Posts filed under ‘music’

Born by Irreproachable Gorgeousness: 2021 SXSW Online, part two: Music Festival

Otoboke Beaver

Trying to make sense of the vast number of musical performances I witnessed at this year’s SXSW Online music festival is a fool’s errand so I’m just going to highlight some of the things that have stuck with me in the weeks after the event. 

Although there was no shortage of guitar-based indie rock bands from around the world, SXSW also included some really great performers from other musical persuasions. 

Intense, Dasom Baek

The Korean Traditional Performing Arts Foundation showcase included Dasom Baek, a traditional instrumentalist who incorporates electronic loops into her work. Her set included loops produced by a Korean wooden flute, the daegeum, and the sound of water swished in a metal bowl, overlaid with passages played on a smaller wooden flute.  Seated cross-legged on the floor and washed by a single moving beam of light that was at times tinged green or blue, Baek’s set was understated, elegant, and intense.

On a louder, more post-rock tip, Jambinai combined guitars, a trap set, and electronic loops with traditional Korean instruments including the zither-like geomungo, the two-stringed haegeum, and the reedy, metallic taepyeongso, and wordless, softly keening vocals. They worked up a good head of steam in their dark, metal set.

Awesome sauce, Haepaary

Another Korean act of note was Haepaary, a duo that blended traditional Korean singing styles with electronic beats to create a mesmerizing, evocative atmosphere. Featuring a very big drum and dreamy vocals adapted from 15th-century royal shrine music, Haepaary’s set was pure awesome sauce.

Relaxed, Enno Cheng

I went into SXSW with the intention of seeing this year’s edition of Taiwan Beats, which showcases indie music from the island nation, and I wasn’t disappointed. Each of the four acts performed in iconic locations in Taiwan and each brought their unique sound and style to their presentation. Vocalist Enno Cheng performed in the mountains of Taiwan, combining her clear, relaxed vocals with understated instrumentation and very subtle synth backings. Interestingly enough, she wore running shoes with her flowing red skirt, not unlike her compatriot KT Chang from Elephant Gym.

I was especially happy that power-punk quartet FireEx was included in the Taiwan Beats showcase, since they had been slated to tour the US last year pre-pandemic and their concert in San Francisco had been on my calendar before COVID killed live music last year. To honor Taiwan’s laborers they staged their set in a factory in the southern port city of Kaohsiung and their performance was interspersed with cutaways of workers doing their thing.

Among other things, FireEx is famous for writing and performing “Island’s Sunrise,” the anthem to the 2014 Sunflower student movement, and they sing mostly in Hoklo Taiwanese dialect. Similarly, the titles of their songs from their SXSW setlist reflected their revolutionary stance. They kicked off with the straight-ahead rock tune Stand Up Like A Taiwanese, followed with the double time beat of Don’t You Fight, which starts with guitar solo and features lead singer Sam’s ragged but clear vocals. The chorus further demonstrates their fiery stance.

Don’t you fight, don’t you fight

It’s a brand new revolution

Time is running out, so let’s go fight

The song shows off their musicality and features a brilliant little break at the end.

The crunchy guitar and deep, heavy bass of Keep on Going, with its strong urgent vocals, subtle harmonies, and crisp drumming, finished off their energetic, anthemic set. This is the music of a people who don’t want to be oppressed by a dictatorship anymore. 

Mellow, The Chairs

Following FireEx was The Chairs, a retro-pop combo who performed in an indoor shrimping-fishing venue. Having spent some time shrimping in Taipei I can attest to its authentic Taiwan vibe and it was a fitting location for The Chairs’ mellow, jazzy set, with their sweet three-part harmonies and acoustic and electric guitar sound. Dressed in neat suit jackets over turtlenecks and collared shirts with white shoes, The Chairs sang in both Mandarin and English, demonstrating how next level Taiwan is.

Thrashy, Drinking Boys and Girls Choir

East London’s Damnably Records showcase was one the best of the lot that I watched, featuring five artists from Asia. The set of the South Korean skate punk trio Drinking Boys and Girls Choir was literally shot in a garage, which all made sense considering their clean, sharp, thrashy sound. The group consists of two girls on drums and guitar and a guy bass player and their sound vaguely resembles the Shaggs on speed. Their Busan compatriots, the quartet Say Sue Me, performed in their practice room which was dressed to look like a suburban living room. Driven by the bass, they played some nice mid-tempo surfy power pop.

Lo fi, Hazy Sour Cherry

Japanese indie power pop quartet Hazy Sour Cherry’s set was fun, poppy, and light. Consisting of four members from Tokyo’s indie scene who play spare, lofi guitar-based pop, they say their biggest influences are the Beatles and it shows. The Damnably showcase also included Grrrl Gang from Indonesia. Another fun power pop group, their sound, with its melodic, plaintive vocals, is mildly riot girlesque, though softer than classic punk. 

Muscular, Otoboke Beaver

The highlight of Damnably’s showcase was the all-girl combo Otoboke Beaver, the superb punk band from Japan lead by lead vocalist Accorinrin, whose powerful throaty growling drives the band’s muscular sound. The band’s set was a perfect mix of party dresses and speed thrash.

