like Taiwan indie band Sunset Rollercoaster. Like classic city pop, In Time is beautiful, lush, and sweet, with a supple bassline and a gorgeous synth break at the bridge. Yonghwa utilizes a breathy, light vocal style that includes a divine falsetto in the chorus and a nice high belt in the bridge. The song has a sweet, sad air of memory and regret, with lyrics that again describe a longing for someone missing or gone.

I’m living in you

But no matter how hard I look 

You’re nowhere to be seen

I’m breathing in your traces 

But you’re not here

The fourth track, Winter Again, includes one of my favorite of Yonghwa’s little vocal traits. It’s a distinctive vibrating resonance that his voice hits when he sings a certain high note, when the rasp in his voice perfectly aligns with the note he’s singing, and that’s in full effect in the song’s chorus. It’s just a short sustain of a slight high note and it’s not loud or powerful or particularly flashy, but when it happens it’s riveting.

The song’s lyrics, free-written in a stream-of-consciousness style, seem at first to be about the banalities of everyday life. But on closer inspection they’re actually an extended metaphor for the deceptiveness of daily perceptions. (trans: @cnbstaraccord)

It’s warm inside the room

Looking out the window it seems warm (outside) too

The human heart is like this too

(So) the wind was this cold

The mundane details of the lyrics mesh perfectly with the simple, country-rock guitar sound, performed by CNBLUE’s frequent sideman and studio musician extraordinaire Jung Jae-pil 정재필. Jung also plays on two other tracks, Then, Now, and Forever, and Til Then, filling in in lieu of the band’s former lead guitarist.

The album’s last track, Blue Stars, was written with the band’s loyal fans in mind. An upbeat, jaunty tune, the song is made up of a mix of nonsense syllables, easy Korean phrases and lyrics in English that are designed for singing along no matter what your language skills. After the moodiness of the first four songs it’s a nice, lively way to end the album on a more optimistic note. The entire EP is like one big therapy session and this song is the equivalent of a group hug. After processing the angst and melancholy of the past few years this track points the way to potentially better days. Or as noted in Then, Now, and Forever

I hope we are happy now

It would be nice if we were happy now

I bet an ordinary day will come to me again

We’re here then, now and forever

(trans. @buin_jungshin)

To have CNBLUE come back with this new, glorious release now, after this impossible year of COVID-based deprivation, is like a beam of hope that signals better times to come. It hits different for those of us who have been living the restricted, maddening life that is COVID-19 in the United States, and it’s so much more meaningful seen through that lens. As always, in this new album CNBLUE has created resonant, relevant, and beautiful music.

November 25, 2020 at 9:15 am 2 comments

Don’t Say Goodbye: Favorite CNBLUE live performances

I just published Have A Good Night: CNBLUE, Band Music, and the Uses of Live Performance in K-pop, my first article in the burgeoning field of CNBLUE studies, in the book The Future of Live Music (Bloomsbury, 2020) and to celebrate that achievement as well as to give the article more context I came up with a list of some of my favorite live CNBLUE performances.

Since CNBLUE is in the midst of reconfiguring from a quartet to a trio and since I wrote the article prior to that in 2019, this post is a bit of a time capsule. The band members were in the army from 2018-2020 and haven’t released any new music since 2017, but more significantly, they had a bad breakup with their guitarist Lee Jonghyun in 2019 due to his involvement with various controversies, so the band is definitely in transitional mode. But their live shows are legendary and as I wrote in my Bloomsbury essay, “In some ways CNBLUE’s drive to excel as live musicians stems from these early perceptions as they have striven to prove their musical legitimacy despite their idol roots.” Since then they’ve gone far beyond that early expectation and have become one of the premiere live performing acts in the world.

With the departure of Jonghyun, who wrote and sang many of their classic songs and whose guitar playing was an indispensable element of their singular sound, CNBLUE is a now different band than the one that performed in the clips below. But nonetheless this post is a tribute rather than an elegy to their prodigious output in the past ten years, as the remaining three members have promised to continue on. As I researched this post I realized that the setlist from one of their classic concerts from 2012, 392 Live, is almost completely different than their setlist from their last tour, Starting Over, in 2017, with only four songs overlapping in both shows. This indicates that although it won’t be easy to move on without Jonghyun, they are capable of remaking themselves almost completely and starting fresh with new material. I’m optimistic that once COVID-19 restrictions on live performances begin to ease up, CNBLUE will resume touring and will light up the sky again with their live shows.

