Posts tagged ‘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 signals the song’s intensity. 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. 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.

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 Leave a comment

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.”

weibo 66 copy

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

I Know You’re Coming Along: CNBLUE STAY GOLD album review

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NOTE: One more CNBLUE post before I’m done. Bear with me as it’s the end of the year and they probably have run out of product for the time being.

CNBLUE’s new Japanese album, STAY GOLD, just dropped a few weeks ago and once again the Korean rock quartet blends its signature sound with some new beats and flavors. This time they’re mostly on the Jpop tip, and as a whole the album is a cohesive, solid piece of work, with each track flows seamlessly into the next, This is interesting considering almost every track is arranged by a different producer.

Freedom summer, Starting Over, 2017

The lead track, STARTING OVER, is a swinging soul throwback that hearkens back to Ray Charles and his mellow, piano-based R&B sound. The song combines acoustic rhythms mixed with electronic beats, with finger snapping, handclaps, and a rolling piano line that gets the toes tapping and the body swaying, and Yonghwa’s powerful, gorgeous vocals effortlessly convey the liberatory mood of the music. Apropos of its civil-rights era sound, the anthemic chorus and the lyrics, which implore the listener to “sing out loud with all our might/have fun just chillin’/unrestrained/set me free” (Japanese lyrics in italics) feels like something from a freedom summer bus ride. But the song also feels quite contemporary as the track includes a deep thrumming bass line and the second prechorus leads into some sinuous, buzzing guitar. Interestingly enough, the lyrics are almost evenly split between Japanese and English, making for an unusual linguistic mélange.

The second track, THIS IS, at first is a seemingly throwaway pop song that is actually quite sophisticated. This upbeat jam features Yonghwa singing the staccato triple-note Japanese lyrics in his best Jpop style, with a zippy synth line over a strong 4/4 structure that creates a beautiful piece of power pop. There’s a really nice moment about a minute before the end of the song where all instrumentation drops out except a simple, unfiltered piano line that bridges to the song’s conclusion.

The punchy third track, CAPTIVATE, written by Jonghyun, combines a strong rock beat with EDM elements. Yonghwa & Jonghyun flawlessly sing its all-English lyrics, and Yonghwa’s strong raspy voice contrasts nicely with Jonghyun’s smooth crooning.

ONLY BEAUTY, also written by Jonghyun, is a beautiful power ballad that really allows Yonghwa’s vocals to shine, making full use of his singing chops as he ranges from sweet, lilting vocals to raw yet controlled belting. Arranged by Japanese pop metal producer Tienowa, this is my favorite track as it creates a gorgeous soundscape that blends the sound of the Japanese lyrics with a lovely melody and beautiful production. This trip hop track reminds me a bit of their 2015 Japan cut SUPERNOVA as its dense wall of sound, with its fluid bass line, strong drums, crashing cymbals and echoing chorus creates a gloriously bombastic bed for Yonghwa’s powerful vocals. Yonghwa’s final acapella belt towards the end of the track showcases his raspy rock voice at its best.

Yonghwa’s composition, BUTTERFLY, meshes it Japanese lyrics perfectly with its pretty, jazzy melody and shows off more great work with Japanese collaborators Hasegawa and Tienowa. This beautiful bit of pop heaven includes some lovely piano and acoustic guitar picking, a smooth bass line, and a hint of synthesizer over Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s outstanding vocals, with a bit of electric guitar to dirty up the mix. The solitary piano break at the end of the song does a great job of reiterating the lovely bones of the song.

MIRROR is the album’s Jpop tribute, as it sounds like it could easily be an anime theme song with its combination of strings, horns, synthezer and poppy vocals. The track features some incredibly upbeat and cheerful lyrics written by Yonghwa, aka the world’s most optimistic person.

Because the heart can act like a mirror

In a reflection of one another

The pieces coming together make the world brighter

Let’s make a chain of hope

A billion hearts all in a row

Not meant to be only for me

The more we share we will be one

Who writes these kind of Hello kitty lyrics except a dreamer and an optimist? It’s actually kind of refreshing that Yonghwa isn’t embarrassed to sing such flagrantly sweet and sappy lyrics, and they fit the track’s poppy production to a T.