Corrido, Janine

I also loved Marca Unica’s showcase of Música Regional Mexicana, the first in the history of SXSW. These cool Spanish-language groups performed in what looked like an auto dealership, with fancy rims on the wall and flanked by two all-black vehicles. From Houston’s South Side, Equilibrio, billed as trap corrido, mixed plaintive narcocorrido harmonies, dual guitars, and some gorgeous tuba runs. My Spanish skills are very lacking, but their emotion came through in the singing. Solo vocalist Janine was backed by a nine-piece mariachi band including guitarron, horns, and strings, and her set highlighted her big, beautiful corrido vocals. 

Yoiking, Ozas

Another nicely organized showcase was Northern Expo, which highlighted performers from the north of Norway. Northern Expo really tried to cinematically tie together the performances as the showcase traversed a snow-covered city from street level to a tram to a mountaintop. 

The showcase opened with a street-level performance by Ozas, a duo of sisters Anine and Sara Marielle from the indigenous Sámi people who performed their excellent yoiking (traditional Sámi singing) backed by a sideman on a double-necked acoustic guitar. The film then followed the rapper Oter, riding in a car through the snowy streets while showing off his intense flow as he spit rhymes over metal beats. 

Lilting, I See Rivers

Oter ended up at a tram station, where the showcase transitioned to the performance of I See Rivers, This female duo on guitar and what looked like an electronic autoharp had a fun, quirky neo-folk pop sound with sweet, lilting soprano harmonies.

Once the tram reached the top of the lift the scene cut to the last band, Heave Blood and Die, who performed their 90s-style grunge rock on the rooftop of the building. As indicated by the name, theirs is a more traditional rock style, with screamo vocals over a guitar-bass-drums sound. Props to this showcase for being both musically and cinematically engaging.

Comfy, The F16s

A few other acts scattered throughout the massive music festival program also caught my eyes and ears. The F16s, from Chennai, India, played a lively, engaging indie rock set. Lead vocalist Josh Fernandez has a nice range, with good, deep low notes and a sweet raspy falsetto. A fun detail of their set was their bassist sitting comfortably on the floor with the rest of the band ranged around him on sofas or standing up. I’m not sure why but this seemed metaphorical for the casual, comfy mood of their set.

Sinous, Altin Gun

I also really liked Dutch-Turkish psych rock band Altin Gün. They had a good groove with electronic and guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, along with an electric oud and a doumbek, the ubiquitous Turkish hand drum, combining sinuous polyrhythms with some funky grooves to create a memorable sound. 

Digital, Theon Cross

Also of note was UK jazz artist Theon Cross, who played lead tuba (!) over a funky afrobeat groove. Cross also appeared as a digital avatar at the SXSW’s virtual reality showcase, offering an alternative to live performance in the time of COVID-19.

Fun, Teke::Teke

I also enjoyed the off-kilter set of Teke::Teke, a seven-piece Japanese combo based in Montreal. Led by Maya Kuroki’s growly vocals, they have a fun electric enka sound.  

Bombastic, Millenium Parade

Another big ol’ group, Tokyo-based Millennium Parade, had what seemed like ten people on stage. A collaboration between musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, designers, and producers, their big, messy, bombastic funkiness includes two trap sets, a sax, synths, and a rapper and several vocalists as well as a dude on a megaphone. The epitome of chaotic good, Millennium Parade produced a full gorgeous sound, with pentatonic scale vocal processing, rapping, horns, and an animated video backdrop with dancing and swimming babies, expanding brains, and electronic singing fetus in VR headset. It’s P-Funk + city pop for the 21st century. 

This is only about half of all the acts that I watched at SXSW which combined with the film festival ate up a good portion of my life for five days back in March. Though it doesn’t replace the thrill of experiencing live music, SXSW Online helped to ease some of the pain of the cessation of live performances during this pandemic year. Here’s hoping this online iteration of SXSW is an aberration and that next year’s SXSW will be back to live music in person in all its loud and messy glory.

May 8, 2021 at 5:50 am Leave a comment

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 3 comments

Dreaming In Fantasy: Sunset Rollercoaster at Slim’s

Indie pop fans, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

Taiwan’s indie music scene is alive and well and we’ve been lucky to be able to see many of its leading proponents here Stateside lately. Recently coming through San Francisco were city pop practictioners Sunset Rollercoaster and they put on an energetic show in front of a sold-out house at Slim’s. The crowd was full of cute Asian indie pop fans speaking drawly Mandarin and the vibe was definitely chill.

Opening the show was Eyedress, aka Idris Vicuña, a Pinoy from Manila by way of Arizona and California. Eyedress teamed up with a rhythm section consisting of a live bass player and a laptop supplying the beats. Ranging from murky pop tunes to more punky songs, Eyedress cranked out a short and lively set that got the crowd going.