It was pretty challenging narrowing down the list to just 15 clips and in truth the best way to experience CNBLUE live (besides going in person to one of their actual performances) is to watch an entire concert from start to finish, since they are masters of creating setlists and the pacing in their shows is designed for maximum effect. But for those who would like more of a guided tour, here in chronological order is a curated selection of some of my favorite live CNBLUE performances.


1. Hey You, Blue Night in Seoul, 2012
A much heavier version of this song than the studio recording, beginning with each member showing off their instrumental chops. This performance demonstrates their ability to turn even a fluffy pop song into what they call DSM, or dark, sexy metal.


2. Tattoo, You and I, 2012
I can imagine the horror of people who randomly tuned in to this performance on South Korean television during the performance of this ode to sexual obsession. Jung Yonghwa pants and moans into the microphone, thrusts his hips into his guitar, and gets on his knees and headbangs at the climax (and I don’t use that word lightly) of this song.


3. I Don’t Know Why, MTV Unplugged, 2012
CNBLUE shows off their acoustic chops and vocal harmonies in this unplugged concert for MTV Japan, and they really jam on the booming dreadnought guitars. The lyrics are also a good example of Yonglish, Yonghwa’s singular approach to the English language.


4. Y Why, Wave in Osaka, 2014
Slowed down slightly from its original studio version, this performance is a stellar example of CNBLUE’s trademark deep, dark, sexy metal, including Yonghwa’s growling and soaring rock vocals, Kang Minhyuk’s heavy, heavy foot on the drums and a wailing guitar solo by Jonghyun.


6. Lady, Summer Sonic, 2014
The ultimate rave up song and one of CNBLUE’s fastest paced, this tune has been staple in their setlists since its release in 2014. It’s a firestarter of a song and includes a supple bassline by Lee Jungshin. You can literally hear the audience going insane at the end of this version.


5. I’m Sorry, Summer Sonic, 2014
Playing at one of Japan’s premiere music festivals in the heat of the Japanese summer, this performance of their iconic rock track I’m Sorry includes a sweaty AF Yonghwa capping the song with his signature octave-jumping wail. Bonus: a jamming version of Lady, plus a rendition of their sweet sweet 2014 hit song Can’t Stop.


7. Loner, Yu Hui Yoo’s Sketchbook, 2015
An EDM version of their famous debut track, updated with synthesizer, this is one of the first live CNBLUE clips that I saw and the one that started me on this long, crazy journey. It’s also interesting to see the band coiffed and made up instead of sweaty and disheveled like they are in most of their live concerts and it’s pretty clear why they were recruited as idols back at the start of their careers. Even in front of a sedate studio audience they exude sheer energy and blinding charisma, which in combination with their good looks is deadly.


8. Catch Me, FNC Kingdom in Japan, 2015
Just rock. Absolutely electrifying.


9. Lie, We’re Like A Puzzle, 2016
One of CNBLUE’s many vocal duets–here they perform this midtempo rock tune in both Korean and Japanese. It’s a great example of their musical virtuosity on all counts, with the spotlight on Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s perfectly balanced, emotional vocals.


10. Radio, Our Glory Days in Nagoya, 2016
Although pretty much every live version of this song is great, Yonghwa is in fine form in this one, bopping on top of the piano, across the stage and into the audience. He ends up lying flat on his back at the end of the song exchanging a cappella vocal riffs with the audience.


11. LOVE, Between Us in Seoul, 2017
This jazzy rendition one of their sprightly earlier hits shines in the band’s locked-in performance, from Minhyuk’s rat-a-tat-tat drum rolls though Jonghyun’s fluid lead guitar lines, overlaid by Yonghwa’s energetic vocal improvisations and capped off by a monster rock break two-thirds of the way through the song.


12. Wake Up, Between Us in Bangkok, 2017
Wake Up is CNBLUE’s version of a jam band song and the live performances of this song features am extended call-and-response between the band and the audience, Yonghwa and Jonghyun swapping improvised guitar riffs, Yonghwa’s screaming high notes, and endless false endings. The longest version recorded, from Between Us in Seoul, lasts more than 16 minutes, which is pretty impressive for a song that was originally less than 3 minutes in its studio version.