The album’s next track, SHAKE, is the title track from their last Japanese single last spring and it only gets better with repeated listens. It’s ridiculously catchy and danceable and it’s one of my favorite songs from their recent live performances too. The wacky music video is also worth a look as it shows a retro 1960s’ salaryman world gone mad.

The next track, SEEDS, is Jonghyun’s contribution to the album’s world of happiness. Entering into the Irish Rock sweepstakes, it’s another ridiculously upbeat song, with the all-english lyric proclaiming “from the times you cry the flowers grow.” The song is all about overcoming adversity, which reflects how the band has come back from their troubles last year. STAY GOLD is a far cry from last year’s Japanee release EUPHORIA, which was recorded immediately following the worst controversy of CNBLUE’s otherwise mostly successful career, and it had several fairly melancholy tracks on it. But 2017 ha been very kind to CNBLUE and STAY GOLD reflects the upswing in the band’s fortunes, with sold-out shows across Asia, starring roles in popular dramas, and strong sales for their solo and group releases alike.

The most downbeat song on the album is SOMEONE ELSE, another carryover from last spring’s SHAKE single. It’s bit of a mood anomaly but it had to be included here because it’s absolutely flawless. It features Yonghwa’s perfect English delivery, and his raspy voice here beautifully complements the country rock sound of the track. The song’s lyrical structure is also stellar, with paradoxes (when I’m with you/you’re not with me) that convey the melancholic longing of the tune, and the short meter of the first and third lines of the chorus cleverly breaks up the rhythm of the rhyme. A hint of strings, strummed guitar, and a popping bass line round out this clean, simple track that’s a genius blend of songwriting, production, and performance.

The album concludes with BOOK, another relentlessly upbeat, visionary song. Here Yongha’s storytelling skill really come to the fore as he uses the metaphor of a book to express the band’s long journey with its fanbase since its debut nearly eight years ago.

I open a book and my story to see you again

I know that you’re there for me

Remember the time when you gave me the strenth to begin

I know you’re a part of me

Take a step at a time

Cause I gotta believe

I’m gonna make the climb

When I gotta to be strong

and I have to be brave

I know you’re coming along

This may be the last full-length Japanese releae before Yongha’s enlistment sometime in 2018 and it’s as if he’s reassuring fans that both they and the band will endure the long hiatus and come out of it together on the other side. In some way it’s a love song to their fans, and it’s sappy and heartfelt in the best Yonghwa style. It’s delivered with such force and sincerity that its earnest, wide-eyed platitudes ring completely true.

Although it’s very strong the album it isn’t perfect. Some of the production is overly wrought, obscuring the melodies instead of highlighting them. Jonghyun’s voice feels a bit strained on some of the tracks, unlike on the moody ballad WAS SO PERFECT (also from the SHAKE single last spring), where he made the most of his smooth, smoky vocals. The production on some of the songs occasionally makes Yonghwa’s Jpop-style vocals sound thin and nasally and doesn’t make full use of his rich and powerful range. Yet despite these small details, and even though most of the tracks are the work of different producers, the album hangs together really well.

It takes a certain flexibility to follow CNBLUE and their musical wanderings these days because creatively they are changing and evolving with whiplash speed. For those who like a steady and predictable style from their pop music, with CNBLUE you’re probably shopping at the wrong store. For those who enjoy something new and unexpected with every release, CNBLUE is the band for you. I’m personally really loving hearing something completely different with almost every release, especially since they maintain their high level of songwriting, production, and performance throughout. As per usual, STAY GOLD is more quality product from CNBLUE.

December 1, 2017 at 8:19 am 5 comments

We’re Like A Puzzle: CNBLUE in Taipei/Yonghwa in Kobe concert reviews

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Concert-going, Taiwan style, Between Us In Taipei, 2017

NOTE: At the risk of CNBLUE completely hijacking this blog Imma post a review of three shows I saw on a recent swing through Taiwan and Japan.