Smooth and fluid, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

After a nice quick break Sunset Rollercoaster took the stage and the sextet quickly engaged their fans. The band performed both funky instrumentals and English-language songs featuring vocalist and leader Tseng Kuo-Hung, who also kept up a charming patter in English. Although they include a lot of jazzy elements in their set Sunset Rollercoaster isn’t quite manic or obsessive enough about time signatures to be to be math rock, but they do share a similar sound to their compatriots Elephant Gym, who also played Slim’s a few months back. Rather than the jagged and acrobatic time signature changes of Elephant Gym, Sunset Rollercoaster’s switches are smooth and fluid and never interfere with the danceable beats the band lays down. Drummer Lo Tsun-Lung kept a steady and relaxed beat, and saxophonist Huang Hao-Ting easily moved between tenor and soprano, lending a mellow, Kenny G feel to the proceedings. With synthesizer fills by Wang Shao-Hsuan and a bit of throwback cowbell over a bed of bass and guitar, occasionally amped up by a lively guitar solo, the band created a pleasant and agreeable sound.

Mullet and Nautica, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

As with the other Taiwanese indie bands I’ve seen, Sunset Rollercoaster’s fashion choices reflected their laid-back aesthetic. Their nerdwear attire included flowery baggy button-down shirts, culottes and khakis. Leader Kuo had a particularly idiosyncratic two-toned mullet and another member sported a throwback red, white, and blue Nautica jacket and white athletic shoes.

The enthusiastic crowd recognized most of the band’s tunes, swaying to the beat and at times lustily singing along. During their last song, an upbeat rendition of their single track I Know You Know I Love You, vocalist Kuo busted out the falsetto and the crowd cheered happily. After ingesting Sunset Rollercoaster’s funky, dreamy bops everyone went home smiling and content.

November 4, 2019 at 11:51 pm Leave a comment

Whispering Waves: Hush at Bottom of the Hill and Elephant Gym at Slim’s

hush, Bottom of the Hill, 2018

Because its huge and influential neighbor China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, the island nation effectively exists in diplomatic limbo. Taiwan therefore continues to use soft power to try to gain global support in its battle to maintain its sovereignty. The uptick in interest in Taiwanese food in the US is no accident, as evidenced by the recent feature spread on eater.com as well as the incursions of Taiwanese chains such as the upscale bakery 85 degrees. Like South Korea’s successful marketing of hallyu, or the Korean Wave, the government of Taiwan is also supporting these forms of creative and culinary diplomacy as Taiwan works to maintain support around the world in the face of continued reunification pressures from its massive neighbor across the strait.

As part of this, Taiwanese indie rock is starting to be a thing outside of Taiwan. South By Southwest’s lineup has for several years included Taiwan Beats, a showcase for Taiwanese bands playing at the influential rock festival. Notably, this program is sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, a sure sign of the government’s acknowledgement of the influence of pop culture in increasing Taiwan’s profile and sway internationally. The organization Taiwanese Waves has since 2016 organized a show in Central Park’s SummerStage program featuring a selection of Taiwanese indie bands. Taiwanese Waves has also arranged tours for some of these groups, and including a couple of shows here in San Francisco, with the singer hush last fall at Bottom of the Hill and math rock darlings Elephant Gym last month at Slims.

Fey, hush, Bottom of the Hill, 2018

hush (birth name Chen Jia-wei) falls squarely into the shoegazer genre, with introspective and somewhat cerebral songs that utilize a dreamy midtempo beat. But hush’s appealingly expressive vocals elevate the his sound beyond the emo. His sweet pure high notes showcased in his upper register and his somewhat fey stage persona made for an engaging performance. Hush was ably backed up by rocking combo of guitars, bass, and drums, with a bit of synthesizer and electronic drum pads thrown into the mix, demonstrating the vitality of Taiwan’s indie rock scene.

Math rock band Elephant Gym is a very different animal than Hush (sorrynotsorry) and their vibrant show at Slim’s captured their engaging stage persona. At first listen Elephant Gym may just seem like jazz fusion (polyrhythmic, unusual time signatures, mostly instrumental) but the ferocity of their live show demonstrated the differences between the genres. Elephant Gym puts on a great show and they definitely put the rock into math rock.

e gym from valerie soe on Vimeo.

Led by bassist KT “Tif” Chang, the trio also includes Tif’s brother Tell Chang and drummer Chia-Chin Tu. The Chang siblings’ mom trained them in classical music and the band has been active since 2012 (with a brief yearlong hiatus in 2014 to allow for compulsory military service), gaining popularity in indie rock circles in Taiwan and throughout Asia. Their US debut took place in 2017 at SummerStage in New York City and their performance at Slim’s was the final show of their first US tour, which also included a stopover at this year’s Taiwan Beats showcase at South by Southwest.

Muscular, Elephant Gym, Slim’s, 2019

Throughout their set at Slim’s they kept up a charming patter in fairly serviceable English, with Tif casually swigging what may have been beer and Tell rolling his eyes at his sister’s antics. But when they got into a groove they shook the house with their bass-driven, angular rock music, surging through several fluid and muscular polyrhythmic numbers. By the end of their set they had the audience cheering for more as Tif moved front and center, flailing wildly on her bass as the band charged through their nimble and energetic closing songs.

Elephant Gym sold out all of their shows on this US tour and hopefully their success portends more indie Taiwanese bands making the trek across the Pacific. Global recognition of Asian rock music is on the upsurge and it’s great to see Taiwan sending some of their best over to the States.

