Posts tagged ‘korean wave’

You’re Playing Me Like A Fiddle: CNBLUE’s Wanted album review

Pure pop, Love Cut, CNBLUE, 2021

Wanted, CNBLUE’s latest release, dropped this past October and as usual it’s solid all around. On this EP CNBLUE is going back to the 80s when power pop, punk rock’s cheerful sibling, ruled the world, or at least my playlist at the time. Wanted is a textbook example of what Nick Lowe dubbed Pure Pop—simple, upbeat, cleverly crafted pop songs. Once you hear a power pop classic such as 99 Luftballons, Back Of My Hand (I’ve Got Your Number), Starry Eyes, or Attitudes it never leaves your backbrain and the same is true of CNBLUE songs. This five-song EP is power pop at its finest, anchored by Jung Yonghwa’s reliably stellar songwriting and vocals. 

Whereas their 2020 release, Re:Code, was moody and introspective, Wanted is bright and buoyant. It’s a throwback to CNBLUE’s earliest releases, with an added sophistication to their musicianship and songwriting. The lead track, Love Cut, is a fun and fabulous blend of so many things, including muscular stride piano runs, twangy, evocative guitar licks, brassy Mexican horn flourishes, a supple bassline, and world-class whistling that pays homage to countless Western soundtracks of yore. The track is a little bit Sparks, a little bit Ennio Morricone, a little bit Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and all CNBLUE. Yonghwa’s triplets in the pre-chorus and a swinging, half-time bridge that breaks up the beat makes this song all the more kicky and surprising. 

Interestingly enough, if the lyrics are read straight up they’re fairly grim, as they lament a toxic relationship gone bad. Taken at face value the bridge reads as some serious stuff:

From the beginning

We were broken

Without a word, you trampled me

I used to laugh and cry at your words

But I’m not that person anymore

But Yonghwa’s plaintive, mournful delivery is almost parodic, like a sad clown miming sorrow. The rest of the track’s upbeat, fast-paced delivery and sassy instrumentation and production further flips the script, making the song’s seemingly overwrought storyline melodramatic and satirical. 

Yonghwa also manages some fine and impressive bilingual lyrics. Whereas his very early attempts at writing in English resulted in a peculiar not-quite-there use of the language, here he’s able to seamlessly integrate English and Korean. The second line of the first verse has a killer bilingual Internal slant rhyme (Love or not/animyeon jangnangam) and another equally outstanding example shows up in the pre-chorus (lyrics originally in English in italics)

O ireon That’s my fault

tto igeon nae jalmot

The translation also works perfectly:  

Oh, no, That’s my fault

Like how this is my fault as well

This is insanely clever and complex wordplay in two different languages.

Vertiginous, Love Cut, CNBLUE, 2021

The music video fits the song like a glove and in fact the song almost feels like a soundtrack it’s so cinematic. The deadpan way that Yonghwa and Jungshin lipsync their lines, the zooming, vertiginous camerawork, and the smooth-as-silk surfaces of the members’ faces are a video game come to life and it all perfectly matches the song’s inventive instrumentation. With this track CNBLUE is having a lot of fun, tossing out musical references at a mile a minute and behaving like animatronic versions of themselves on screen. The MV’s climax, where the band members whip out their deadly weapons which turn out to be–scissors? underscores the song and the MV’s self-reflexive, surreal, and witty presentation. The whole thing is a ridiculously entertaining simulacra that’s as fun to watch as it is to listen to. 

In contrast to Love Cut’s dense, fat production, 99%, the second track, is stripped down to its most necessary elements, but the tune itself is so catchy that it doesn’t need much embellishment. I like the way the track gradually adds elements: guitar, drums, vocals, bass. Yonghwa’s singing is completely on trend as he spits staccato vocals just like everyone’s favorite trap singers. This breezy little number is the epitome of the perfect three-minute pop song and it promises to be completely amazing live.

Following 99%’s sharp, spiky groove, the third track, Hold Me Back, shifts gears to a more relaxed Bruno Mars-esque R&B sound, anchored by Yonghwa’s suave and effortless vocals. The only track written by bassist Lee Jungshin (Yonghwa penned the other four), the song’s finger-snapping, silky vibe boasts a laid-back beat by drummer Kang Minhyuk and a sleek pre-chorus piano and bass riff. Yonghwa’s vocals shine once again as he glides smoothly between his rich midrange to a sweet falsetto.

The next track, Nothing, is a throwback to vintage CNBLUE as this energetic tune sounds a bit like an updated version of their 2012 hit Hey You. The track’s intro is a jazzy guitar, in part to transition from the smooth slow jam of Hold Me Back. This impeccable and well-thought out flow from one track to the next is another feature of CNBLUE releases. Minhyuk’s light and powerful, intricate drumming is one of the highlights of this track. The original Korean title, Teori, literally translates to “bullshit,” demonstrating Yonghwa’s more relaxed attitude toward maintaining his previously perfect pop idol persona.