This was the third time I’ve seen CNBLUE live and their ability to run a powerful and entertaining rock concert was very evident, despite the fact that at least two of the four members had been working around the clock filming their respective Korean dramas and were probably fairly sleep-deprived. Drummer Kang Minhyuk is currently the male lead in the medical drama HOSPITAL SHIP and since he’d been shooting all night the night before he had only arrived in Taipei about five or six hours before show that the evening. Guitarist Lee Jonghyun just finished up his own role in the main cast of the throwback nostalgia school drama GIRLS GENERATION 1979 and he too seemed a bit peaked. Most likely the band had had little or no time to rehearse together prior to meeting up in Taiwan that day and they took a very long sound check, playing at least a half dozen songs to limber up their performance skills.

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Seamless, Between Us In Taipei, 2017

But once they hit the stage that evening very little fatigue was evident aside from dark circles under Minhyuk and Jonghyun’s eyes. Early in the set Jonghyun missed one of his vocal cues and forgot to sing his lines, and he only rarely cracked a smile during the show, but his guitar runs were as crisp and precise as ever. As always Minhyuk’s drumming was strong and powerful, providing the engine that drove the band. Leader and lead vocalist Jung Yonghwa seemed relatively well-rested and he and bassist Lee Jungshin exerted an extra amount of effort to pick up the energy of their bandmates.

As usual the band worked seamlessly as a unit, though they might have been a tad less perfect than usual. But it was inspiring to see how the two less exhausted members covered for their tired mates so that the show ran smoothly and the audience was happy. A few times Yonghwa worked the crowd by leaping effortlessly from the stage onto the landing next to the railing of the grandstand, with starstruck audience members delicately touching him as he went by. Jungshin also put in double duty, smiling broadly during most of the show and striding onto both extended stages on either side of the hall. By the end of the show even Minhyuk and Jonghyun were smiling, despite their tiredness at the start of the set. The band’s professionalism and long years of playing together also gave them an edge in overcoming fatigue since once they got going they fell into their customary powerful and intense groove.

Top-notch, Between Us In Taipei, 2017, cr. JYH89star

Of course it also helps that CNBLUE’s material is top-notch and they know how to write a setlist. Right out of the gate they opened with four high powered numbers, starting with one of their best live songs, RADIO. This EDM-laced tune showcases their trademark rock sound and includes a killer drop right before the pre-chorus that leads right into the singalong refrain. It’s a breathtaking way to start a show and it got the audience hyped up immediately. They followed quickly with WHEN I WAS YOUNG, a beat-heavy tune that blends a wiggly synthesizer line with Jonghyun’s fuzzy rock guitar riff. Jonghyun and Yonghwa alternate the vocal lead on this one, with Yonghwa’s powerful purring voice complementing his mate’s smooth crooning. Following this were the synth-driven DOMINO and a stripped-down remix of I’M SORRY, which concluded with Yonghwa shrieking an ultra-high rock note, and after that the band had the audience eating out of the palm of its hand.

Notably, the set list had songs released from every single year since the band’s debut in 2010, with each of the songs self-composed. Each of the band members also had a hand in writing and/or composing at least one song in the set (even drummer Minhyuk, who co-wrote the lyrics for SWEET HOLIDAY). This may not seem remarkable in the global rock band world but it’s still quite unusual in KPop, where performers who write their own material are still in the minority, and it attests to CNBLUE’s legit credits as artists and not just idols.

Mesmerizing, Between Us In Taipei, 2017, cr. JYH89star

A highlight of the show was ROYAL RUMBLE, Yonghwa’s moody and evocative track about the perils of life in the entertainment world. Framed metaphorically as a never-ending fight in a brutal arena, the song’s churning, repetitive beat overlaid with a ragged Jonghyun guitar riff  was mesmerizing. In the live performance Yonghwa stood center stage at the mic, ringed by lights as if trapped in a cage. He effortlessly rode the melody up and down his vocal range, briefly sliding in and out of a beautiful falsetto, then growling and wailing the powerful lyrics. The effect was completely hypnotic and was a good preview of his solo shows that I saw the following weekend.

