U-KISS are better than your oppars aka EX(wh)O

Hearing Alone for the first time was like every holiday had been mixed together and stuffed inside a pie.

 

While I have been MIA for the past several months, I assure you my ears have been awake and working hard. Where some groups have been doing shit-all (that means you, EXO) others have been working their pretty, sculpted backsides off to no avail.  Arguably, EXO’s success—which has come about from one mere, mediocre mini-album—is riding off the power of their company and label mates’ established names rather than their own merit and hard work. Because of this, I find it difficult to not to shed a tear for the poor souls on lesser known labels whose talents are just as good as—or perhaps better than—the power groups of SM, YG and JYP Entertainment.

Yes, I’m looking at you, U-KISS.

  U-KISS-Stop-Girl-Wallpaper-u-kiss

U-KISS have been so prolific in my absence (actually, I haven’t gone anywhere—I’ve just been lazy) I’m actually using this semi-opinionated rant article as a mass review for the stream of releases in Japan and Korea over the past few months. Following DORADORA, our little workaholics have released eight MVs, two Japanese singles, two mini-albums, one full-length album, and two digital singles that no one actually remembers. The point is U-KISS have done more in seven months than some groups (coughexocough) have done their entire career. Is this the result of the age-old quality vs quantity debate? Maybe. Or a testament of label power? Most definitely.

As fun as it is to rip on EXO—their fans are so blindly and hilariously defensive it’s actually sad—that is not the point of this article. I’m here to glance over U-KISS’ recent endeavours and lament over their continued but unjustified lack of notable success. I know I’m supposed to be (relatively) unbiased but get over it: U-KISS are awesome and deserve my love and your money.

DORADORA was very quickly succeeded by yet another mini-album; The Special to KISSME hit our screens just one month after DORADORA with title track Believe. While notably lacking the edge and style of the previous release, Believe was certainly fresh and easy listening. I mean, how could it not be with all those pastels and aqua? Written by member AJ, the track was catchier and more likeable than anything called Believe should have been. Thus, AJ’s decision to take a brief hiatus from the band to pursue tertiary education was the saddest day of my life. (It wasn’t really, because I’m not insane.)

AJ’s departure did not leave the hole I thought it would: Stop Girl was an amazing mini-album and despite its ballad-like appearance, it didn’t make me want to kill myself as ballads tend to do. If that isn’t a credit to U-KISS’ talent then I don’t know what is. The black and white MV was poignant and the inclusion of an English version of the song was very much welcomed. Another highlight of the Stop Girl mini was accompanying ballad Time to Go. I’m not really sure what it was about September that made me so welcoming to slower tunes, but I certainly won’t complain because this album quenched a thirst I didn’t know I had.

Somewhere in between Believe and Stop Girl were Japanese releases, Dear My Friend and One of You. I don’t really have a much of an opinion to offer on these tracks because Japanese music labels are monumental tight-arses when it comes to offering full-length videos on YouTube, thus I have never given them more than a once over. Evidently, they were not that memorable—much like digital singles Cinderella and Gangstar Boy which no one outside the diehard KISSMEs have even heard of. Rounding out 2012 was yet another mediocre Japanese ballad by the name of Distance. It was … nice. And that’s all I’m going to say.

If 2013 is not U-KISS’ glory year then something is horridly wrong with the world. The year has started strongly in the industry, headed by new releases from big guns SHINee and Super Junior M. While I think Breakdown is brilliant and my ears like Dream Girl much more than my eyes do, my highlight so far this year is U-KISS’ latest Japanese single. Hearing Alone for the first time was like every holiday had been mixed together and stuffed inside a pie. And if there’s one thing I like, its pie. Alone is dark, gritty, catchy and undeniably sexy. Even Kevin with his androgynous looks and borderline homosexual mannerisms had me swooning. The sheer joy this song had AJ forgotten in seconds. But let’s face it—what group actually needs three dedicated rappers? In any case, this song had me cursing avexnetwork more than ever for being so narrow-sighted and backwards and not having HD version of their music videos posted in full to their YouTube Channel. Believe it or not guys, free public exposure is actually helpful. Who would have thought?

