February Picks: DBSK, SNSD, Ladies' Code and more

In more recent times, I've mainly stuck to "formal" single and album reviews, with the odd opinion piece every now and then, here on Pop Reviews Now. And while I do enjoy writing them, they're very time-consuming so I can't write them as often as I used to. I'm no longer that 13 year-old high school kid with nothing else to do (though I'm not so sure if I'd want to be that again T_T) -- school and The K-Pop Writers' Workshop, my other project, take up most of my time these days. But I have resolved to write a lot more this year (we'll see how long I can keep this up), so I'm trying to find more ways to make that happen.

In addition to the "First Impressions" series I started last month, I'm introducing another regular set of posts -- my monthly picks. It's a chance to skim through tracks, and comebacks, that I've enjoyed this month but didn't have time to write full reviews on. I've gotten used to writing very long-winded, almost rambling, reviews these past few years but there's also skill in having to condense observations and opinions down to a paragraph or two. These two new series are a lot more casual than my "proper" reviews (I'll still be writing those though!) -- call it a "revisiting" of the blogger roots I've kind of forgotten what with my ambitions to be a ~legit~ music writer.

February was a great month for new releases, so much so that I actually had to cut down this list from around fifteen tracks from fifteen different artists, down to less than ten. There's also a nice variety of high-profile and mid-level acts, and in turn this month's releases cover wide ground as far as musical direction and over-all sound is concerned.

"A Day Without You" - Jonghyun (SHINee) and Chen (EXO) as SM The Ballad

I loved 2010 SM The Ballad, mainly for the existence of "Hot Times," so when the line-up for this year's reincarnation was released I was a bit skeptical -- I couldn't imagine a good dynamic between the members they chose. But when the songs started coming out, I realized that they didn't need to all work together well because this was to be a duets release and not a sub-unit. I know everyone has gushed over the Taeyeon track (which I don't really like), but honestly for me Jonghyun and Chen's duet stands out the most. What I like about "A Day Without You" is that it has a sense of dynamics, the elements convey a sense of emotion other than melodramatic sadness. The choice of synth loop, the very "small" and quaint-sounding instruments, and Jonghyun and Chen's very boisterous vocals on an extremely smooth melodic line create a kind of friction. And that friction is what makes "A Day Without You" a song with character in the sea of boring ballads.

"1004 (Angel)" - BAP
B.A.P. have never been prominent on my radar, but I've seen enough to know who they are and what they do well. Still, I started listening to "First Sensibility" knowing nothing and therefore having next to no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by the A&R though, because there were some pretty songs on the album. However, majority of them are the kind of pretty that don't go past the surface and therefore one, have weak recall, and two, become forgettable. I still listen to some of the tracks like "Body & Soul", but most of the novelty that grabbed me has worn off. Considering that, "Angel" was the right choice for lead single because it has more depth compared to the other tracks. It's a pretty song, with a catchy guitar loop whose recall is actually stronger than the melody, a melody that's the right balance between melodic and singable also giving it strong recall, good delivery and strong production. Is it original? No. We've heard a lot of this before from the likes of Big Bang and other pop/"hip hop"/R&B idol groups. But for what it is, is it a good song? Yes. Am I keeping this on rotation for the next few weeks? Yes.

"So Wonderful" - Ladies' Code

Last year, Ladies' Code were the only rookie group on my Top 50, despite a sea of debuts. And after hearing "So Wonderful," it's good to know that I wasn't mistaken in placing my bets on them. Their musical trajectory is pretty clear now, and it's also obvious that it works well for them. Sound-wise, the production is strong for a group of their stature, the song is extremely catchy at the chorus but balanced by enough of the prominent (but simple) melodic line of the verses. "So Wonderful" is a song that carries the group, but the group's vocals have enough character and dimension to do some lifting themselves. While it's not yet quite a balance -- less attention is placed on the melody as opposed to other elements like the trumpet or the electric guitar and at certain parts the strings -- this definitely isn't the case of Ladies' Code being dragged around by "So Wonderful."