This 2017 fancam is a fragment of a much longer version and demonstrates some of the maniacal improvisational hijinks that typically take place during the song. For a full version go here.


13. Eclipse, Starting Over in Yokohama, 2017
This performance builds beautifully, starting with Jonghyun’s sweet, clear vocal and acoustic guitar. The gradual additions of piano, drums, bass, and Yonghwa’s ragged lead guitar perfectly complement the smooth lightness of Jonghyun’s voice, showcasing CNBLUE’s balanced combination of vocals, guitar, harmony, and beats.


14. Between Us, Arirang I’m Live, 2017
This explosive tune usually brings the house down in 15,000 seat arena shows so CNBLUE performing it here live in front of a tiny crowd is absolutely earth-shattering.


15. Young Forever, Between Us in Seoul, 2017
Besides earworm pop tunes and spectacular rock anthems, CNBLUE also specializes in emotional bops including Glory Days and Book, two of their more recent Japanese releases. Young Forever falls into that category as well and this performance shows off the band’s stellar songcrafting and live chops. A gorgeous roundelay of a song, with three main parts that repeat and overlay each other, this live version beautifully showcases the lovely interplay of the various elements of the song, including layered vocal harmonies, changes in dynamics, and a cappella harmonizing, and which features the plaintive lament “Can we go back/but there’s no way back.”

For further exploration, there are many full CNBLUE concerts on youtube. My favorite full concert is Starting Over, from 2017, and my favorite short concert is FNC Kingdom 2017, which is also the last live with all four members and which demonstrates their ability to whip an audience into a frenzy.

July 28, 2020 at 7:56 am 4 comments

The Endless Melody: Jung Yonghwa’s Feel the Y’s City album review

Evolution, Jung Yonghwa

CNBLUE’s leader Jung Yonghwa finished up his mandatory military service in the South Korean army last November and since then he’s been reemerging in Asia’s music and entertainment scene. Feel the Y’s City, his third solo Japanese album, just dropped recently and it shows Yonghwa’s continued evolution as an artist as he moves farther and farther from his Kpop idol roots.

The album’s lead track, The Moment, is an astoundingly joyous song, exploding with optimism and hope. Considering that Yonghwa recorded this just after he’d just gone through one of the darkest periods of his career it’s amazing that he was able to infuse such sheer happiness and hope into this track. This one is pure jazz at its most swinging, and it mixes up some killer changes over a driving piano riff, vibes, and blaring horns. Before he entered the military Yonghwa mentioned his admiration for the soundtrack to the film LaLa Land and The Moment definitely takes its inspiration from that style of midcentury jazz-based pop music. But Yonghwa is a better singer than either Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone and his smooth and swinging, powerful vocals drive the song. He effortlessly travels from his warm lower register up to a sweet falsetto.

The lyrics are mostly in English, with a smattering of phrases in French that seem be taken from a French For Beginners handbook, but he does a great job of rhyming in two languages that are not native to him. Although his French is delivered with a decidedly flat American accent, at one point he cleverly rhymes champagne, display, parlez, and café, which is pretty impressive for someone writing not in his first language. Throughout the song he further randomly throws in other French phrases, including a curious line that reads “Let’s get away and find ourselves la vie en rose, encore,” which sounds a bit like he strung together all of the French words he knew to make a lyric. Later in the song he shouts, “C’est la vie!” again not quite matching the proper use of the term. But it’s not bad for someone writing for the first time in French. I’m a bit surprised he didn’t include “mon petit chou” somewhere but that probably didn’t properly scan.

The next track, Summer Night In Heaven, continues the curious admixture of even more languages. Back in August I wrote a note to myself saying, “I have no doubt that Yonghwa can write a genius city pop song if he wants to,” and sure enough, Summer Night In Heaven is it. The song opens with a throwback guitar riff that emulates the crackly scratches of a vinyl record, followed by an outstanding bit of whistling that leads into Yonghwa’s relaxed, funky vocals. The lyrics are all pretty much about his blissed-out vacations to Hawai’i, and the song’s gently loping beat echoes his Zen experiences there. The track also includes a pleasant bit of Yonghwa scatting over a guitar interlude, a skill he showed off at his last concert tour before enlisting back in 2018.

The chorus demonstrates the polyglot scenario in his busy brain as he mashes up English, Spanish, Hawai’ian, and Japanese.

Summer night in heaven. Don’t you know the reason?

