K-Pop Roundup: Girl Idols Exid, CLC, Fiestar, and Luna toggle the middle with final thoughts on Jonghyun

First things first…

I finally played through Jonghyun’s album, She is. It’s interesting…

Base feels like a work of pure creativity. It feels relaxed and assured in its creation. “Deja-Boo” is at the height of slinky, cool, and sexy R&B while “Neon” bends and melds acoustic and electric sounds to create something that’s somehow traditionally accessible and futuristically forward-moving. “Base” is true art.

By comparison, She is feels like it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too (albeit this is via my Western perspective). It feels like Faulkner, an artist who went for the art then decided to go for some money. By being an artist, being commercial was never going to produce a generic, or even all that commercial, result. The faux folk chorus of “White T-Shirt” feels made for western radio but the production and genre melding  is on a higher level because that’s how Koreans do. And pop-folk is not even big in Korea. So ultimately, I guess that I will say it’s really more of an attempt to branch out sonically via Western trends that won’t sound so “trendy” to an Eastern audience.

Meanwhile, the middle of the record–”Orbit,” “Moon,” and “Aurora” feel like the proper follow up to Base. It’s R&B that feels effortlessly playful and sexy. It’s wonderful. Unfortunately, it ends. The end of the record includes an obligatory electro jam with hip hip elements (“Dress Up”) and a power ballad that requires belting “YOU’RE MY COCKTAIL” before finally getting back to the records R&B thesis with “Red” and “Suit.”

Overall, I’m tempted to wonder if Jonghyun is a one-trick pony. His unique intonation, soulful and heavily bodied (and sometimes a little warped), works wonderfully for forward thinking R&B. He takes the genre and pushes it in every direction to create something cohesive. It expresses naturally. He is the god of the acoustic/dance R&B landscape, building a universe that is varied and unique.

However, when he tries to venture away into other pop landscapes, the results feel a lot more contrived by sheer proximity to such stellar identity-branded rhythmic babymakers. The album needed more consistency. The record feels too self-conscious of its place as a sequel, trying to proceed from previous material while simultaneously embarking on something new. It’s a good exercise for the ear with a lot of good songs, but as an album, it falls a little short. For a k-pop album, sure, it’s great, but that’s not setting the bar high, and Jonghyun deserves the highest of standards. If you edit the album to be a followup to Base, it’s a delight that readies you for his next great genre defying step. Sooner or later, he was going to have to do something new, but this mixed result leaves me worried. It’s strongest when it stays true to form.

Ultimately, I’m just going to enjoy the spoils of following this great artist’s career.

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Sophisticates don’t drop mics. They drop books.

GIRL WARS Continues

Exid releases “L.I.E.”. On first listen, I didn’t like it. I thought I would force myself to love it because I root for Exid…but I can’t. I under-appreciated April’s Spring album and got so wrapped up in it just recently. And then there are the other wonderful girl group releases this year. In other words, I’m not desperate enough to justify L.I.E. If they were a b-list rookie group from a minor label, this would be a classic. Like “Cheer Up”, there is a kind of faux Island vibe that is brief but kind of great, but everything around it is OTT. The guitar pop chorus is crap and comes out of no where. The midi horn hip hop has devolved into crap. This song does not even try to transition. The individual elements sound overblown and amateurish and there is no attempt to even connect them. This is some tryhard nonsense. If you are in the mood for cheap pop, here you go. During a slower year, I would probably love this for a week or two, though.

The overt sex of the video is the only good part of this whole era. A “scandal” is the only way this even deserves recognition. Exid are starting to overstretch their fifteen minutes that started with “Up and Down”. They need to do a proper pop/R&B follow up to “Every Night” for their global cult following (which I’m a member of) and accept a lower position in their local pop culture if it comes to that. They can either ride high on a wave of desperation or revert to cult goddesses. Please choose the latter.

Meanwhile, CLC trumped Exid in song, but their visuals are…lacking. I’m just leaving that there.

“No oh oh” blends bubble gum and retro hip hop for a delicious groove. And the chorus goes pop with horns while actually maintaining the fun and energy. To often, songs go “edgy” in the verses and “generically pop” in the chorus, but this song keeps it all together into something that has a deep bass but still maintains its danceable bounce. Also, it maintains interest without needing a dozen musical bridges. The main musical hook/genre really does sustain the whole production. It’s nice to see a group entertain with such a tight approach, instead of catering to my ADD generation. But don’t worry, there are a couple of flourish hooks and a nice middle-eight bridge to provide a splendid break.

CLC may not have the visual but they have the song. The visual should enhance an already great song, but, as is normal in pop, sometimes you need the visual just to make you like the song. Now, someone who should have both in spades is Luna.

Luna is my favorite member of f(x). Solo releases have the tendency to be lackluster. (Taemin’s “Drip Drop” and Jonghyun’s albums are hard earned exceptions.)

But given Hyomin and some other solo divas, I was curious about Luna. The song itself is odd. You can imagine a Western black soul diva too big, too gay, and/or too overweight (and/or too black because apparently you have to be white to hit big with power ballads in the 21st century) for a major career singing this song. So I love it.

All around the world, “gay” translates. There is not a club on an inhabited continent without a gay club scene playing the same dance power anthems. And the more homophobic the society, the more unaware straight people are that their fave just released the most gloriously gay song ever. Seriously, go through 2PM’s discography.

I’ll just leave these here…

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Finally, we have Fiestar. I did not leave them last for any good reason. I just went with the flow. When I first heard “Apple Pie,” I was left wanting. Then I listened again after “L.I.E.” and loved it.

Fiestar had a wonderful thing going with R&B. “You’re Pitiful” was a masterful era. The performances with their gorgeous visuals, the detail-oriented chair and partner choreography, and, most importantly, that great song were top notch. It was destined to end up as unappreciated as Rainbow’s “Black Swan.” Like Rainbow’s Innocent, Fiestar’s Black Label hit a variety of sounds while crafting a good front to back listen (Innocent is significantly greater though).

Fiestar may have had a rocky career, but the songs are always strong. From the power electro pop of “Vista”, to the sensual latin-pop of “Whoo!”, to “Pitiful’s” spiritual and literal follow up, “Mirror,” the songs have never been tainted with the struggles of a flailing pop career.

Obviously, Fiestar was going to have to try something new after “Mirror.” “Mirror” shouldn’t even exist, considering “Pitiful” did not exactly set the world on fire. I was surprised to even see them release another song so soon.

So all of this brings us back to where we started, “Apple Pie.” It defied expectations and sometimes it takes me a minute to adjust. But listening to it with other recent releases really highlighted the strengths of this track. Once again, a girl group who really could use every genre switching bridge in the K-Pop Bible on OTT levels of maximalism in order to stand out, instead keep it very tight and controlled, although not as much as CLC. And it works.

The chorus is “sweet like Apple Pie” in its pure pop. It swings. It jingles. the electro bridges are brief but add welcome edges. The electro post chorus add actual character instead of just edginess as you hear devilish taunts and giggles. A darkness hides under the bright sweetness. This is beautiful song crafting. It’s layered with an actual theme in mind. It’s more than blendered trends (even though I love those songs when done well and they are tough to do well).

The sweet girl is cackling under the smile. Replacing your typical ethereal/break down middle-eight bridge with a hip hop segment is kind of brilliant. This is what happens when you meld genres to create a good pop song and not to just make a big splash in hopes of continuing your success. Unfortunately, I think we know which approach the market is most likely to reward.

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