"Fxxk U" - GAIN with 범키

The Brown Eyed Girls are the only group group that I like not only as a group, but also as solo acts -- I have favorites from all four members' solo work, and I understand where each of them is coming from. What I like about BEG and their solo work is that they put out more "sophisticated"-sounding material but they do it so well. The material doesn't come off as pretentious like a lot of K-pop acts who try to be "artistic" or "serious," -- they're able to capture the feel and sound they want and execute it within a pop context, complete with catchy hooks and cleaner than clean production. And that's what "Fxxk U" is. There is emphasis on the melody, something a lot of "serious" songs forget in favor or what I call ambient elements like obscure synths or weird loops -- elements that have no effect on the foundations of the song and sound. On "Fxxk U," the dynamics are supplied by the melody and the vocals, as are the hook and the character of the song's sound. And that's how it should really be done.

"Some" - SoYou (SISTAR) and JunggiGo

I was both surprised and not really surprised to hear that "Some" has already won several music shows -- it didn't really strike me as a high-profile release, but on the other hand I really liked it. "Some" is the kind of song I can loop the whole day and not get annoyed -- it's pleasant on my groggiest mornings, and for a song to achieve that is a big thing. Again, it boils down to the balance "Some" has struck in it's dynamics. There is depth and urgency to the instrumental, with the crisp drum line, the snappy hand claps and the warm but relatively high-pitched synth line. But the melody is so smooth -- it's the subdued, "shy" kind of graceful, which tones down everything happening in the background. What you get is a song that is subtle on the surface, but can also be intense when you want it to.

"Mr.Mr." - SNSD

This whole week I'd been debating on whether or not to write a full review on the new SNSD EP, or even just the single. While I haven't decided yet, after having the entire EP on loop for the past few days I realize that I only really have one general observation, and that it's shown quite well by the lead single. It's no longer a matter of cohesion as it was for "I Got A Boy" (which is good -- one issue down), it's that considering SNSD's stature and the resources available to them and SME, "Mr.Mr." falls short on its very foundations. It's a nice song to have playing in the background at home or in a movie because you can take any ten seconds and everything that can happen, is happening -- synth loops and guitars and bass -- but that's it. They just happen with seemingly no framework because of the lack of dynamics. This has been my issue with SNSD's Korean repertoire for quite some time already -- there's too much focus on the style that the substance is lost in the process. While I don't condone style, in fact it's half the make-up of a song, I still believe that substance and musical foundations shouldn't be sacrificed in favor of it. Because of the lopsided amounts of style and substance put into it, "Mr.Mr." becomes a very flimsy song -- there's very, very little underneath all the flashy synth loops and the gripping but disjointed melody.

"Spellbound" - DBSK

It's good to know that while their Japanese material is deteriorating (to my horror), DBSK's Korean material seems to be doing okay, doing well even. "Spellbound" has become one of my favorite K-Pop mid tempos -- especially considering that there are so few of them (in favor of extremes of up tempos or ballads) and not all are exactly well done. It's cohesive with the sound "Tense" and "Something" established, with the qualities of other Yoo Young Jin "slow jams" like "Before U Go" and "Hot Times." On one hand it's still the swing-inspired, updated "big band" sound with all the brass, but on the other it uses very current-sounding beats and percussion loops along with Yoo Young Jin's signature smooth R&B-influenced harmonies as a hook. Like "Something" there's a lot to talk about when it comes to "Spellbound" (so I'm also considering writing a full-length review if I have the time), but one of my favorite qualities of the song is the fact that is successfully fuses the two very distinct sounds -- the swing and the more contemporary R&B -- and how it went about doing it. It was ingenious to take the brass and juxtapose it against computerized beats, but it makes sense because those two elements are what make their respective sounds so distinct. Good songwriting, coupled with Yunho and Changmin's strong execution makes for a song fit for a group of DBSK's caliber.

As a whole (and not just the tracks above), February's releases were a good mix of up tempos, ballads and "experiments" -- I can imagine listening to a lot of these songs for quite some time.


  1. You totally need to listen to Zhang Li-yin's version of "Set Me Free." It's really beautiful.

    1. I second this. It literally brought me to tears.

      (Yes, yes, hi Shweta XDD)


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