Groovin’ to the soul playground of freedom

Loco Ala Moana Forever I wanna

Uchiyosete kaesu shiosai no kōrasu (The chorus of the tide rushing back)

This somewhat random assemblage of languages, charmingly sung without regard to proper accenting or syntax, still manages to work, conveying the joyful and relaxing, utterly optimistic worldview that Yonghwa seems to be cultivating since his discharge from the army last year.

Continuing in that upbeat vein, the next track, She Knows Everything, is a sweet, simple pop song that’s the definition of a catchy earworm bop. The track is  a streamlined throwback to ‘90s new jack swing, anchored by Yonghwa’s gorgeous falsetto. The song’s hooky chorus features Yonghwa’s lovely flutelike upper register as he sings, “I’m in trouble/In Good Trouble,” showing off his effortless, silky vocal range. Here the completely English lyrics sweetly outline a charmed relationship:

When my words get fumbled

Sometimes I’m misunderstood

Before I trip and stumble

She knows how to catch me long before I hit the ground

Once again Yonghwa invokes the Minnesota sound made famous by Prince, with a bright synthesizer jamming over the songs danceable beats.

In Jellyfish Yonghwa uses an upbeat dance track to emulate the backstabbing, duplicitous entertainment world that he inhabits. The song was recorded while he was enduring a particularly vicious witchhunt and Yonghwa shows a remarkable self-awareness for his situation at the time, questioning his own complicity in the trap that he’s in. Although Yonghwa is too polite to say it, the song clearly is about his adopted hometown of Seoul, where he’s spent most of his professional life and where he’s experienced his greatest successes and his greatest betrayals.

The fully electronic instrumentation adds a metallic tang to the song, and the song’s ringing, manufactured beats mesh perfectly with Yonghwa’s raspy purr of a voice. Although beautiful and seductive, the song is completely artificial and false, reinforcing the lyrics which describe being crushed, empty, deluded, and trapped. They also clearly describe the seductiveness and lure of the entertainment world, which Yonghwa envisions as a warm bath of oblivion and deception.

I am bathing in the light of the moon
Always floating
With all the jellyfish in bloom
They are shining in the dark, closing in
Hiding poison
I’m deeper in the city’s womb

The entire song vibrates with mendacity, but Yonghwa doesn’t shy away from his own attraction to the bright lights of fame and fortune, realizing that jellyfish are beautiful but potentially deadly and choosing to tangle with them can be fatal.

There’s a risk I could take when I touch you
Get paralyzed by your sting
Stimulus leads to hallucination
I’d sacrifice for anything

The next track, Fire & Rain, is a dreamy midtempo jam that opens with Yonghwa climbing from midrange to head voice in a beautifully sung acapella phrase. The song then kicks into a powerful dance groove. Yonghwa croons in and around the beat, his understated phrasing and intonation emphasizing the melancholy yet hopeful lyrics (in Japanese and English, with a “fiesta” thrown in for good measure).

We ’re the fire in the rain

hibiku ame no oto daichi ni utai inochi o naraseba fukinukeru kaze seimei no

Breathing moeru yō ni

(Sing on the earth/The Breathing of Life)

Although a very different song, the mood is reminiscent of Yonghwa’s 2014 composition for CNBLUE, Like A Child, as the music and lyrics create a hypnotic ambiance that suggests hope amongst despair.

Melody is a gorgeous slice of orchestral pop, with some lovely half-step progressions that elevate the chorus. Again Yonghwa’s stellar vocals shine, as he runs up and down his range with a fine falsetto at the end of the song, and the song’s arrangement of cascading strings over a lilting piano interweaves beautifully with Yonghwa’s passionate singing. This track was also one of the five recorded before enlistment and released while Yonghwa was in the army and it reflects his desire to continue making music no matter what difficulties or obstacles he faces.

Sekaijuu ni saita Harmony mamoritai yo kienai you ni

Sugite yuku toki no naka de kawaranai you ni

Kiitetai yo towa ni ima doko ni ite mo

Hibikaseyou Baby owarinonai Melody

(I want to protect the harmony that bloomed all over the world, so it doesn’t disappear

So it doesn’t change within this advancing time

I want to listen to it forever, wherever you are now

Let it resound, baby, the endless melody)

At the time he recorded this song there was some doubt as to whether Yonghwa would continue making music so this song holds significant meaning, rededicating his pledge to himself, his bandmates, and his fans to keep going with his career.