They finished out the show by blasting through some of their best live songs, keeping the mood and energy up, and concluded with their BETWEEN US, their single from last spring. Like many of CNBLUE’s songs, BETWEEN US was made for the stage, as it becomes even stronger and more intense when performed live. Although the band may have been tired they never let their energy onstage flag and they didn’t disappoint the audience. They’ve been playing live at such a high level of excellence for so many years that they didn’t allow a bit of sleep-deprivation to put a damper on things.

Returning for the encore, they included a couple songs custom-made for the Taipei audience. Throughout the show Yonghwa had spoken to the audience primarily in Mandarin, with a bit of help from Minhyuk, who also has decent Chinese-language skills. The two even made a bit of game of teasing Jungshin for his inability to speak Mandarin, much to the amusement of the crowd. But during the encore Yonghwa really rolled out the treats for the local crowd. At one point he sang an impromptu version of Taiwan-based singer JJ Lin’s LITTLE DIMPLES, with the audience happily singing along. And during the acoustic version of MANITO, which has become the singalong anthem of the tour, Yonghwa switched out the Korean lyrics, “neoreul saranghae,” with the Chinese translation, “wo ai nimen.” It was a subtle switch because in the Chinese variation he used the plural form, changing the meaning from “I love you,” to “I love you all,” thus directing the phrase outward to the audience instead of to an individual loved one. Both the audience and the band sang the phrase repeatedly to each other, creating an emotional loop of sentiment between them, which both actively drew in the audience as well as expressing the band’s affection for the fans. By the song’s end the audience was repeatedly singing “wo ai nimen” and the emotion in the crowd was palpable as many fans shed tears. With Yonghwa’s military enlistment almost certainly happening in 2018 this may have been the last CNBLUE concert in Taipei for as much as four years (if the members stagger their two-year enlistments), and in that context the crowd and the band repeatedly singing “wo ai nimen” to each other was quite poignant, as they could be bidding farewell to each other for quite some time.

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Before the show, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017

The weekend following I traveled to Kobe, Japan, to catch the last two shows of Yonghwa’s solo tour, Summer Calling. Whereas the CNBLUE show was a stellar example of teamwork amongst bandmates, the solo concerts by nature focused on the Yonghwa the singer. In fact, unlike his earlier solo tour in 2015, during these concerts Yonghwa didn’t play the guitar or keyboards at all, choosing instead to focus solely on singing. Fortunately, in the past few years he’s developed his voice into a glorious instrument, bringing to maturity the potential he’d shown in the past.

Over the course of two nights in Kobe Yonghwa held the stage for a total of 7.5 hours in front of 8000 people each night and he sang 23 songs the first night and 28 songs the second night. I don’t like to be hyperbolic but both performances were nearly flawless in all aspects of their execution. The concert was a complete treat for Yonghwa fans as he sang every song from his three solo albums as well as several covers and a few CNBLUE songs as well.

Since Yonghwa was relieved of his regular guitar and piano playing duties during this tour he was able to fully focus on his singing and in the past few years he’s perfected his technique so that he now has the chops to match the emotional intensity that has always been present in his vocals. This was evident throughout the set as he ranged from the rapid-fire English-language delivery in the fast-paced dance tune SUMMER DREAM to the slow, drawn out sustains in the moody ballad LOST IN TIME. He also made good use of his lower register, most notably going from low crooning to a strong high belting in his cover of the Japanese song KONAYUKI. It was also nice to hear him nail the high falsetto in the Prince-esque tune LIFE IS A PARTY. The live versions pretty much improved on every one of the studio tracks as Yonghwa poured his heart and soul into the emotion of each song. Watching his face on the video screen as he sang was particularly enlightening as you could see the sheer intensity of feeling he put into every note and line.