On Nothing as well as Love Cut Yonghwa has figured out how to best showcase Lee Jungshin’s voice. Whereas on last year’s Blue Stars track from Re:Code Jungshin’s lines were pretty close in tone and range to Yonghwa’s own, here the focus is on Jungshin’s lower, more growly baritone register, which contrasts more clearly with Yonghwa’s light tenor. One of the highlights of early CNBLUE songs was the interplay between Yonghwa’s and former guitarist Lee Jonghyun’s voices, so it’s nice to see that happening more successfully on this EP. 


The album closes with the wistful and sweet midtempo ballad Time Machine, which creates an entire mood out of the simplest chord progression. Yonghwa’s mostly known for his power vocals but on this track he highlights the softer qualities of his voice. He gently croons most of the song, hitting a sweet high note in the bridge. Like the best pop music this track does exactly what it needs to do, no more, no less. It could have been cheesy or overwrought but in CNBLUE’s capable hands it’s instead beautiful and affecting.

The song’s repeated refrain, “Everything is the same, only time and the two of us have changed,” evokes a dreamy nostalgia. The sentiment is not unlike Yonghwa’s earlier ballad One Fine Day, with the singer lamenting the loss of love, but here the mood is sadness and remembrance as opposed to the fresh, searing pain of the first song. The feelings are still there but perhaps burnished by time and distance and the song’s soft, sweet melody echoes that feeling. The little bit of flute embellishing the last few bars of the song adds a lilting  conclusion to the track.

One thing that stood out for me when I saw The Sparks Brothers documentary last year was the intelligence and care that Ron and Russell Mael put into their music. I feel like CNBLUE is the same—they are always making interesting, creative decisions about their music and they are thoughtful, imaginative, and rigorous in their craft. Not everything they do is a slam-dunk success but they are constantly making informed, intentional decisions about what they put out into the world. That to my mind is the definition of an artist. 

December 2, 2021 at 6:39 am 2 comments

Kickin’ It With The Boys: Fists of Legend movie review

Kickin' it with the boys, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Footwork, Yoon Je-moon, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Although it’s got its share of body slams and bloody fisticuffs, Fists of Legend, (now playing in select multiplexes in the U.S.) is a nice change of pace from the typical extreme South Korean fare that shows up in U.S. movie houses. In contrast to gangland thriller New World or spy flick Berlin Files, the two most recent Korean movies to roll through town, Fists of Legend is a surprisingly gentle and warmhearted piece of filmmaking. Despite its pugilistic trappings, it’s much more than just a fight movie.

The 2.5 hour-plus movie centers around Legendary Fist, a mixed martial arts reality show that pits former teenage streetfighters, now paunchy and in their forties, against trained MMA fighters. Among the middle-aged gladiators is Lim Deok-kyu (Hwang Jung-Min), a former teenage boxer who now owns a noodle shop. His wife died long ago, his angsty teenage daughter is in trouble at school, and his noodle shop is failing, so Deok-kyu signs up for Legendary Fist for the $20,000 prize money and a chance to redeem himself in his daughter’s eyes.

Dad & daughter, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Dad & daughter, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Despite its sometimes gory fistfighting scenes, Fists of Legend is not so much Thunderdome as it is a critique of contemporary South Korean social and cultural mores. The movie alternates between swaggering 1980s high school kids and their modern-day middle-aged incarnations, bouncing through bullying, father-daughter dynamics, media culture, teenage cliques, corporate corruption, and cronyism, among many other topics, in its long, sometimes meandering cinematic journey.

Bam! Hwang Jung-Min, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Bam! Hwang Jung-Min, Fists Of Legend, 2013

The sincere and slightly homely Hwang Jung-Min, who was outstanding as the hotheaded loose cannon in New World, is awesome as the noodle shop owner trying let go of the past. Also good is Yoon Je-moon as the corporate toady who learns to stand up for himself. The bad guys are somewhat one-dimensional but the many good guys have a lot of heart and depth. The film is also refreshingly unglamourous in its portrayal of midlife existence, although the fit and trim Hwang does have some pretty cut abs.

All in all the narrative’s bobs and weaves make for a fun and diverting way to spend 154 minutes. It’s not a classic, but it’s good, solid commercial entertainment.

NOTE: The increased number of Korean films gaining theatrical release in the U.S. is part of the resurgent Korean Wave now devouring the U.S. pop culture landscape. Following up his billion-views youtube megahit Gangnam Style, PSY’s latest MV Gentleman has as of this date reached 110 million hits and counting in the three days since its official release. The astoundingly hot Lee Byung-hun is tearing it up shirtless-style in the hit Hollywood actioner GI Joe: Redemption. Kia is apparently the trendy new auto line amongst young groovesters. And Korean Fried Chicken is the ono grind of choice among late-night post-club snackers.

April 17, 2013 at 3:34 am Leave a comment


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