Posts tagged ‘music’

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.

 

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December 17, 2018 at 7:58 am 2 comments

Comes and Goes: Hyukoh at the UC Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I 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

Non, je ne regrette rien: The Package, eps. 1-2 review

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Tourism, The Package, 2017

Okay, fuck it. This blog is now all-CNBLUE all the time. Or at least for the next post or two.

After an absence of three years on the small screen, CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa has made his latest appearance in a Kdrama in the wacky romcom THE PACKAGE. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from this project except some pretty scenery from France, so the screwball comedy style of the first two episodes has been a really nice surprise.

The premise is simple—a motley crew of seven Korean tourists take a package tour to France, led by expat Yoon SoSo (Lee Yeon-hee), their patient and long-suffering tour guide. As per kdramas, they along the way they discover various things about themselves and each other.

The freak, The Package, 2017

What sets this drama apart from some of the others that I’ve seen is its completely wacky humor. Yonghwa plays the main lead, San Maru, but instead of being a typical dreamboat heroic type he’s a total freak who has random B&D fantasies, giggles while grabbing an armful of vibrators in a Paris sex toy shop, and constantly takes goofy selfies, even while he’s waiting to be grilled in an interrogation room in the Paris airport. But beneath this dorky exterior is a sensitive and upright soul, which Yonghwa ably conveys through his expressive puppy-dog eyes.

Yeon Hee as SoSo, the tour guide with a past, is Maru’s potential love interest, and she hides her mysterious history behind her smiling professional façade. Like Maru she’s fleeing some kind of romantic disappointment so no doubt they’ll hook up sometime before the drama ends.

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Boredom, The Package, 2017

Rounding out the cast are a young couple who are past the romantic part of their relationship and are now in the boredom period, a grumpy-ass ahjussi and his forbearing and possibly seriously ill wife, and a man who may or may not be traveling with his young mistress.

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Screwball, The Package, 2017

The whole thing is played against the gorgeous French scenery and true to form the cinematography by the Korean cameraperson is top-notch. The first two eps displayed a screwball sensibility that at times hearkened back to the best of Lubitsch or Capra, kdrama style, with characters randomly discussing their bowel movements or making madcap slo-mo dashes through the streets of Paris, coffee cups a-flying, while taking broad pratfalls along the way.

 

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Skinship, The Package, 2017

Yet underneath all of the slapstick nonsense is a more serious tone, as Maru is forced to work on end-of-the-year reports for his shady company back in Korea even while he’s on his vacation, and SoSo deals with the precarities of contingent employment in her adopted country. By the end of the second ep we got a sense of some of the romance to come, too, as the two unattached characters Maru and Soso shared some accidental skinship and bonded over their fondness for the poignant 1991 French film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge).

Yonghwa had the dubious good fortune of debuting in the 2009 drama YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL before he had had much acting experience and in that show and his next drama, HEARTSTRINGS, he was as wooden as a day-old bagel. His performances improved quite a bit in subsequent dramas and by his fourth role, in the clever 2014 saeguk THE THREE MUSKETEERS, he had learned how to convincingly create a memorable character through his acting. But first impressions are often indelible so he’s faced a lot of prejudice against his acting skills due to his stiff performances in those first two shows.

 

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Fool, The Package, 2017

So it’s great to see that in the first two eps of THE PACKAGE Yonghwa completely dispels any doubts about his acting skilz, as he nicely develops Maru’s character, at times a wide-eyed fool completely lacking in social skills, and at others an innocent abroad in a world of crooks and thieves. His comic timing is quite on point and he manages to go from gleeful to confused to emo in a split second.


Gratuitous pulchritude, The Package, 2017

He’s also featured in the hallowed and time-honored kdrama convention known as the “gratuitous leading man topless scene.” In this case it takes place at the end of the first ep (if you want to skip to it immediately) as the camera lovingly documents his semi-nude torso, detailing his toned bod from all angles of view.