 

 

April 7, 2019 at 6:48 am 1 comment

Comes and Goes: Hyukoh at the UC Theater

hyukoh

Rock, Hyukoh, UC Theater 2018. Photo: Matthew Abaya

Because BTS is currently winning at life, South Korean music agencies are sending all the acts they can over to the US to play live shows, throwing them against the wall to see if they’ll stick. This means that even the mediocre and derivative Kpop idol group Day6 is getting a North America tour, as well as South Korean dance groups like Got7 and Monsta X. Luckily, this also means that some more interesting Korean acts are also showing up stateside, including rockers Hyukoh, who recently played the UC Theater in Berkeley.

Hyukoh is billed as an indie group but that’s a bit of a misnomer, strictly speaking. They came up through the ranks in the clubs of Seoul’s Hongdae district but they’re now signed to HIGHGRND, a subsidiary of one of the biggest agencies in South Korea, YG Entertainment, which also handles the mega-super group BIGBANG. But Hyukoh’s style definitely owes a lot to the indie sound, as it leans more toward guitar-based rock than the techno EDM sound of their famous labelmates. This was in full effect at their show at the UC, a sold-out event that was packed with Asian rock aficionados of all stripes.

oh hyuk

Oh Hyuk, UC Theater, 2018. photo: Laurel Nakamura

Hyukoh’s been making their way across North America since mid-September and will have played a grueling seventeen shows in less than a month by the time the exit the continent on October 9. Led by frontman Oh Hyuk, the four-man band has the standard two guitar/bass/drums rock band configuration and for the most part their sound doesn’t stray far from rock conventions. What sets them apart is Oh Hyuk’s rich, growly voice and his quirky compositions, both on display at their UC show.

They began the show with a couple of their trademark emo tunes, but quickly transitioned to a set of heavier tunes that showcased their rock chops. This included Wanli, which consists of four repeated lines of Mandarin lyrics over a crashing cymbals and driving pentatonic guitar riff. They also performed my personal favorite, the jazzy uptempo jam Comes and Goes, with Oh Hyuk’s fluid and flexible tenor moving up and down his range over the confident jamming of the rest of the band.

Other highlights included their 2017 hit Tomboy, which demonstrates their more sensitive side. A delicate and emotional ballad, the song’s plaintive lament filled the UC to the rafters, with rapturous audience members crooning along to the hooky chorus.

For all of their intensity Hyukoh still remained on the mellower side of the rock spectrum, and if I have any complaint about their otherwise stellar performance it would be that it was a bit too detached for someone like myself who prefers live shows to burn hot, not slow. But for the rest of the adoring crowd Hyukoh was perfect, and everyone left the show smiling and pleased.

NOTE: In its past life the UC Theater was the movie theater where I cut my teeth on Hong Kong films every Thursday night back in the nineties and where I started my interest in Asian pop culture. So it was fun to revisit my old haunts all these years later—full circle indeed.

October 9, 2018 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

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.

d5b67ff3da4eeb0797f6babcf69ac6fa

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

Nevertheless I Dream On: CNBLUE Euphoria album review

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-10-36-54-pm

Yonghwa dreams, Glory Days, 2016

With EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s latest Japanese album that dropped last October, the band continues its ongoing musical evolution and growth. While probably best known for its incredibly catchy early power pop hits like I’m Sorry and I’m A Loner, or it’s more densely produced later tracks, including songs such as Can’t Stop, Cinderella, and You’re So Fine, with this new release CNBLUE goes back further to the roots of its sound, to a more stripped-down early rock and roll and R&B style.

CNBLUE has always worn its musical influences on its sleeve and EUPHORIA is no different, with nods to artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Coldplay, Wiz Khalifa, and Sam Cooke, among many others. Their particular talent is taking those influences and synthesizing them into something new and energetic.

The album is frontloaded with six incredibly strong and diverse tracks, but in truth each of the album’s ten tracks ranges from good to excellent. Though the album isn’t quite as perfect as CNBLUE’s best release Can’t Stop, which is a masterpiece from beginning to end, EUPHORIA is still full of high-quality songwriting, performing, and production.


The lead track is the melancholy mid-tempo cut Be OK. A plaintive lament about fighting uncertainty, pain, and self-doubt, the song recalls Coldplay and other Brit-pop in its simple, guitar-based structure. Jung Yonghwa and Lee Jonghyun’s vulnerable, evocative vocals and the sadness and longing in the lyrics create a lovely and unadorned sonic picture. As with many CNBLUE duets between the two of them, the track alternates the wistful delicacy of Jonghyun’s vocals with Yonghwa’s explosively raw and emotional voice. The song ends with Jonghyun barely whispering the affirmation, “I’ll be okay,” which lends a hopeful fragility to the song’s message. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite CNBLUE tracks as the passion and power in this song is no joke.