No comeback, however, is official unless it takes place in Korea.  While I question the decision to release so closely to SHINee I strongly commend U-KISS on their comeback stages. Personally found title track Standing Still had much more of an impact than SHINee’s eye-murdering Dream Girl. If wardrobe was anything to take into consideration then U-KISS would have won hands down because God knows SHINee’s stylist should have been euthanized years ago.

Taemin's awful wardrobe in DREAM GIRL

Standing Still is an amazing showcase of vocalists Hoon, Kevin and Soohyun. As with much of U-KISS’ discography these three carry the bulk of the workload, and with well-earned justification.  And Hoon’s blond hair is just smokin’. Appearance aside, Standing Still is a solid track and I regret to say I’m unable as yet to locate a copy of the full album, Collage. How about you import some Korean CDs other than TVXQ, eh Japan?

Let’s put praise on hold for a minute and remember: no band is perfect. While U-KISS’ music and vocals are definitely up to snuff their choreography blows more than an underpaid prostitute. This is not really a reflection on the talent of U-KISS themselves but more the rather strange inspirations of their choreographer. How about we take a moment to remember the enraged chicken of the Neverland video.

U-KISS - Neverland Dance

But if the industry worked on dancing prowess alone, there would be some serious eyebrows raised over Super Junior’s success. Yes, that is an unveiled stab at Heechul. Possibly Yesung. Definitely Ryeowook.

And on that note …

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[ALBUM] KAT-TUN – Chain

KAT-TUN’s voices seem to lend themselves to ballads as they don’t suffer from a distasteful whine which occasionally rears its head in some of their more powerful songs.

Admittedly, my interest in KAT-TUN dropped when Akanishi Jin announced his intentions to go solo, so much so I actually skipped the No More Pain album altogether. But in light of Jin’s failed attempt at a Western album, I thought I’d take a look at what he’d left behind. I was genuinely surprised by what I found.

I really did have low expectations of how KAT-TUN would function after Jin’s departure. Of course, one man does not make a group, but to lose the best vocalist and dancer it did have me concerned as to how well KAT-TUN would function without him. While I cannot speak for No More Pain, I would like to offer my congratulations to KAT-TUN for having completed a rather nice little product. While many fans may miss Jin, he is certainly not missed on this album. With seventeen tracks Chain has a lot on offer; however fans avidly following KAT-TUN may be a little disappointed to find five of these were previously released singles leaving only twelve new tracks to show. Even so, twelve is the average length of a studio album, and even if a further five of these are solos, it is still a generous helping.

It does go without saying that the singles rank amongst the best on Chain. Change Ur World, Ultimate Wheels, White, Run For You, and Birth were all previously released with MVs, followed by Lock On, which was released as the title track of the album. Lock On was a great choice as the title as it is certainly an amazing song and probably my favourite on the album. The sound is powerful, energetic and portrays KAT-TUN as a better-rounded and mature group. I’m not entirely sure what role the robot in the water tank fills in the MV but I’m not one to question these things. The choreography is nothing spectacular but the MV is still worth a look as no one ever looks bad in black suits.

The other singles contain a similar sound which seems indicative of the new style KAT-TUN has cultivated. Their post-Jin sound is edgier, darker and all-round more mature which no doubt reflects the way KAT-TUN and the bulk of their fan base as grown. Birth has a great, upbeat pop sound and is diversified by the inclusion of a sick bass line. I’m not entirely sure about the trumpets and other brass instruments in the background but in general the track has a great feel. The vocals form a nice harmony even if Kamenashi seems a little overpowering in the chorus. Change Ur World has a delicious rock feel emphasised by the powerful intro. Regardless of any personal issues I have with taking shortcuts with the English language, I really like this song. While it seems KAT-TUN have shot their payload on the singles, the album itself is still held to a relative high calibre. A highlight of Change Ur World for me was Koki’s rap, which seems to be depressingly scarce on Chain. In general, I found this to be a bit of a letdown as Koki is certainly one of it not the best rapper amongst the Johnny’s cohort. It is nice to see more of his singing talent, though.

