Faced with the choice between genuine American pop music and the perfect facsimiles crafted by foreign scientist-geniuses running computer algorithms on said pop music (you think I’m exaggerating; read John Seabrook), I’d still pick the American stuff, but above all K-pop has professional consistency going for it — when they guarantee a steady stream of excellent product, it means something. Each one of the Korean pop albums reviewed below qualifies as excellent product. Some even qualify as excellent art.
Gfriend: Lol (Loen Entertainment)
Since formalism in pop music is an effect of adherence to received genre convention, it makes sense that the ultraformalized K-pop industry should host an assembly line of specialized “genre performers,” but even so I’m impressed by the range of sounds coming out of corporate Korean studios. Gfriend isn’t marketed as genre-specific, yet it’s settled on a heretofore-unknown pop flavor whereby retrodisco becomes neodisco and neodisco merges with teenpop convention. As their album title would indicate (standing both for “Laugh out Loud” and “Lots of Love”), they also specialize in ebullient glee.
First listen reveals a perfect elastic bubblegum confection, but that’s too simple. Every good K-pop album and quite a few mediocre ones qualify as a perfect elastic bubblegum confection, distinguishing factors hardly necessary. This one perfects a brighter, glitzier, weirder, more specific style of bubblegum than usual. Incorporating the requisite quota of shimmering synthesizer and light guitar coloring, keyboards play against a set of startling string figures that more closely resemble classy superelegant liquid disco glide than the conventional Hollywood mawk, especially on the album’s first half. Propelled by beats that prioritize bounce over all, the strings don’t mesh with the matched synth-percussive dance hooks the way you’d expect. They just coexist within the same soundworld. When “Navillera” explodes into a random guitar solo for no reason I can imagine, it just embellishes the kaleidoscopic palette, just like the harmonica on “Distance.” When keyboards take over on the second half, the melodies retain their feelgood kiddie cheer, just the thing to convince you that the figurative adolescents singing those melodies care about the pleasure of their craft.
Declining contemporary EDM whomp as it does, the album might read retro if any disco in history had sounded roughly comparable. Instead, behold the eccentric, unlikely, imaginary dance music of the future.
Taemin: Press It (SM Entertainment)
It had to happen: every boy band eventually hits its solo record phase, regardless of whether or not the band is still active. Predictably, given craftier producers and fewer opportunities to get sensitive, Shinee pinup idol Taemin’s vaguely wink-wink-sexual pop-fluff debut outclasses his English counterpart Zayn’s. Not by much, however.
As with many heartthrob solo debuts, what stands out about this one is a glistening male vanity that can result in detail-obsessed fussiness or a solemn preoccupation with having real feelings as the case may be, and always the absurd self-objectification of anxious self-redefinition, yet that isn’t even the problem. One reason Shinee is the great Korean boy band is that it epitomizes male vanity in all its glistening glory, after all, but Shinee is a group and five cartoon heartthrobs really are better than one — the difference is less about vocal variety, which nobody who doesn’t understand Korean will notice anyway, than the energy the multiplicity of singers implies. Solo performers present themselves differently; the conventions are less gleeful, concerned with so-called adult pleasures. Avoiding upbeat bangers and schlock ballads in equal measure, he instead occupies the mild, juicy, fragrantly sugary essence of synthetic pop softcore, delicious until it starts to cloy. Drum machines maintain a suppressed midtempo glide as luscious keyboards, fruity strings, and the occasional funk guitar drip drop all over. Then the exquisitely dressed vocal subject swoops in to wow his imagined love object, serenading you/her/it with damply earnest sighs and coos and whispers, rhyming “mystery” with “sexuality.” Sometimes his voice snags on a glob of smarm still caught in his throat, but only sometimes. Mostly his larynx has been well-oiled.
Straining to present himself as distinct from the group, he hardly invents a new personality, and how could he? A generic adolescent gone mature is just a generic adult. So expert, yet the pro forma qualities strip him of his erotic power. So mature, yet somehow he’s no less a cartoon.
Red Velvet: Russian Roulette (SM Entertainment)
If American pop stars released as many albums as Korean ones release EPs, there’d be more music flooding the market than the industry would know how to sell. Every name Korean star drops at least a couple each year, whether they qualify as interim product between full-length releases, sneaky under-the-radar experiments, or simply generous outpourings of creative energy, as is the case with this delightful miniature by the most image-conscious of Korean girl groups.
What distinguishes Red Velvet from the competition is a clever split-personality trick: by dividing their songs between “red” and “velvet,” they conceptualize teenpop’s eternal split between the banger and the ballad. Among their previous releases, The Red was an irresistible skyrocket of chirpy, defiant attitude, The Velvet a dull glob of mushy lounge-elevator sensitivity, so when Russian Roulette was announced as a mix of these two styles, all bets were off. Typically, teenpop albums bifurcated in this way start with the upbeat material and then switch over to sentimental mode as a way of playing a tedious authenticity game — the upbeat material codes like perfunctory product when juxtaposed against the ballads, which in turn reassure you they were only kidding with that frivolous stuff before, actually they’re serious artists. This EP plays that game just as you’d predict, except the three vulnerable confessionals that close the record are just as sleek and stylized and catchy as the four slinkier, edgier hook machines that precede them. Each song locks into a groove defined by the confluence of polished keyboard, heavy funk bass, and cannily arranged ensemble singing, and there’s a friendliness to the ballads that dodges gush with perk. Of the former category, my favorite is “Sunny Afternoon” and its wicked, laconically buzzy synth riff. Of the latter, my favorite is “Fool,” one of those irritatingly cheerful strummed acoustic coffeeshop singalongs and its marvelously cheerful tune.
Sly, breezy, playfully calculated, they’ve solved teenpop’s sincerity problem, that pressing question of when to play active agent and when to play imagined object. Answer: whenever — just play both roles with sufficient charm there’s no doubt who’s the active agent in the end.
Mamamoo: Melting (Rainbow Bridge World)
For every Korean group immersing in convention and accidentally inventing a new pop style, there’s one copying a seemingly random genre whole. If 2Yoon can go country and IU can go retrosoul, why shouldn’t this four-piece girl group claim relaxed, jazzy lounge-samba for their own?
Although their attraction to loud, emotional belting ruins the effect a little, they’ve crafted their replica with care, and anyway they can also sing with fetchingly breathy reticence. Their swingy guitar plucking, luxurious saxophone noodling, off-kilter jazz chords, swirly clouds of backing vocals, and general aura of stylish melancholy would feel unbearably beguiling and sexy if the whole package weren’t so candidly artificial, which makes the implied romanticism look a little silly but also more fascinating, in a perversely amusing way. Songs like “Words Don’t Come Easy” and “My Hometown” (not a Springsteen cover, though I’d be curious) could be played in the background of an idealized bistro, where scruffily well-dressed bohemians relax in the afternoon and drink wine and listen to music as sophisticated as they. Only the anachronistic inclusion of other songs inhabiting other, totally random, totally unrelated genres prevents the album from reaching the disturbing verisimilitude that absurdist pastiche aspires to. No true lounge-jazz album would include an upbeat funk jam, for example, nor a rap song whose beat imitates Dr. Dre.
They’re not consistent like IU, who remains the queen of Korean period pieces, but they come close, and sometimes the cognitive dissonance between their soulful, intimate whispers and the music’s plastic surface has a thrill of its own. Next I want a girl group who sings opera. Not established arias, of course, but stylistic approximations sung in Korean. Anything is possible.