EXO-K - "XOXO"

As much as I was cautiously looking forward to EXO's first album, by the time "Wolf" came out as the official lead single, I began losing hope. That song, which I'll get to later, is a disaster that brought EXO down with it. I'm so, so relived though that the rest of "XOXO" gave me the exact opposite reaction. It's far from a perfect album, but it is what I've been wanting from them since their debut.

"XOXO", thank heavens, is a focused, technically competent album that is able to show off the group's strengths, all while giving them enough room to breathe, and to come into their own. And that's what I think a debut release should be -- that's what I think EXO should've began with. They are (were?) a rookie group, and while I don't agree with the "they're rookies and they should be excused for all their mistakes" mindset, I do think that rookies need material that will enhance all their strong points, not overpower them and leave them struggling to catch up with the song. Yes, EXO is being pushed as this "super group", but at the end of the day they are people with strengths and weaknesses. The purpose of the rookie period, in my opinion, is to play up those strengths, not strain them. And I still think "MAMA" and "Wolf" were more straining than they were helping.

"Wolf" is a complete and utter mess. In each of the parts there is a faint idea of what the whole song is trying to be, and trying to do, and it's not as if we're given sounds that are worlds apart yet haphazardly put together. The problem with "Wolf" is that individually, the parts are not strong enough to come together to form a song, let alone stand alone. They try to be intense, but in trying too hard they end up too cramped as elements, and as a song, even more so once they're performed. That pinch of effortlessness that a song, and a performance, needs, which usually comes from mastery and the strength of the arrangement, is absent in "Wolf", and that ultimately causes the song to be too flat. There is such a thing as being too intense. And because they're weak, together or apart, the further you get in to the song, the less you remember. It's forgettable, firstly because of the weak parts, and second because it's as if they just fly by and go through you. As a listener, you're left trying to chase after the song and digest everything, but by the end I was trying to figure out what I had just heard. Sure, it makes you replay it, but for all the wrong reasons. If as a spectator I feel overwhelmed enough, what more as a performer.

The rest of this album though, is an absolute joy to listen to. Though generic around the edges, and dynamic in terms of quality, the rest of "XOXO" achieves what it set out to prove, and does so with a slowly-building, but visible, identity, and some genuinely gorgeous songs. Each of the tracks has proven something, and almost all of them have dispelled many of my initial issues and doubts with EXO as a musical entity, which made listening to this even better.

"Baby Don't Cry" is gripping to say the least. As a whole it's gentle, quiet at times even, but it's also very well-done. When I first heard it I was a bit underwhelmed (and also hung-over with frustration because of "Wolf"), especially because this was the song I was waiting for the most. First because I loved it in the teaser last year, and second because I found out that Andrew Choi wrote it (he may be boring at times, but he has good taste). I was proven wrong quickly enough though, because by the time the chorus hit I was sold. "Baby Don't Cry" is a gorgeous song on it's own, as notes on a score it's convincingly graceful -- that melody is enough to carry the entire song, and the arrangement slowly builds up and doesn't falter once it reaches its peak. But beyond that, as a recording, as a performance, this song is the epitome of what I want from EXO -- a song that is strong on its own, technically and aesthetically strong, but which also leaves room for the performers to bring a part of themselves to the performance. It's tight, it's sure of itself, but that conviction only makes it easier for "Baby Don't Cry" to let EXO take the reigns. A confident song is not afraid of what the delivery might do to it, so it has no reason to overpower the performers. (as was the case with "Wolf")

As a whole package, "Black Pearl" is one of my favorites, if not my favorite. At first I was worried because the song seemed like it would turn into a monotonous song trying to be epic, with flat vocals and a one-dimensional instrumental, but once again, I was wrong. One reason why "Black Pearl" is my favorite is because I feel, with this song, that EXO are finally able to carry certain kinds of songs on their own. Unlike "Baby Don't Cry", which is gorgeous in both theory and practice, "Black Pearl" is dependent on its delivery. On paper it has its quirks, yes, but it's the delivery that sustains those quirks, and keeps the song interesting. And EXO have really done this song justice with their delivery. This is one of the kinds of epic that leaves room for the performer to build an identity, and really push the song forward.