Ultimate Wheels is a good song with a bad MV and even worse title. Honestly, could they have made it any more of an obvious car endorsement? In any case, the song has a theatrical feel made epic by the string accompaniment. I wish I could say the same for the title.  Fortunately though, the only real negative quality to this song is the ridiculous title and consequent inability to listen to it without thinking of cars. Thanks KAT-TUN.

Run for You and White round out the singles featured on the album. Run for You has a horridly catchy chorus and, while the song is not overly boring, it’s generally pretty standard as far as KAT-TUN songs go. Although not as impressive as Ultimate Wheels, Change Ur World and Lock On, it is decent and in tune with KAT-TUN’s new sound.  I have to deduct points for the mismatched techno-remix slopped into the middle of the song and also the over use of autotune. Even though KAT-TUN’s vocal talents are mediocre at best in the scheme of Asian pop, no one is in need of that much digital manipulation.

Although White is weakest amongst the singles it still ranks in the upper half of the album. The rap solo in White is the best on Chain, being quite fast and impressive as always. Koki certainly has an attitude in his voice that only shines through when rapping and it’s a real shame his rap solos were so limited. However, with rap tracks being few and far between it acts as a mean of drawing attention to specific songs, of which White is one.

KAT-TUN - Ultimate Wheels

Chain is an album tastefully devoid of ballads. There are only three soppy tracks—not including the solos—and this makes for a fun album. あの日のように [Ano Hi No You Ni] is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a J-Pop ballad: the vocals are soft and the music pretty and there’s not a lot more that needs to be said. I have to say, though, KAT-TUN’s voices seem to lend themselves to ballads as they don’t suffer from a distasteful whine which occasionally rears its head in some of their more powerful songs. But for some reason, I’ve always hated KAT-TUN ballads. I think the slowest KAT-TUN song I claimed to have liked was Water Dance off the particularly impressive Break the Records album. I know, I know—I hate all pop ballads but the only thing worth nothing about あの日のように [Ano Hi No You Ni] is the rare inclusion of Koki‘s rapping. 歩道橋 [Hodoukyou] also falls into the same category of pretty vocals but without the mildly exciting rap. 儚い指先 [Hakanai Yubisaki] is the highlight of the slower songs as it has a little more energy than its fellow ballads. Regardless of my personal tastes, I can’t fault KAT-TUN’s vocals in these tracks as they certainly present them in the highest quality.

Amongst group tracks on the album Smile for You is the low point as it is a not-so-refreshing return to KAT-TUN’s light and fluffy youth. While some fans may reminisce at this throwback to their original sound, I find that it comes across almost juvenile when compared to the generally more mature feel encompassing Chain. Even so, it’s not an overwhelmingly bad song—it’s just not that good.

This brings me to the three highlights of the album. Nestled in amongst a group of previously released singles One Day is a very boppy and potentially very catch tune. I originally classed it as my favourite non-single track on the album until I came across Solider. Solider is simply a fantastic track. The staccato rhythm to the lyrics in the verse is wonderful and stands out against the rest of the album. The disjointed verses are juxtaposed against a smooth chorus strengthening the overall dynamic of the song. It really is in hot competition with Lock On for the overall crown of best album track but this is something I will need more time to mull over. The one downside to Solider is hidden track Chain of Love embedded in the track making the song seem very long by comparison. I don’t particularly like when bonus tracks are included this way as it means you can’t listen to the songs individually. This can be very troublesome if the first track is bad but luckily this wasn’t the case. Despite being included under the same track time, both Solider and Chain of Love seem to be independent of one another making the transition sound like an ordinary shift between tracks. With Koki’s rap combined with impressively fast vocals in the chorus it does have me asking why the choice was not made to have it included as its own stand-alone track. It’s certainly strong enough to be one.