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Tourist herding, The Package, 2017

But despite the allure of this display of pulchritude, it’s Yonghwa’s endearing and layered performance as the loveable oddball San Maru that’s made the biggest impression on me so far. His leading lady Lee Yeon Hee does a good job conveying the banality of her job as she herds cranky tourists around France. I’m hoping that future eps may allow the SoSo and Maru to improve on their verbal sparring ala Hepburn and Tracy.  And will we get to see a Yonghwa screen kiss this time around? The truth will only come out in the watching, but this drama is just heartfelt and breezy enough to make me want to see more.

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Melo medical, Hospital Ship, 2017

NOTE: This has been a banner year for CNBLUE members appearing in Korean dramas. In addition to Yonghwa’s leading man role in THE PACKAGE, his bandmates have all been cast as the male lead in various shows. Drummer Kang Minhyuk is currently starring in the very popular medical melodrama HOSPITAL SHIP, along with kdrama queen Ha Ji Won (THE SECRET GARDEN; EMPRESS KI), and the show has been one of the top-rated dramas in South Korea much since its premiere in August.

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Throwback romance, Girls Generation 1979, 2017

Guitarist Lee Jonghyun has been the male lead in not one but two dramas in 2017, the saeguk comedy MY ONLY LOVE SONG that screened on the Netflix platform in June, and GIRLS GENERATION 1979, the throwback teen drama that aired in the fall. After bassist Lee Jungshin appeared as the second lead in the historical remake of MY SASSY GIRL in early summer he was cast as the lead in LONGING HEART, a time-travel romance that will premiere in December. Somewhere in there in 2017 CNBLUE also managed to release two albums in three different languages and tour twice in Japan and once across Asia. Yonghwa added in his own two solo album releases and went on an eleven-show tour in Japan this year.

CNBLUE’s frenetic activity in 2017 is quite possibly a clue that one or more of them (Yonghwa almost certainly) will be enlisting sometime in 2018, and no doubt at least one of the CNBLUE members will squeeze in a role another drama or two before they start to go off to the army. Sometimes I think that after working so hard for close to a decade the military might seem like a respite of sorts for CNBLUE. But I have hope that they’ll come back from their enlistment and create more glorious music together and appear in even more dramas in the years to come.

October 19, 2017 at 7:30 am 4 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.

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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 7 comments

When I See You I Can’t Breathe/I Need To See You To Breathe: CNBLUE’s 7°CN Album Review

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Rockin’ the EDM, Between Us, CNBLUE, 2017

CNBLUE’s latest Korean release, the six-song mini-album 7°CN, dropped on March 20 and it’s possibly the best thing they’ve put out in the past couple years. It’s also a giant step forward in their creative development, with the addition of electronic elements to their signature rock sound.

A few times in their career CNBLUE has made quantum leaps in their musical development and artistry. RE: BLUE, their first album that was completely self-composed, was an explosive and radical departure from their earlier, more KPop-styled Korean releases. Their 2014 Korean mini-album, Can’t Stop, also demonstrated massive growth in their musical development. With 7°CN the band once again has catapulted far beyond their preceding releases, opening up an almost unfathomable artistic distance between this album and their last one.

CNBLUE dipped its toes into EDM on their 2015 release 2gether, as well as on some of their Japanese albums (including the standout tracks Still and Radio, both from Wave), but with 7°CN they are all in on the electronica. Yet at the same time the band manages to retain a strong rock feel on the album, attesting to their increasing skill as composers, producers, and musicians. In this release they get some help from a new collaborator, US-based producer Justin Reinstein, whose past credits include Kpop acts Vixx and SF9, and Japanese pop legends Arashi, among others. Reinstein brings a glossy sheen to the record that brightens and freshens up the usual CNBLUE sound. The result is a strong new direction for the band that fits organically with their established sound.