As if to counter the melancholy of Be OK, the next tune, the album’s title track Glory Days, is a more uptempo track that picks up the pace without sacrificing the emotional thoughtfulness of the prior song. The lyrics describe the “long, long journey of my dreams” which the band has traveled, encountering obstacles and difficulties along the way but never giving up on their vision. The arrangement and production on this track also contrasts with the spareness of Be Okay, with a dense wall of sound combining close vocal harmonies and a rich interplay of synthesizer, piano, and guitar that provides a bed for Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident vocal relays. What may not be immediately apparent is the bass line of the song, which travels from thumb-popping plucking to deep, resonant hums. CNBLUE’s musicality is apparent in this track where every element highlights the band’s chops, creating a gorgeous sonic pop music palette.


Take Me Higher, the rockingest song on the album, shows off the band’s signature passion and intensity, as if to prove they can still kick it with guitar-based hard rock. On top of the driving 4/4 beat the song adds a funky James Brown-style guitar riff that demonstrates the evolution of their sound beyond straight-up rock music. Interestingly, this song was composed before the band’s recent insider-trading scandal in June 2016, and the track, including its chorus “direction of my hope,” expresses an exuberant optimism and confidence not found in the rest of the album, much of which was likely composed post-scandal.

Face To Face is another incredibly hooky tune, with Yonghwa crooning and belting like a 60s R&B soul shouter. Although some of CNBLUE’s past English-language songs have been a bit cringeworthy in their awkward phrasing, here the syncopated beat works with the lyrical structure. The old-school keyboards and horns and the doowop refrain adds to the R&B feel as the band channels Stax-Volt stalwarts like Booker T and the MGs and Sam and Dave.

Following Face to Face is Puzzle, the first single off the album that was released in spring 2016 and also composed pre-scandal. Another densely produced and upbeat track, Puzzle starts with Yonghwa belting the title lyrics acapella and the song never lets up after that. As usual Yonghwa and Jonghyun provide energetic vocals but the track is really driven by a zippy arrangement that rides Kang Minhyuk’s relentless drumming skilz. Althought it’s a hooky tune, it’s a tad less interesting upon repeated listening. The tune works much better as a soundtrack to the song’s crazy and whimsical music video.


The next track, however, is the album’s standout. Royal Rumble is pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever heard from CNBLUE. The song uses a syncopated, polyrhythmic Latin beat and a complex guitar line under Yonghwa’s evocative vocals to create a beautiful, singular track. The lyrics, which describe a fighter who faces countless opponents in a battle royale, echo Yonghwa’s experiences in the cutthroat K-Pop world, where even the winners are eventually beaten down and worn out. One of the last lines “I must hurry” repeats before the last haunting chorus. Images of fear, drowning, suffocation, and pain reflect the traumas of existing and surviving in the competitive South Korean music industry. Yonghwa has written eloquently in the past about the vicious nature of the K-pop world, most recently in Checkmate from his solo album (Around here/swords and shields/We become enemies/rip apart each other/and vanish), but Royal Rumble perhaps best reflects the intensity of his experiences there. The last line of the chorus, however, translated as “nevertheless I dream on,” is a moving testimony to Yonghwa’s hope and optimism in the face of ongoing suffering and strife.


Following Royal Rumble is another throwback R&B-style cut, Every Time, with a syncopated beat under Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident and soulful vocals. Once again Kang Minhyuk provides a strong and steady beat to anchor the track. Bassist Lee Jungshin contributes the midtempo ballad Stay With Me, with Japanese lyrics that seem to scan successfully. Yonghwa sings it well, in an unembellished style suitable to the song’s clarity and simplicity. Slaves, another upbeat R&B bop, is a goofy tune about cell-phone addiction. But damn if it isn’t catchy as hell and again Yonghwa has fun singing it, belting out the chorus like the legendary soul shouter Wilson Pickett.

The closing track, Blessed, is a sweet lament to the uncertainty of love, but Jonghyun’s English lyrics are somewhat less effective here than in Be OK. As with Every Time, the syntax and phrasing are just a bit awkward, which detracts from the song a bit. Yonghwa’s plaintive singing utilizes the deeper end of his vocal range to good effect, with Jonghyun contributing ably as well. The emotions of the song ring strong and true and this song, together with Be OK, create an evocative conceptual frame for the album. Although some of the tracks are upbeat and positive the uncertainty of these two songs create a lingering sadness and a sense of emotional complexity that perhaps reflects the band members’ state of mind after their troubles this year.

The quality of the songwriting, the increased maturity of the lyrics, and the general excellence of each track on Euphoria speaks to CN’s continued growth and development as artists. Although the guitars are mixed a bit lower than in some of their previous releases, the rock-based backbone of their sound is still there, enhanced with a more sophisticated sense of rhythm and beats. The result is more evidence of the band’s restless creativity and its desire to continue developing musically as they move beyond the constraints of their K-Pop origins into a more elevated artistic territory.

Three versions, You’re So Fine

POSTSCRIPT: CNBLUE recently performed You’re So Fine, their hit song that dropped back in April, on several televised year-end gayo (K-pop) music shows. But instead of simply recycling the song’s original arrangement for their performances, Yonghwa re-arranged the track differently for each of the different live performances. And it wasn’t just a bit of tweaking here and there—each version was radically different and included different instrumentation than both the original track and the other versions they played that week. It seems like Yonghwa’s collaboration last year with indie queen Sunwoo Jung Ah is still reverberating through his musical consciousness as he’s been heading in a decidedly jazzy direction lately. All three arrangements of You’re So Fine on each of the gayos featured improvisational vocals by Yonghwa as he snaked his way around the melody with various rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints to the original tune.