The two tracks that immediately follow Melody were also recorded during the controversies prior to Yonghwa’s enlistment and both reflect the state of mind he was in during that crazy time.

Brothers is a straight-up rock song, with power chords and a wailing guitar riff that clearly emulates the style of Yonghwa’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Lee Junghyun (who is currently exiled from CNBLUE following his tangential association with the Burning Sun controversy). In this song Yonghwa also pays tribute to Oasis, one of his favorite bands, as the track has a distinctly Britpop sound to it. The lyrics brilliantly set up the song’s premise, starting with the everyday conflicts that occur between close mates and friends.

Screaming at each other again

We never seem to click,

We’re fighting all of the time

Surrounded by tension and strain

So sick of all your jokes

This stark honesty demonstrates an understanding of the complexities of a longstanding relationship and show Yonghwa’s maturity of thought. As in Letter, despite ups and downs, working through and resolving these struggles ultimately creates an strong and lasting relationship.

The chorus reverses the conflicts introduced in the first verse, revealing the deep bond forged from such conflicts.

When you told me your dreams

And your ambitions

Something crushed inside of me

I see right through you the same

Same way you see right through me

Goin’ back when I found my soul brother

So we’ll never be apart

The song takes on an extra poignancy now that the rest of CNBLUE’s members are returning from their military service. Although Yonghwa has declared that CNBLUE will go on, he’s been mum on whether or not the band’s future includes their erstwhile lead guitarist. Interestingly, while Yonghwa has recently expressed his desire to play rock music again, Brothers is the only track on the album that prominently features guitar, suggesting that he’s waiting for CNBLUE (in whatever formation) to come back in order to get his rock groove on.

Letter, a midtempo love song, also explores an up-and-down relationship that in some ways is a metaphor for Yonghwa’s sometimes problematic relationship with his fans and his career. Yonghwa belts the song effortlessly, infusing the track with a gentle and melancholy longing. He adds a few delicate and powerful trills to the chorus, hitting a sweet crescendo before the song’s soulful denouement. (go here for a more detailed analysis of this track)

The last track on the album, Livin’ It Up, returns to the big-band jazz sound of The Moment. Somewhat more saccharine and less substantial that the other track it nonetheless clearly conveys the mood and meaning Yonghwa intended, which he states is a tribute to the joys of New York City. The song is a throwback to midcentury popular jazz tunes and would be right at home in a Fred Astaire MGM joint, with its lyrics describing “Falling falling snow,” the Brooklyn Bridge, and Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. Somewhere in there there’s a thesis about the pervasiveness of the myth of American exceptionalism in the South Korean imaginary but that’s a discussion for another day.

All in all this is a solid outing and demonstrates Yonghwa’s continued interest in making music that he finds interesting and engaging, rather than what the market dictates. It shows his continued development as an artist rather than an idol or pop star, as he keeps going farther afield from current commercial pop music. Though some of the tracks such as Jellyfish and Fire & Rain are completely on trend, others such as the jazzier cuts are much quirkier and less radio-friendly. As well as his infatuation with big band and jazz, he’s recently stated his fondness for the Indian dream pop duo Parekh & Singh and he’s covered a snippet of a song by the alt-country duo Dan + Shay on his instagram, so his tastes run a wide gamut of pop music.

Not unlike the way he slices and dices several different languages in one song, Yonghwa synthesizes his musical influences in sideways and unexpected ways and it’s very fun following what his fevered mind comes up with. Yonghwa was about to start his latest Japan tour this week but due to the coronavirus crisis those dates have been pushed back until April at the earliest or we’d surely be hearing even more remixes and rearrangements of his music. He’s repeatedly stated that he writes his songs with live performances in mind, so hopefully we’ll soon be able to hear what new directions he’s taking his current batch of tunes. I’m hoping someone plays some Ornette Coleman for him soon as I’d love to hear what happens when he hears some really mindblowing free jazz. A girl can dream—

BONUS: a clip of the new live arrangement of CNBLUE’s Face To Face, originally recorded as a straight-up Motown style jam. Here Yonghwa completely reworks it, and all cutie-pie clowning aside, this is an absolutely killer arrangement of this song, mixing Latin beats, tempo changes, jazz breaks, and some dope strings.