There’s a definite sense of urgency in this release that was absent in their past few albums. On their last two Korean releases, 2gether and BLUEMING, band leader Jung Yonghwa seemed content to noodle around, experimenting with various styles and types of instrumentation, but this release has a laser focus to it. It’s almost as if Yonghwa has started to count down the days until his military enlistment (sometime in 2018) and he’s realized he has no time to waste any more.

This is very evident in the title track, Between Us (Korean title, Confused), which is a gorgeous, powerhouse piece of pop music. Here the urgency is particularly palpable as the songs starts in medias res, charging directly into the driving chorus before returning to the verse, as if Yonghwa doesn’t want to take any chances with losing listeners. Unlike the leisurely buildup of their 2014 track, Can’t Stop, which begins slowly and then gradually hit its full stride, Between Us goes straight for the jugular right away. The result is thrilling, and as the song builds the effect only becomes more exhilarating.

The track’s dense production includes both electronic drums and a trap set, roaring rock guitar licks, several layers of vocals, and a thundering bass line, creating a veritable wall of sound. This echoes the intensity of feeling expressed in the lyrics, which describe the uncertainty of a couple on the edge of falling in love. Interestingly, the lyrics were co-written by a woman, with some smartly expressed paradoxes including “when I see you I can’t breathe/I need to see you to breathe,” and the vulnerability in them is in sharp contrast to the strong downbeat and buzzy guitar riff that drive the song. Likewise, the slight discordance of the close harmonies in the final chorus underscores the confusion of the track’s Korean title.

exhilerating

Exhilarating, Between Us, CNBLUE, 2017

As in the best CNBLUE tracks the small embellishments enhance the sound beautifully, such as the intricate piano and cymbal fills during the song’s pre-chorus. Also effective is the contrast between is the song’s quieter sections, including a couple smooth passages sung by Lee Jonghyun and a passionately belted bridge by Yonghwa, with the driving beat of the chorus. By the end of the track Yonghwa is wailing away in an ecstatic fervor, Kang Minhyuk’s drums are double-timing, the guitar and bass are blazing, and the entire song is clicking away on all cylinders. It’s an irresistible slice of pop music.

The second track, It’s You, leans more toward the pop side of things, and sounds a bit like some of the songs on CNBLUE’s last Japanese release EUPHORIA. But whereas that album’s production style is a stripped-down throwback to 1960s soul, here Yonghwa and co-writer and co-producer Reinstein fatten up the mix with finger-snapping, a hooky refrain, a bit of horns and piano, a brief rap in English, and the catchphrase “oh baby girl, it’s you,” as well as a smattering of synthesizer and some vocal processing. The result is a fresh, bouncy earworm of a track.

One of the pleasures of CNBLUE’s music is the interplay between Yonghwa’s and Jonghyun’s vocals and the third track, Calling You, is a stellar example of this. The song features the two singers effortlessly swapping lead vocals and kicking some gorgeous falsetto. The old-school Hammond organ and rhythmic, wah-wah pedal guitar riff, and some jazzy chromatic shifts add to the rich, fat sound of the track.

When I Was Young, the fourth track (composed by Jonghyun), is another standout cut. Once again liberally making use of the electronica side of the pop music spectrum, this sexy and slinky track mixes up trap beats, dubstep, and Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s smooth and effortless, soulful vocals. Yonghwa manages some of his most assured and inspired singing here, ranging from full-throated belting to sultry crooning. The lyrics belie the track’s smexy feel, however, as they are a lament to lost youth. Although heavy on the EDM, CNBLUE’s rock roots come through in the track’s anthemic chorus, a fuzzy, distorted guitar riff, and a deep deep bass line.

Bassist Lee Jungshin, who recently started publishing songs, adds another solid tune to his repertoire, the sweet uptempo ballad Manito (Secret Friend). Yonghwa makes great use of the song’s simplicity to improvise around and over its basic melody, showing off his ability to embellish and elevate a simple composition.