I’m pretty sure that there was no requirement that they come up with a new arrangement for each show, so the band’s insistence on giving an original performance every time no matter what the circumstances is a testament to their desire to be known as musicians and artists, not just idols. They continue to blaze trails in the K-pop world and their only dilemma may be figuring out how to graduate from K-pop and move on artistically from the confines of the genre. I hope their talent and vision is recognized and rewarded accordingly both in South Korea and beyond.


UPDATE: Yet another brand new arrangement of You’re So Fine, this time for the Golden Disk awards on Jan. 13. Orchestral and jazzy, with strings, horns, and added percussion, as well as Yonghwa prowling around in his long black furry coat. He owns the stage in this clip and also throws in a short interaction with EXO singer Baekhyun. You can see he was dying to find a way to get down into the audience this time too. Genius.

Bonus track: Yonghwa sings a smexy version of Sunwoo Jung Ah’s Spring Lady on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook

160115 Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook Spring Lady Jung Yonghwa & Sunwoo Jung A from CNBLUECL on Vimeo.

January 11, 2017 at 6:49 am 6 comments

Can’t Stop: CNBLUE addiction, in which I fall down the K-Pop rabbit hole

puzzle-live-cn

CNBLUE doing their thing live, 2016

So here’s how it happened. My family spent this summer in Taiwan and I was hoping we could brush up on our vernacular Mandarin by watching some Taiwanese television. I thought we could acquaint ourselves with Asian pop culture in general as well, so Korean dramas could also be a part of that mix. I wanted to look at Taiwanese dramas to work on our Chinese-language skills, but somehow my daughter ended up watching the gender-bending K-drama You’re Beautiful instead. Because the plastic surgery on the boys’ noses was way too distracting I only followed it intermittently, but I would occasionally glance over at the screen and watch a bit with my daughter, since the show is charming and amusing.

yab

Yonghwa, You’re Beautiful, 2009

And then, boom! I caught a glimpse of a boy with the most amazingly beautiful and fascinating face, who stood out even amongst his very pretty co-stars. I literally could not take my eyes off of him, he was that mesmerizing. Although he didn’t seem to have any plastic surgery and his teeth were distinctly crooked, it was impossible to stop looking at him, he was so charismatic. I soon found out that the actor in question was Jung Yonghwa, the leader of the Korean rock band CNBLUE.

K-Pop is a very strange universe and the more I find out about it the less I’m sure I like it. Commercial pop music around the world is by nature a very capitalistic place but K-Pop in particular seems to be pop music to the nth degree. The songs are hyper-catchy but not necessarily very deep or meaningful, and seem to be designed to be listened to for about a week maximum, after which they are supplanted by another hyper-catchy and not very deep tune. The performers are uniformly young and beautiful, either by nature or makeup or cosmetic surgery. Most of them are drilled to be precision dancers, and the fashions are ultra-trendy, with mas de moda hairstyles in many rainbow colors. The music videos are glossy and slick, with crazy dreamlike imagery meant to stick in your backbrain just long enough for you to pay your money and download the songs.

music-bank-160415

Keeping score

Plus, in order to sell songs, groups go on a variety of music shows and compete viciously for trophies every week. There seems to be about a half-dozen of these and the groups make the rounds after dropping each song, participating in a sadistic hazing ritual that pits group against group based on digital streaming, record sales, music video views, and popular voting both ahead of time and live as the shows progress. It’s kind like the hunger games for pop music except without the literal dying, but the humiliation for the losers and the jubilation of the winners is similar enough to a fight to the death. So it’s not exactly the most nurturing and comforting creative atmosphere.

flowers

Boys over flowers, CNBLUE

CNBLUE is a bit of an anomaly in the K-Pop world. Along with their labelmates FT Island they are one of the few bands, as opposed to dance groups, to become K-Pop stars. CNBLUE is partly an idol group, partly a pop-rock band, and partly a collection of male supermodels, as each member is pretty damn good looking. But the band can also play their own instruments and sing, and they also compose most of their songs, so they don’t fit the typical K-Pop mold. They are also most emphatically not a dance group, and their music is much more rock than hiphop or dance-oriented like other K-Pop groups.

So I’ve become completely fascinated by Jung Yonghwa and CNBLUE. Some reasons for my interest include:

cnlive3

Yonghwa and Jonghyun with axes

Boys with guitars

I’ve always loved rock music, from punk to metal to power pop, and CNBLUE plays some of the catchiest pop-rock around. Yonghwa has a knack for writing hooky, complex, and accessible tunes that earworm into your brain immediately. I’m Sorry, Can’t Stop, and Cinderella, to name just a few of their most popular tracks, are all catchy as hell and each is unique and distinct from each other as well.