Personally though, "Don't Go" was the song that made me genuinely smile the first time I listened to the album. It's so effortlessly gorgeous, despite being slightly generic. The melody is stunning, so much so that it was all I needed to be convinced. But apart from the gorgeous melody at the surface, "Don't Go" has a grace to it that's almost impossible to miss. It's very gentle, yes, but it's not flat -- again, it's sure of what it is and what it's capable of. The vocals are very rounded, very full, which can also tend to get boring at times, but in the song's case that roundness is countered by a crisp and equally gorgeous instrumental, which makes use of piano, a heavy but crisp percussion loop, and thin synth loops. "Don't Go" is proof that gentleness does not mean weakness or a lack of conviction, and that EXO are more than capable of pulling that off.

It seems as if I was worried about all of the songs on the album, because yet again I was worried that "Let Out The Beast" would end up like a second "Wolf", and yet again I was proven wrong. "Let Out The Beast" is a timeless kind of stylish (in pop years) -- it sounds like a mid-2000s boy band single, something groups like SS501 or DBSK would consider releasing, whether in Korea or Japan. Honestly if this was the lead single, I think they would've pulled it off well -- it's an intense song, it could possibly have very elaborate choreography, which could make for a demanding performance. But at the same time, it doesn't bombard anyone, the listeners, the performers, with a million different things all happening at the same time. It has a clear direction, it has memorable elements that can stand on their own, and it's delivered with that effortlessness that "Wolf" lacked. It's not contrived or stiff -- it's graceful despite being very strong.

I liked "3.6.5." when I first heard it, and I think this is the song on the album that's there for the sole purpose of being pretty. The same goes with "Peter Pan". That's not always a bad thing, because to me, okay filler tracks are better than badly-executed good ideas. "3.6.5." sounds like a One Direction song at times, but as a song it's not half bad. It's perky, it's lively, and convincing. "Peter Pan" may be borderline cheesy, but under the cheesiness the melody is genuinely pretty, the piano line laced with the drum line is potentially goose bump-inducing, and that electric guitar in the background gives the song some kick. Unlike other albums which slack off during filler tracks, "XOXO" doesn't -- you can still hear the conviction in the performances, and the songs themselves do have their quirks. They're pretty songs, and even if they're not the strongest on all fronts, they're not ashamed of what they are.

It took some time for me to warm up to "Heart Attack", but now I adore it. It's a step up from the monotony of "Black Pearl", which also makes it a step up in terms of dynamics. They're slightly more evident in "Heart Attack", but at the same time the stark contrast between the monotonous and dynamic of "Black Pearl" creates more friction, which "Heart Attack" has less off. I like it for what it is though -- it flows very well, and in all the right places. In this case, the auto tune serves more as embellishment than a mask, as it should. It makes the song trendier, but I really, really like that it being trendy wasn't an excuse to slack off on the details of song itself. The dynamics are well-delivered, as shown by that gorgeous middle 8, the verses are intense in a livelier way, and the chorus is that nonchalant kind of explosion that can easily turn into arrogance, but which stays nonchalant and effortless in "Heart Attack".

"Baby" follows in the footsteps of "Baby Don't Cry" in being that R&B mid-tempo, complete with boy band harmonies. And while it's not as striking as "Baby Don't Cry", it's a gorgeous song carried by another subdued by technically strong melody. This is one of the songs on the album that I would go out of my way to listen to again, because while it's also similar to the two "fillers", the melody is strong and interesting enough to carry the song beyond the "just pretty".

"My Lady" was my only disappointment among the album tracks, because I feel like I had already heard everything that mattered on this song, in the teaser this was featured on last year. The most interesting parts of the song were already stale to the ears, and the new ones weren't as strong. The elements themselves as fine, especially the more interesting parts like the smooth melody and the laid-back yet punchy instrumental, and even the idea is there -- a slick, stylish pop song. "My Lady" isn't a horrible song, but as a package listened to from start to finish, it lacks a wow factor to it.