UPDATE: As of March 10, Feel The Y’s City has scored big on the charts throughout much of Asia. In its first day of release on Feb. 26, all five of the new tracks from the album were in the top ten on Japan’s daily Recochoku Kpop/World music chart, with a sixth track, Letter, at number 50.

recochoku 2.26.20

Three tracks, She Knows Everything, Summer Night in Heaven, and Welcome to the Y’s City, swept the top three for two consecutive weeks (Mar. 2 and 9) on China’s weibo New Asia Song Asia-Pacific chart. As noted on weibo, “The whole song has a cool summer feeling from the melody to the voice. There is a sense of playing on the beach.”

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The album also charted high on iTunes in several countries, reaching the top 5 in eight countries and topping the charts in Macau and Hong Kong. The album even made it to number 32 on the worldwide iTunes chart, which isn’t bad considering there was absolutely no promotion outside of Asia.

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Yonghwa’s new South Korean variety show, K-Trot In Town, also scored very high ratings in its debut episode, reaching 14.9% in the second half of its broadcast. So despite a few bumps including the postponement of his Japan concerts in March, Yonghwa’s re-entry following his discharge from the military for the most part is going well. But in the mercurial world of South Korean entertainment that could change in a flash. Here’s hoping that things continue to go smoothly, especially once the rest of CNBLUE gets out of the army later this month.

March 6, 2020 at 9:30 am 2 comments

Stars Falling From The Sky: Sulli, Hara, and Compressed Modernity

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Goo Hara, 2019

NOTE: I started writing this a few weeks ago but didn’t get around to finishing it. Sadly, it’s become relevant again as another Kpop star, Goo Hara, took her life yesterday at the age of 28. I’m now posting this updated version.

On Oct. 14, 2019, Kpop superstar Sulli died by her own hand, bringing into focus the troubles often faced by young performers in a high-pressure industry. She was 25 when she died and had been working in the South Korean entertainment business for more than ten years, debuting in 2008 at age 14 as a teen actor. Soon thereafter she joined the girl group f(x), which was one of the most popular Kpop groups of its era.

Sulli’s funeral, from her brother’s social media post, 2019

Like her fellow Kpop star Kim Jonghyun, who committed suicide in December 2017, Sulli suffered from clinical depression. But perhaps a more pressing factor in her death was the constant cyberbullying she endured for much of her career. She didn’t fit into the mold of the demure, proper South Korean female and she was mercilessly raked over the coals by an unforgiving Korean press and public for her every move. This along with her fragile mental health without a doubt contributed to her decision to end her life.

This highlights the troubling dark side of fandoms in South Korea and around the world. Female celebrities in particular suffer from slut shaming, body shaming, and general hatred and derision in the internet age as anonymous keyboard warriors gang up and exacerbate a mob mentality, playing judge and jury to anyone they deem guilty of transgressing or offending their sensibilities.

No dating clause, Blackpink

Although Western stars such as Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Miley Cyrus have come under scrutiny for their various romantic misadventures, they haven’t suffered the same accusations of impropriety as have Kpop idols. This is in part because the private lives of South Korean pop stars are much more strictly controlled and regulated. Some idols, including girl group Blackpink, who made a splash at Coachella this year, have no-dating clauses written into their contracts (Blackpink’s ban expired in 2019). Many fans also uphold this standard, often insisting that their favorite idols remain single (although many date in private) so as not to disturb the fantasy of their availability as romantic partners.

But another unpleasant aspect of the idol life is a direct result of the neoliberal competition that is consuming the entertainment world, especially in South Korea. As I’ve noted in the past, idol groups regularly compete for trophies on popular weekly music programs for their newest single releases. These shows pit each group against each other in what are basically popularity contests, with winners determined by youtube and other online streaming numbers, live voting, and other metrics that have little to do with quality and everything to do with quantity. Groups with the biggest and most active fandoms win and those with smaller followings lose, full stop. This has recently translated over to the US, with the wildly popular group BTS originally gaining traction in the west by winning the Billboard social media award back in 2017, which was based on the number of mentions on twitter and other platforms. From there BTS has built up a vast following that has pushed the group to great popularity around the world. Whether or not their music actually warrants this I won’t say, but their success has led to other South Korean groups attempting similarly splashy debuts in the US.