Great live shows

CNBLUE is famous for their balls-out live performances and Yonghwa in particular leaves it all out on the stage for every show. The interwebs are full of youtubes of their rocking live shows which seem to get better and better as the years go by. No doubt their grueling touring schedule of the past six years since their debut has helped them improve their live performances immensely, as they have literally played hundreds of shows in that time, which is par for the course for many top-tier K-Pop groups. (From 2013-2016 CNBLUE played more than 100 concerts, as did Big Bang and Super Junior, two other kings of the K-Pop world). Ironically, when appearing on Korean television shows (which K-Pop groups do incessantly) CNBLUE doesn’t always get to play their instruments live, since the TV shows are designed for dance groups, not bands with guitars and amps. But even when hand-syncing CNBLUE members manage to rock the house with their sheer energy and stage presence.

theclass

CNBLUE in modeling mode, 2015

Visuals

K-Pop has this thing called “visuals,” which basically means how good-looking your group members are. Members are usually recruited for their physical beauty and if they are not up to snuff then their agencies aren’t shy about sending them out for a spot of plastic surgery to fix things up. CNBLUE, however, is pretty well-known for their excellent visuals without going under the knife (and the rumor is that their agency, FNC, picked the members in particular because it was too broke at the time to afford plastic surgery). In other words, CNBLUE’s members were chosen specifically because they are tall and good-looking first, with their relative musical skills secondary. They’re widely regarded as having “no visual flaws,” which in K-Pop fan parlance means each member is exceedingly handsome.

cn-blue-singapore-concert-2016-featured

More visuals

So all four members are supernaturally beautiful, with guitarist Lee Jonghyun in particular possessing inhuman good looks. Yonghwa not only has a beautiful face, with large, wide-spaced eyes, an elegant nose, and a narrow jawline, but he also possesses a remarkable amount of charisma, charm, and stage presence for a young man in his twenties. So it’s a lot of fun to watch CNBLUE since they bring the pretty. Although this has certainly helped with their mass appeal, in some ways their beauty has worked against them as far as being taken seriously as musicians, since they are considered idols first and musicians second, despite their musical skills. I’ve had a hard time convincing my friends that it’s about the music and not just the visuals when it comes to CNBLUE since their good looks are so immediately overwhelming at first.

The secret menu: Japanese releases

CNBLUE has released a huge number of albums in Japan that contain a whole nother catalog of songs created for the Japanese market. Not only does this mean that they’re sung in Japanese but the music tends to be more the rock side rather than the pop side. Which means these albums contain many more heavy-duty power chord guitar-based tunes specifically designed to be played at full speed in live stadium shows. Their first major-label Japanese release, Code Name Blue, rocks hard and loud and contains several of their best J-Rock style arena songs (Where You Are; Come On; In My Head; Have A Good Night). Many of these were written by Yonghwa, whereas the songs on their Korean albums they were releasing at the same time (2012) were still mostly written by other people. Even second vocalist Jonghyun, who leans toward pretty crooning on their Korean releases, rocks out on the Japanese albums, and Yonghwa belts like a boss. For those who prefer their tunes to rock a bit harder, the Japanese releases are the way to go.

New directions

CNBLUE just dropped their latest mini-album at the beginning of April, a five-song EP called Blueming (hint: flower pun). Included is the lead track “You’re So Fine,” which includes a poppin’ bass line and some soulful vocals from Yonghwa, who also wrote and produced the cut. The tune is a fat and catchy track, with its synchopated rhythms and swinging horns giving the song a 60s R&B feel. Yonghwa is a smart and savvy songwriter and he includes four or five singalong hooks in both Korean and English. His vocals are impeccable as well, with effortless octave jumps, seamless transitions to falsetto, smooth dynamics shifts and rhythmic patterns, and an easy control of his tonal and volume range, whether spitting a syncopated patter, swinging a sweet ad lib, or belting out the chorus. In most K-Pop songs the vocals are divided among the various members, with one person singing the lead, one the chorus, one rapping, one in falsetto. Here Yonghwa sings almost all of the parts himself, with a little help from second vocalist Jonghyun, which is an impressive feat for song with such variations in the vocal line.

The song’s music video is quite K-Pop, with over-the-top costuming, hyperkinetic editing, and a hypersaturated color palette, as well as the ridiculously handsome look of the four band members—if you aren’t used to the genre it’s probably best to listen to the song without watching the MV as its high-gloss styling can be quite distracting and overwhelming.

There’s been some bitching and moaning among certain CNBLUE fans since this release is much more on the pop side (and the title track is very retro R&B), rather than rock. To a western observer such as myself it’s odd to hear a musical group criticized for stretching its creative boundaries and trying out different genres. I’m used to artists like Prince, David Bowie, and the Beatles, to name just a few, whose sound always changed and evolved with every release. To me it’s strange that CNBLUE has been criticized for trying out new musical styles, which seems like a healthy sign of creative growth and maturity. CNBLUE has already mastered the art of the power chord blues-based rock song so it’s nice to see them moving into jazzier compositions and arrangements. To my mind there’s nothing wrong with some syncopation and a bit of scatting to liven up a song. It also shows a more sophisticated musicality that’s promising for the band’s future releases. What I’m hearing is the convergence of their musical styles between their Korean and Japanese releases. With the exception of You’re So Fine, the tracks on their most recent Korean release, Blueming, sound a lot like the ones on their two most recent Japanese albums, Colors and We’re Like A Puzzle, showing a heavy dose of Oasis and brit-pop influences.