After listening to "XOXO", I no longer doubt why they're being pushed as a "strong" group, because the album has shown me that they are capable of standing on their own, I only disagree with their choice of lead singles. I think a common theme in the album is that a lot of the material isn't necessarily ground-breaking, but not only are they the better kinds of generic, they're also well-done. By giving them something like "the classics", EXO are delivering the rudiments, the foundations, and therefore showing off what they can, and can't (but more so what they can), pull off. We all start with the foundations, and "XOXO" is EXO doing just that, and doing it successfully. The album has already shown small, but audible, signs of identity, despite a very "classic boy band" repertoire.

My favorite: "Black Pearl"
Song(s) I'd listen to again: "Baby Don't Cry", "Don't Go", "Let Out The Beast", "Heart Attack"
My least favorite: "Wolf"
The final verdict: 4.3/5

9 comments:

  1. Hehehe..so happy to find the first review of exo's xoxo..
    I do agree with some of your opinion,,but this is my review :
    1. Wolf : dubstep didn't really work 4 me, but the cooling down part is quite great --> 7,5 ( and 9 for the dance,hehe)
    2. Baby dont cry : very groovy and catchy (quite memorable since i heard it first from the demo teaser) --> 8,5
    3. Black pearls : Great opening, standard ending,,hmmmm a little disappointing from what i thought it would be --> 7,5
    4. Dont go : great catchy pop song from the beginning til the ending --> 9,5 errr... 10 is worthy,hahahaha (love suho calming voice here,,and of course baekhyun daebak!!hehehehee)
    5. Let out the beast : not my type... --> 7
    6. 365 : happy song but too childish ( ̄(工) ̄) --> 8
    7. Heart attack : good but not the best --> 7,5
    8. Peterpan : yea yea another childish song! --> 7,5
    9. Baby : sounds oriental but i love it!! --> 9
    10. My Lady : superb,, perfect pitch, perfect beat, and perfect voice! --> obviously 10!! I know that at first hearing it, the difference from the teaser is quite disappointing, but the good part is we can hear more from other exo members and i think it's a good change,heheh
    Thank u for ur review (((o(*゚▽゚*)o)))
    So the average score is : 8,25!! Congratz exo for this great album. Hope next mv will be Don't Go or My Lady ♪( ´θ`)ノ

    ReplyDelete
  2. Black Pearl was a pleasant surprise. I didn't expect much from it when it was featured in one of the teasers, but it's now become one of my favorites along with My Lady.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Once again you read my mind about this album to the point where I could probably just give up on my personal review of it.

    One note though, I don't think you should label this album as Exo-K, but Exo, because all 12 members participated in both the Chinese and Korean versions of the album as far as my knowledge goes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, the only song all 12 members participated in was Wolf. The rest of the songs are done by EXO-K for the Kiss Ver. and EXO-M for the Hug Ver.

      Delete
    2. Indeed you're right. Now to go ponder why SM thought it was a good idea to release four different versions of "Wolf."

      Delete
    3. The truth is, in the drama version, they showed off their "manly acting" while in the real music video, they showed their "manly dancing".

      And actually, their fans are like crazy with Wolf so SME is just catering them. :)

      Delete
  4. I don't think most people are intrigued with Wolf but the album is pretty good indeed. Nice review! My favourite tracks are Baby Don't Cry, Heart Attack and Let out the Beast.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I pretty much agree with you here. Baby Don't Cry has such charm but still has simplicity- it's such an addictive and pretty track, and it's very well balanced. I really loved Don't Go as well because you can hear the emotion through the sound and the sweetness made me smile. I was extremely impressed with it. Let Out the Beast is one of my favorite tracks. It's so addictive and intense, very catchy and fun. I've also enjoyed Lucky and Growl immensely, the smoothness in Growl is amazing and I heard it quite often when I was in Korea because it's very popular. I think Lucky is extremely cute and had an affect on me that was similar to Don't Go. The rest of the tracks didn't grip me as much. Maybe it'll just take some getting used to, but they're not really my style.

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  6. You hit it on the head with Black Pearl. I had yet to like a single EXO song (especially Wolf) until I heard that one and it's now one of my favorite k-pop songs.

    ReplyDelete

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