Yonghwa started the second half of the show by popping up through a trap-door in the front of the stage at high speed, then performing two of CNBLUE’s recent high-energy Japanese singles, PUZZLE and SHAKE. Though this got the crowd going, and intending no knock on the backup band, I still much prefer CNBLUE’s live versions of these tunes. Yonghwa’s backup band were pros and there was nothing wrong with the execution or the arrangements (except maybe a bit too much tenor sax) but when CNBLUE is locked in they are a machine. The backup band’s skill and competency were there but not the passion and intensity that comes from a group of musicians who have worked together for years as have CNBLUE. As if acknowledging the synergy he has with CNBLUE, when he sang Jonghyun’s part during PUZZLE Yonghwa also dragged his mic stand to his bandmate’s side of the stage and mimed playing the guitar.


Off the chain, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017, cr. JYH_羊白菜

Yonghwa also had the dancing going on, seeming to feel it in his body instead of thinking about it with his brain as he had in previous attempts in on music shows earlier in the year. Most of the show’s uptempo songs featured a quartet of male backup dancers and Yonghwa would occasionally join in with some of the milder choreography. This added a bit of flair to the proceedings and really jacked up the energy for the last song of the set, an off-the-chain version of the ultra-hooky jam THAT GIRL, with Yonghwa coolly leading the audience in dancing to the kicky choreo.


Emotional connection, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017, cr. roki

During the encore at the end of the second night’s show, which was the last stop on the tour, Yonghwa spoke to the audience for quite a long time. Though I have no Japanese language skills it was clear that he was thanking the fans and saying goodbye, since his military enlistment is looming. Most of the audience was in tears by the time he finished speaking and the emotion connection again was tangible as the fans understood the ramifications of his words. He followed this with one of his equally emotional compositions, the mid-tempo ballad BECAUSE I MISS YOU from the drama HEARTSTRINGS. The choice of song was especially apt since the lyrics are a lament to a lost loved one and the 6/8 time signature adds a melancholy swing to the poignant words. Yonghwa nailed his performance too, with breathing, technique, phrasing, and emotion completely on point.

Glorious, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017

He finished the show with ONE FINE DAY, the gorgeous ballad from his first solo album of the same name. During the crescendo of the song, when Yonghwa sang out a beautifully sustained high note, there was absolute appreciative silence where it seemed no one in the hall breathed for about ten seconds, allowing the note to reverberate as his voice rang like a bell throughout the venue. It was a glorious moment.

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Eyes don’t lie, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017 Cr.JYH_羊白菜

After taking his bows Yonghwa left the stage fairly quickly, and the video feed showed his mouth smiling but his eyes seemed quite sad. As his enlistment date nears this may well have been his last solo concert for years. This also may be the last time I’ll be able to travel to Asia for a while, so I’m really glad I was able to witness what may be his final solo performances, as well as one of CNBLUE’s last concerts outside of Korea, before he joins the military. He’s at the top of his game right now, but despite this, I still don’t think he’s reached his creative peak yet. The ceiling is high for Yonghwa, and somehow I think it may be limitless.

October 15, 2017 at 8:58 am 8 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

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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

Wake Up, Wake Up: CNBLUE live at Budokan concert review

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Fangirling, Shake Shake, CNBLUE at Budokan, May 17-18, 2017

I recently joined the cult of CNBLUE so when I lived this spring in Hong Kong I made a side trip to Tokyo to attend my very first CNBLUE concerts. For the dedicated CNBLUE fanbase, going to a live show is like making a pilgrimage to Mecca and the band is famed for putting on amazing performances. I’m happy to report that they did not disappoint. They demonstrated exactly why their live shows are so popular, as they are consummate musicians and showmen.