Their most recent Japanese single, Glory Days,  which dropped last week, is an effortlessly listenable slice of J-pop-inspired pleasure, with a pretty piano line weaving through the melody and the lead vocal relaying between Yonghwa and Jonghyun to create a catchy, upbeat track. The subtle addition of strings and a church organ adds a reverent and dare I say spiritual atmosphere which is echoed in the beautifully conceived and shot music video to the song. Not as hard-edged as some of their other Japan releases, the recording has a delicate and wistful beauty to it. Despite its seeming simplicity the track reveals its complexity after several listens, attesting to Yonghwa’s increasing skills as both a composer and a producer.

weekly-idol-gif

Jonghyun pays his variety show dues

Right now there are some obstacles that may keep CNBLUE from fully exploring new musical directions. The first is that, as part of their job as K-Pop idols, they also are required to be active in other entertainment fields, including modeling for fashion magazines and appearing on variety shows and in advertisements. Whereas Western pop stars mostly have the luxury of focusing primarily on their musical output and somewhat less on their public image, in K-Pop world it’s a different story.

airport-yonghwa-600x900

Airport fashion, K-Pop style

Like their fellow K-Pop idols, the pressure is on for CNBLUE to constantly produce new musical product, pose languorously for various fashion spreads, wear stylish and trendy outfits at the airport, appear in dramas and variety shows, tour around the world, and otherwise live their lives as South Korean pop music celebrities. All four members have acted in Korean dramas, and Yonghwa is awaiting the 2017 release of his very first movie, the Chinese film Cook Up A Storm with Hong Kong superstar Nicholas Tse. And as per all South Korean males, the four members will soon have to serve their mandatory military duty, which lasts a little under two years and which will probably take place in the next couple years for the two oldest members, Yonghwa and Jonghyun.

A more immediate threat is the involvement of both Yonghwa and Jonghyun in an insider stock trading scandal earlier this year surrounding CNBLUE’s fucked-up agency, FNC Entertainment, which by all accounts is sleazy and badly run. After almost of week of mudslinging and speculation Yonghwa was cleared of all suspicions of insider trading, but in a surprising twist, the investigation then revealed that Jonghyun was also involved in the case. Despite Yonghwa being declared innocent of all charges and Jonghyun only receiving a small fine, some K-netizens feasted on the possible downfall of two of K-Pop’s biggest stars. It was an unsavory spectacle to observe and some online commentators took a particularly vicious glee in attacking the squeaky-clean idols. The whole situation was really distasteful and in my opinion was being used as a distraction from various political scandals happening now in the country including a multi-billion dollar scam involving the Lotte group, one of the country’s biggest corporate conglomerates. I also suspect that Yonghwa’s shady boss may have been throwing Yonghwa under the bus to keep himself from being implicated.

cnblue-yonghwa-comeback

Yonghwa sad

It’s hard at this point to tell exactly what the turn of events were due to the opacity of motivations of all concerned but by all accounts Yonghwa bore the brunt of the bad publicity . As a side note, Yonghwa is hugely popular in China and interestingly enough, the Chinese press was much more supportive of Yonghwa than was the South Korean media.

If for some reason Yonghwa’s career takes a damaging hit it will be a loss for everyone concerned because he’s the real deal and not just a run-of-the-mill disposable idol. The only possible silver lining is that it may scuff up his clean-cut image a bit, which ironically may make him more marketable in the West, where being a bad boy is a badge of honor, not something to be shunned as it seems to be in South Korea. Also notable has been the unwavering love from most of CNBLUE’s and Yonghwa’s devoted fanbase, thousands of whom throughout the length of the scandal expressed their undying support across social media platforms such as twitter, weibo, and instagram.

But despite the admirable loyalty of the fans (along with some petty bickering), after following the insider trading accusations and its aftermath I’ve liked K-Pop and the whole bloodthirsty South Korean entertainment scene even less. It’s heartbreaking that someone can be crucified in the press without even going to trial and Yonghwa’s case was a very ugly spectacle. God help us as a species if this is the way we treat our artists, especially young people like CNBLUE. Capitalism eats us all and it will be especially tragic if the aftereffects of the scandal hinder Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s ability to make music. Because in the end, despite their physical gorgeousness, their modeling talents, their fashion sense, and their acting skilz, CNBLUE is really about making great music. Everything else is just gravy.

UPDATE: As another example of their artistry here’s a link to the lyrics for “Glory Days.

http://justjyh.com/xe/music/305010

Sample lyrics:

The moment I get close, it slips away
When such days repeat
Everything becomes blurred
I can’t go on, it grows tiresome
You’re the one

who gently nudged my back

Most likely written by Yonghwa after the insider trading mess this summer, the song is all about keeping faith during hard times. When read together while watching the MV of the track the entire song comes together beautifully as an expression of Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s state of mind during and following the nasty controversy they faced.

September 21, 2016 at 5:39 am 43 comments


supported by

Blog Stats

  • 438,926 hits

Archives

tweetorama