Closing out the EP is the Korean version of Royal Rumble, one of the standout tracks from EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s Japanese release from last fall. The track features a polyrhythmic Latin beat coupled with Yonghwa’s haunting vocals. Although both the Japanese and Korean lyrics follow the same basic premise, of the experiences of a fighter forced to do constant battle in a never-ending competition, the Korean lyrics are actually much bleaker than the Japanese translation. Whereas the tagline of the Japanese version ended with somewhat hopeful line “nevertheless I dream on,” the Korean version (which I assume Yonghwa directly wrote) has no such redemptive words, closing instead with “maybe I want to end it too.” I’m hoping Yonghwa means ending his musical career and not something even darker and more hopeless. The structure of the song also complements the despair of the lyrics as the beat of the song moves along briskly while the vocal line moves in half-time. During the verse Yonghwa sings slightly behind the beat, which also contributes to the sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In their seven-years-plus since their 2009 debut CNBLUE’s songcraft has become increasingly skillful in that time and both Yonghwa and Jonghyun are now masters of the three-minute pop song. Likewise, the demands of both their accelerated release schedule and their constant touring have strengthened their vocal technique. Yonghwa in particular is in another realm now with his varied and accomplished singing on every track. His voice is now incredibly strong and supple, ranging from a sultry purr in the lowest parts of his range on When We Were Young to a high tenor on Calling You and his passionate and expressive dynamics on Between Us are the engine that powers that song.

Ironically, even though this may be one of their strongest and most accomplished releases to date, its sales have been the poorest of their career in South Korea, their home country. The album has done well internationally, topping iTunes charts in nine countries around the world and garnering almost universally positive and in some cases rave reviews. Yet in South Korea CNBLUE continue to be prophets without honor in their own country as neither the song nor the album have been particularly well-received.

There are several reasons why this might be, chief amongst those being the fickle, youth-driven South Korean pop music market, as well as the lingering damage from the bad PR the band suffered last summer due to the incompetence of their agency, FNC entertainment, in the handling of insider-trading accusations. FNC also seems to have been caught by surprise with the middling reception of one of their headliner acts, as publicity and promotions in SK have been scanty. Recent CNBLUE releases have also had lackadaisical support from FNC but CNBLUE’s overall popularity during those times made up for the agency’s indifference. But after last summer’s controversy it’s a brand new world, and seven years in Kpop is an eternity, so even reliably popular senior groups like CNBLUE have been losing market share to the latest hot new acts.

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Slowly dawning, CNBLUE, Inkigayo, 2017

Watching CNBLUE make the rounds of the Kpop music shows this past week has been an interesting experience. Since their digital sales have been lower than usual they have no chance of winning any of the trophies on these programs, so their performances have been somewhat meaningless. Added to that is the fact that they are mostly hand-syncing on these programs—they certainly give it their best, but since they are used to the much more invigorating experience of playing live in their concerts, being on Kpop shows has got to be a little bit less than exciting for them. I think it’s starting to dawn on them that they might not need Kpop or commercial success in South Korea to keep making their music. They’ve topped charts all over Asia and have even cracked the Billboard Top Ten World Music charts with this release, so maybe South Korea is beginning to become irrelevant to them. Although it’s sad they’re not appreciated in their home country these may be the hard facts.

It may be the start of their transition from a Kpop group to a real touring band, which is probably better for them in the long run. Their abilities and appeal are undeniable so I hope they can expand their base beyond the unappreciative South Korea music market. I’ve been following popular music for decades and CNBLUE’s talent is a rare and special thing. CNBLUE creates pop of the highest order and it would be criminal for their surpassingly excellent music not to be heard and appreciated by a wider global audience.

Bonus beats: In case you need convincing that Between Us is a great song, here’s a piano cover of it. Even without all the fancy overdubs the bones of this tune are so solid. This is amazing songwriting, people. Listen and weep.

March 29, 2017 at 10:08 pm 7 comments

Nevertheless I Dream On: CNBLUE Euphoria album review

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Yonghwa dreams, Glory Days, 2016

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Three versions, You’re So Fine

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

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


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

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

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

January 11, 2017 at 6:49 am 5 comments

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