The concerts were held at Nippon Budokan, the music hall in Tokyo that’s hosted many a legendary show. CNBLUE plays there on the regular and they clearly understand the significance of performing in that hallowed venue. On Day One they came onstage with guns blazing, playing an incredibly explosive set of high-energy songs including their latest Korean single BETWEEN US, followed in quick succession by RADIO, PUZZLE, and I’M SORRY, which are some of their fastest paced and hardest rocking tracks. This combination was ridiculously incendiary, and there was an unbelievable amount of energy crackling off the stage. Band leader Jung Yonghwa was obviously hyped up as he seemed to literally burst onto the stage and continually ran around and jumped up and down nonstop for those first twenty minutes, soaking through his shirt by the third song. At several points it seemed like he would bounce off the stage he was so excited.

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Incendiary, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

Following this rock-based opening they rapidly switched gears, going into an EDM-based set that showed off their recent forays into electronica. One of the things that makes CNBLUE concerts work so well is the pacing and the attention to detail in the set list, as well as the way that the band seamlessly integrates the elements of each song. In this set during the smexy midtempo dance track WHEN I WAS YOUNG guitarist Lee Jonghyun played a riff from SUPERNOVA, the song that immediately followed, which musically linked the two songs and created a seamless transition between them. Next up following SUPERNOVA was DOMINO, and it was interesting to hear the two songs back-to-back since they share a similar chord structure. However, they sound quite different from each other, again demonstrating CNBLUE’s wide musical range. While DOMINO is a spare, synthesizer-based, beat-heavy track, SUPERNOVA is more lush and trip-hoppy.

The band also keeps things fresh by re-arranging their hits and adding in songs they’ve never played live before and this tour is no exception. Old favorites I’M SORRY, IN MY HEAD, and FEELING all got makeovers, and two older songs from their back-catalog, STILL and ANGEL, made their live-show premieres. They also played two different set lists on each of the two nights, for a total of 28 different songs over the two nights. This prodigious amount of music kept both the band and the audience on their toes and with encores both shows ran nearly three hours each.

Post-show, rotating stage, CNBLUE  live at Budokan, May 18, 2017

Despite the length and intensity of the performances the band did a great job keeping the energy level quite high throughout both nights. After literally hundreds of live shows both Yonghwa and Jonghyun are pros so they are all about sustaining their voices and not running out of steam. There were definitely moments where Yonghwa passed up on a really high note and let the backing track or the backup vocals carry on. This allowed him to save his voice for the more high-impact moments like his famous high-pitched wail at the end of I’M SORRY, which brought the house down, or the impossibly long sustained note at the crescendo of CAN’T STOP. CNBLUE is literally in it for the long run, both in their concerts and in their career, so it’s all about creating a great show, not necessarily showing off vocal gymnastics. Yonghwa has blown out his voice at least once before in past years so he’s learned how to pace himself, and now he knows how to give just enough to make songs work.

Which is not to say that he didn’t put out a huge amount of energy in both of the shows. On the first day his shirt was soaked through almost from the start because he was belting out songs and playing guitar and piano as well as tossing the mic in the air and running around the stage nonstop. He is very light on his feet and made an amusing show of tiptoeing around the various speakers and monitors around the stage, doing little dances, running all over the main and extended stages, and leaping up and down onto the stage, the risers, and into the walkways between the stage and the audience.

Beauty queen, Shake Shake, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 cr. celia&chifang

Yonghwa also took full advantage of the round revolving center stage, at times perching on the edge like a beauty queen as it spun slowly around, the audience egging him on as he waved and posed. Although security guards shadowed his every move in case any overly enthusiastic audience member decided to jump the barriers and do a tackle, Yonghwa seemed to trust the audience, as if he realizes that he has nothing to fear from his fans. The other band members are also comfortable and charismatic onstage as well, showing their veteran performance chops even in a large venue like Budokan.

