I admit it: I’ve come to prefer Korean pop over American pop. The familiar argument, that Korean producers replicate American pop conventions with sly distance and scientific expertise, won’t fly — given the present mediocrity of the American Top 40, what’s to like? Rather, the auteurs behind K-pop have mastered a sort of transhistorical bricolage that stateside comes naturally only to indie bands and the occasional hip-hop beatsmith, turning the planet’s entire history of recorded music into the K-pop producer’s playground — a massive compendium of discrete ingredients available for ransacking, for twisting into concise pop structures. If this is the counterargument to the plagiarism charge, I don’t entirely buy it either, since it could just as easily produce surreal garbage. Maybe it’s just that when a musical cottage industry starts training kids to be pop stars since before adolescence, some of them turn out really talented.
I.U.: Palette (Loen/Fave)
Since going “mature” four years ago on her breakthrough album, Modern Times, I.U. has specialized in several international ballad styles, none of them originally Korean. Assuming an air of dreamy sophistication, the former ingenue has dipped her toes into lounge-jazz, bossa nova, neodisco, Celine Dion facsimile, and any number of styles consistent with notions of cosmopolitan urbanity. Leave it to an aesthete this shrewd to identify each genre’s good parts and isolate them in palatable replicas for her fanbase. The floaty, feathery R&B she offers on this album is typically delightful.
Qualities that would repel in an Anglophone or Francophone singer fascinate in her: her choices in stylistic sources position her as the final link in a chain denoting moments of self-conscious self-differentiation. Slow R&B burners this fluffy, not to mention cocktail ballads this demonstrative, would already qualify as shamelessly retro if Justin Timberlake sang them; I.U.’s translation of this mode into Korean adds an extra layer of distance, such that the music turns obsessively self-reflexive, containing mirror upon mirror. Awareness of form ensures a willingness to stretch formal boundaries, and this album uses blank space to such masterful effect that each song blurs the traditional distinction between ballads and dance tracks. Piano, strings, quietly subtle rhythm guitar, and cannily minimal drum machine create thin, restrained, readymade shapes. While she sings straightforwardly around the melody in the foreground, her breathy backup vocals — or strings, or a softly ostinato keyboard texture — fill in the empty spots between the lines drawn by the discrete instruments, tricking the listener into imagining vast expanses of space. Paradoxically, the effect is intimate; the songs and their singer have room to breathe, especially on “Love Alone,” the album’s centerpiece — a slow, haunting, excruciating ballad extraordinaire. Swaying with stark power while stealing from Brazil the concept of saudade, the song’s gentle, plucked acoustic guitar harmonics accentuate a melody inextricable from the rawness of her voice. Nine more songs in this vein produce an album of exquisite delicacy.
Thrilling in its reticence, Palette is primarily a triumph of arrangement, of instruments positioned next to each other in complimentary proportions. Hence, you can feel the ache in I.U.’s singing. Play it at night over headphones and gasp at her every whisper.
Day6: Sunrise (JYP Entertainment)
Each release by this guitar-toting gang has leaned a tad more heavily toward arena rock, and their full-length debut is where they turn on their distortion pedals and crunch up a storm. Pounding energetically as they do, there’s nevertheless a dull predictability to this move that makes me wish they’d lighten up again.
As their eye shadow and punchy, theatrical dynamics would indicate, they draw as much influence from mid-’00s American emo bands as from late ‘00’s Korean indie-rock, but their strengths are inversely proportional to those of most emo bands. Theoretically I’m not sure whether Dashboard Confessional is a band anybody should emulate. As with those avatars of bathetic yearning, Day6’s ballads, so huge and soaring and plaintive, are kitsch masterpieces — the magnificent “I Smile,” its solemn, arpeggiated guitar chime ringing out through the air, flaunts heartbreak the way a jock might bare a set of washboard abs. Their upbeat songs, however, land with a joyless thud, beholden to excessive notions about how hard the drums must hit and how gritty the guitars must sound. If the mix were crisp rather than merely polished, the guitars might crack sharply and provide serviceable contrast with the songwriting’s earnest sensitivity, but instead the band bulldozes the material into a blunt thrash. Comparison with Daydream, last year’s sublime mini-album, reveals much; when their power pop was still agile on its feet, their amusement at getting to act like heartthrobs shone through. Here the distorted whomp obscures such frivolities. The difference is slight but exhausting.