Bundling, Super M, 2019

On Oct. 13 the Kpop group SuperM’s first album debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 200. However, detractors have noted that the sales for the album may have been artificially inflated by several tactics by the group’s labels, SM Entertainment and Capital Records. These include bundling the album with concert ticket sales and funneling all sales worldwide through US distributors, defying Billboard’s regulations that state that only US sales count toward its charts. This is borne out by the fact that SuperM’s album did not chart on Spotify or iTunes, suggesting that the Hot 200 number one was unfairly manipulated.

As the New York Times notes,

“The (Super M) CD version came in eight packaging variations, one for each member of the group (plus a “united” version), which included a variety of posters and collectible cards. The group’s fans took to social media to display the many versions they acquired.

“The 1st Mini Album” was also available as part of more than 60 sales bundles for merchandise and concert tickets, which featured items like T-shirts enabled with augmented reality: point a smartphone at the shirt using a special app, and the SuperM member pictured on it becomes animated. Tactics like these have become increasingly common, but also raised concerns in the industry about distorting the weekly charts”

But Super M didn’t invent bundling. As the NY Times further observes. “Taylor Swift offered four deluxe versions of her album “Lover” at Target stores, while the metal band Tool sold 88,000 CDs in its first week as part of a $45 foldout package that included a four-inch HD video screen.”

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Zero sum game, Sulli

Whatever the truth may be, the excessive focus on quantity as the determinant of success is a contributing factor to the online bullying and harassment that many fans practice. Kpop fans regularly participate in vicious fanwars, tearing down perceived competitors who they see as threats to their idols’ success. Sulli and others may have been caught in the crossfire of this excessive zero sum game attitude, as fans believe that their favorites can only succeed at the expense of the failure of their rivals. It’s an ugly and unpleasant mentality that is a direct result of neoliberalism and global capitalism, which privileges measurable commercial success rather than more ephemeral and subjective metrics such as artistic achievement and appeal.

It’s also a result of what Chang Kyung-Sup calls compressed modernity, or the rapid-fire pace of modernization that South Korea has experienced in the past 50 years. Chang notes, “Compressed modernity is a civilizational condition in which economic, political, social and/or cultural changes occur in an extremely condensed manner.” These changes often cause great stresses in a society and in individuals that may account for the dysfunctional bullying of Sulli and others who are perceived as operating outside of societal norms. Goo Hara was also the victim of slut-shaming and cyberbullying resulting in part from a vindictive campaign by an ex-boyfriend who threatened to release sex videos of the star that he had recorded without her permission. She had also been targeted earlier by the South Korean media for her dating history, which in Kpop idol world is verboten. Yet these are all results of South Korea’s compressed modernity, a result of the highly stressful effects of the country’s rapid economic rise in the past fifty years.

So although many Western observers like to claim that South Korean culture and society is to blame for the deaths of these young stars, in fact the root causes are globally endemic. It’s easy to point the finger at South Korean society, or at Kpop, or at Korean fans or netizens, but these are only symptoms of a much more widespread malaise, a worldwide neoliberal economic system in which hypercompetitiveness pits us all against each other and in which individual achievement is valued over empathy, compassion, or collective well-being. Sulli, Hara, and many others are simply victims caught up in the vicious and exploitative cogs of this system.

Yonghwa, Sulli, Jo Kwon, Inkigayo, 2011

NOTE: This is the fifth person in three years that Jung Yonghwa has personally known or worked with who has committed suicide. Yonghwa knew Kim Jonghyun as a fellow second-generation Kpop star and in 2015 both Jonghyun and Yonghwa had successful solo debuts. In 2009 Yonghwa co-starred with Hara on the reality show Korea Ecosystem Rescue Centre: Hunters. In 2011 Yonghwa co-hosted the music show Inkigayo with Sulli. In 2014 Yonghwa worked with actor Kim Sung-min on the K-drama The Three Musketeers. Kim later committed suicide in 2016.  And in 2016 Chinese actor and singer Qiao Renliang killed himself, in part because of cyberbullying. Qiao had attended a CNBLUE concert in 2013 and was a fan of the band, and after his death Yonghwa posted a shocked notification on his weibo. Being personally touched so many times by suicide can’t be good, and speaks to the ripples of trauma that these tragedies create. Despite their seemingly charmed lives this demonstrates the great stress popular entertainers such as Yonghwa are under.

 

November 25, 2019 at 7:29 am 3 comments

Shake That Brass: Amber Liu at Slim’s

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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.

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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.

 

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 12 comments

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

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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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