Unlike their appearances on South Korea’s televised music shows, it was also clear at Budokan that they were playing live, although some songs that featured strings or synthesizers had backing tracks. In particular Lee Jonghyun’s guitar was mixed up nice and high so his crisp, precise guitar runs came through loud and clear. Drummer Kang Minhyuk is also a monster, with the ability to range from hard rock to more delicate and subtle pop songs. He also works the electronic drum pads really well, seamlessly integrating his technique into the more EDM-esque tunes. Lee Jungshin is solid on the bass, and he and Minhyuk make up a strong, versatile rhythm section. Yonghwa held it down on rhythm guitar, though there were several times he sang without an instrument, the better to run around the stage.  He also played synthesizer and piano and his piano intros were particularly lovely to hear.

Interestingly, the setlists from the two nights didn’t include any ballads, as most of the songs were mid to uptempo, ranging from melodious EDM-laced tunes to hardcore rock songs. What they also did not include either night were some of the more downbeat and introspective tunes they’d played in last year’s tours, including ROYAL RUMBLE, YOUNG FOREVER, and BE ALRIGHT. They seem to be emphasizing the positive these days and looking forward again, whereas during OUR GLORY DAYS, the tour immediately following last year’s controversy, they still seemed be processing the entire ordeal.

The wave, Shake Shake, CNBLUE  live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

The shows at Budokan were very collaborative between the audience and the band and in that way differed from most other live shows I’ve been to, which are mostly one-sided affairs with the performer performing and the audience listening. Aside from the requisite “throw your hands up” there’s not a huge amount of interplay at your standard rock concert. At CNBLUE’s Budokan shows the audience became an integral part of the performance, with band members spending long swaths of time talking directly to the audience (Yonghwa in particular seemed to enjoy sharing his thoughts) and with the audience singing along to every song, and in many songs serving as the chorus. CNBLUE designs their songs with their live shows in mind and Yonghwa has stated that he writes some parts of his songs specifically for the audience to sing in concerts. The band also stopped playing music for a good ten minutes while they made the audience do the wave, which I hadn’t experienced at a music show before. Their level of interplay with the audience was probably the most interactive I’ve ever seen at a concert and the show felt like a true collaboration between the band and the audience.

There’s an art to writing a good set list and Yonghwa, who’s also in charge of this aspect of the show, has mastered this invisible but crucial aspect to their live shows as well. He’s clearly involved from the micro to the macro level of each show, from composing most of the songs to singing lead to playing multiple instruments.

Running the show, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 cr. celia& chifang

CNBLUE plays the concert hall, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 

But his real instrument is the audience, which he conducts like an orchestra. He often directly addressed them or prompted them to sing lines from songs or to cheer or clap along. Probably the most extreme example of this was the call-and-response portion of WAKE UP. While the trusty Kang Minhyuk kept a rapid beat on the bass drum Yonghwa played a variety of licks on his guitar that the audience then mimicked. He also shouted, whispered, shrieked, and screamed the song’s refrain and the audience likewise echoed him. This went on for a good ten minutes, with Yonghwa making the audience roar or fall completely silent with just a gesture. It’s an amazing thing to witness his ability to bring a full house of 15,000 people to complete silence or complete chaos by merely waving his hands. He plays the concert hall like a fiddle.

Yonghwa takes control, FOXY, CNBLUE live at Budukan, May 17, 2017. cr. silodoan

Yonghwa also runs the show onstage as well. Videos clearly show him directing the band on stage and he frequently cues the his bandmates by calling their names or gesturing or nodding toward them, and you can see their non-verbal communication throughout the show. During the intro to FOXY, when Yonghwa sensed that the audience wasn’t hyped up enough he elevated the mood by bellowing “FIRE!” making the energy in the arena immediately shoot up and creating a lot of heat between the band and the audience.

Yonghwa has a performance style that switches from playful and cheeky to focused and intense in a split second. What makes this so brilliant is that he understands that it’s all a performance and that he’s playing the part of “rock star.” That doesn’t keep him from making it the best rock star performance ever, but he follows some of his most clichéd moves such as lying flat on his back playing his guitar or belting out an octave-jumping wail with a broad smile and laughter. He’s completely meta as Yonghwa the star, and in that way he’s in line with artists such as David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince, all of whom understood the performativity of their roles, or what music scholar David Shumway calls “the constructedness of the rock star and the crafting of the rock performance.” Shumway was talking about Bowie but he could easily be referring to Yonghwa as well.