Many of their hooks remain fetching — ”I Wish,” “I’m Serious” (what a title!) — but taken together they equal an album overwhelmed by hasty rock loudness. Barring a resurgence in rhythmic spring, I hope they shift their focus to ballads exclusively. Adducing a bleeding heart may just inspire emotions extreme enough to satisfy.
Ignito: Gaia (Mnet)
I’m skeptical of foreign language rap — each language’s cadence clicks with a different set of rhythms, and not always those specified by received Anglophone convention. Thankfully, Ignito concedes nothing to such expectations, and the Korean rapper’s second album delivers sensationalist energy while realizing the language’s sonic potential for rapid-fire delivery.
Musically, this album turns being loud and obnoxious into a battle cry. Producer Kontrix’s beats — which combine synthesized strings, power chords, sinister showoff lead guitar, giant slabs of slammed electronic boom, and, on “Metal Rising,” a massed choir — recall prior hip-hop accompaniment less than they do Kavinsky, the Star Wars soundtrack (prequels only) interpreted for synthesizer, and any music imbued with the sort of grandiosity whereby a hero has only four minutes to save the world. This is maximalist orchestral technocratic schlock of the highest order, conjuring a mock sense of shock at its own presence — “oh no, it’s me!,” cry the electronic violins and the blues guitar. The bullheaded arrogance necessary for a rapper to choose this as his musical setting astounds, and Ignito delivers. He’s got the voice for it: deep, aggressive, froglike, inhabiting a defiantly angry yet infuriatingly self-assured tone that matches the orchestration exactly. Lacking sufficient knowledge of Korean rap to place him in context, I’ll compare him instead to Kevin Gates; both convey the sense that their tongues are too big for their mouths, so they can only blubber their lips. But Ignito’s flow is quicker and more multifaceted, more mindful of internal rhymes, more willing to stretch a line and break the meter. Treating macho puffery as a kinetic skill, the album plays like a pushy show of technique. He’s got the eye of the tiger, and you’re gonna hear him roar.
No clue what the lyrics are saying beyond an English chorus or two, and I’m not sure I want to — given his manner on the microphone, he might be an unpleasant character up close. I’m grateful to the language gap for rendering delectable such a vivid portrait of gruff masculinity in the abstract.
Lovelyz: R U Ready? (Woolim/CJ E&M)
Whatever the virtues of sugary soda and tacky plastic product, a reasonable consumer could wonder just how many girly electropop albums one needs. The answer is a zillion, obviously. This Korean girl group’s second album, as tangible as Silly Putty, terrifically demonstrates why.
So cheerful one might consider them a parody of pep, PC Music’s fantasy of what the perfect K-pop band would sound like, Lovelyz inhabit a childish cuteness that, contrary to expectations, isn’t common in K-pop proper — even the danciest stars typically court the adult contemporary market as well. With song titles like “My Little Lover,” a singer (one of eight) named “Baby Soul,” and a musical style whose cartoon simplicity codes as pre-erotic, Lovelyz instead pursue the diminutive. The album thrills in its one-dimensionality. Fizzy bright synthesizers squeak, whirr, and pop like balloons pop; synthetic slapped funk bass bounces like a rubber ball; hyped-up drum machines get the party going; breathless vocals project utter delight at the fact of their presence in such a playful environment. Imagine a digital electronic template as sweet and clean as Britney Spears’s, with the mood altered from flirty ambiguity to the joy a child feels upon seeing a pile of birthday presents, each shinier than the next, wrapped in glossy paper and tied with a bow. I’ll extend the metaphor: the singers, ebullient as they are, represent the kid. The spritzy beats, and by extension the whole album, represent the most fabulous gift one could have hoped for. What a treat to witness such joy.
This album ticks off so many of my taste boxes — sleekly stylized product, formalized genre exercise, crafty simulations of emotional structure, sonic textures you can taste and feel — that it inspires the sneaking suspicion that these elements all belong to one mode. They don’t necessarily, though. The album’s just perfect, that’s all.