Precision, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

In some ways CNBLUE carries a particularly Kpop aesthetic into its concerts, which means, not unlike the highly choreographed dancing Kpop is famous for, that they are incredibly precise with their performances. The Budokan shows ran like a well-oiled machine and when they were truly locked in their performances soared. This was evident in their seamless renditions of songs such as RADIO, a fast-paced tune that relies on rapid-fire vocal swapping and complex breaks and meter shifts. That they could effortlessly perform this song with such meticulous coordination, with Yonghwa additionally climbing on top of his piano, running up and down the length of the stage, and leaping over amps and monitors, is a testament to their musical virtuosity. After touring intensively for so many years CNBLUE can probably play some of their songs in their sleep by now, but instead of becoming lackadaisical or rote their shows have only increased in ferocity, which was clearly evident at Budokan.

I credit that in no small part to Yonghwa’s drive and vision as a leader, and CNBLUE’s committment to their craft. They’ve taken what could have been an ordinary Kpop group and turned it into a real musical entity. CNBLUE is smart and dedicated enough to follow Yonghwa’s lead and they’ve spoken in the past of how they draw inspiration from him and emulate him, challenging themselves to be the best that they can be. Having a visionary leader, whether in sports or music or any other practice that requires teamwork and dedication, is a wondrous thing that can make individuals push themselves beyond their perceived limitations. CNBLUE has that leader, who is willing to work beyond his limits and constantly change and evolve. This is a true gift, and to be able to inspire others to do well is a rare gift as well.

However, Yonghwa would be nothing without his bandmates, which was abundantly clear in the Budokan shows where CNBLUE worked together as a unit and where each element was indispensable to the success of the performance. When they were locked in they were a powerhouse, on both the high-energy rock songs such as IN MY HEAD or I’M SORRY, as well the more introspective tunes like the gorgeous duet LIE. Anyone who thinks that Yonghwa can be as effective without his mates has no comprehension of how a band works or how music is created collaboratively. It’s the synthesis of the individual parts meshing together that makes successful music, and CNBLUE demonstrates that most ably. They are a team, a band, a group, not just individuals who happen to play under the same banner, and the way that they perform together seamlessly has been honed over almost a decade of working with each other, living with each other, and getting to know each other. It’s not something that can be replicated with anonymous session players or interchangeable studio musicians. Each supports the other and the beauty of their music is the interplay between them. Although Yonghwa has had a successful and acclaimed solo release (with his second due in July), and Jonghyun has also released a solo album, their work with CNBLUE is remarkable, significant and unique. This kind of magical synergy only comes from musicians who are deeply in sync with each other and who are dedicated to their music.

Burning down the house, CNBLUE live in Seoul June 5, 2017

CNBLUE just played a pair of live shows in Seoul, after an absence from the stage in South Korea of more than a year and a half, and by all reports those concerts were a whole nother level of explosiveness. While they certainly left it all out on the stage in the shows I saw in Japan, apparently in Seoul they completely burned down the house in front of their hometown audience. Local critics marveled at the dynamic energy of their performances and observed that they have moved beyond simply being an idol group and are true musicians and artists now. CNBLUE also created a lot of buzz at their recent appearance at KCON in New York, which may plant the seed for a broader international audience base.

This is a good sign and hopefully will enable them to grow beyond their KPop origins, which will most definitely aid in their longevity. Band leader Yonghwa has also started to diversify his financial interests, investing in an expensive retail building in the tony Cheongdongdam district in Seoul and establishing his own entertainment company. These steps will enable them to escape the clutches of FNC, their management agency, once their contract expires in 2021 and once they’ve all completed their mandatory military duties. Along with their innate talent, their increasing musical and performing skills, and their tenacity and hard work, this may enable them to play together for many years to come.

July 3, 2017 at 12:22 am 13 comments

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