Finally, all that is left are the solos. Taguchi Junnosuke’s solo Finale is a marked improvement on some of his previous endeavours—I am still haunted by Samurai Love Attack. It’s worth noting Junno himself had a hand in the writing of this track and has produced a decent song with a mature sound. It’s good to see KAT-TUN have reflected their personal growth in their music as well. However, it’s disappointing that the overuse of autotune makes it hard to fully grasp or appreciate Junno’s voice. Nakamaru Yuichi’s solo Step by Step, on the other hand, is a light track which suits his voice very well making it the perfect showcase for his vocals.

I’m horridly disappointed with leader Kamenashi Kazuya. ずっと[Zutto] is a depressingly bland ballad that does absolutely nothing for Kame’s voice. This track serves only to highlight the flaws in his vocal abilities by emphasising the obvious difficulty he has with higher octaves. While he’s probably the best vocalist in KAT-TUN at present (second to Jin during previous albums) I don’t consider him to be anything special as the higher he goes the whiner his voice seems to become. ずっと[Zutto] perhaps would have been something powerful were it not for the inadequacies of Kame’s singing. But this is not the first time Kame to has had a rather terrible solo. With the exception of the brilliant 1582 from Break the Records, Kame hasn’t been given much opporuntiy to impress on his own.

~again, Ueda Tatsuya’s solo, was a pleasant little surprise. I’ve always considered Ueda’s voices to be noticeably weaker than the other members—not in ability but in power. Despite this disadvantage Ueda is more than capable of holding down a solo, as proven previously with Lost.  ~again is one of the better solos on the album, bested only by Taguchi. Dangerous Cat ~Make me Wet~, however, is—to borrow a cliché—a different kettle of fish. I’m not entirely sure what Koki was thinking when he co-composed this track but I can’t say I’m overly surprised. Carrying on from his classy Make U Wet series, Dangerous Cat ~Make me Wet~ compliments Tanaka’s wild, eclectic personality. This track, however, is a disaster. From the dogs barking in the introduction right down to the ridiculous lyrics, Dangerous Cat ~Make me Wet~ in no way competes with the quality of previous solos by the likes of Parasite and Pierrot. Even the rap is a disappointment. By assuming a strange tone to his vocals, Koki loses the personality and flavour he usually exhibits and instead produces something strange. At this point I’m really struggling to decide whose solo I hate more—Koki’s or Kame’s.

Chain is a surprisingly good album that represents a new stage in KAT-TUN’s music. With minimal lowlights and a solid assembly of tracks, KAT-TUN fans would be very pleased with what’s on offer. However with the most impressive tracks comprising of those previously released as singles, fans who bought the earlier releases could be left feeling underwhelmed. Chain does not have one clear-cut, stand-out track and instead provides the listener with a bunch of good songs making it difficult to discern that one great track—if it even exists at all.  Regardless, Chain is a solid album with a lot of promising attributes and is very much a step in the right direction for KAT-TUN.

Perhaps I should go back and listen to No More Pain.

[ALBUM] U-KISS – A Shared Dream

A Shared Dream has a very distinct ‘Japanese’ sound despite U-KISS themselves hailing from Korea.

It’s always exciting when a Korean band releases a Japanese album that is more than an assortment of translated Kpop hits. U-KISS has made a very serious attempt at the Jpop industry with A Shared Dream, one that should be commended due to their successful encapsulation of the quintessential Japanese pop sound. It’s exciting to have an album without a single song you desperately hate, too.

Even before the album dropped I was impressed with the songs U-KISS had assembled—Tick Tack and Forbidden Love are both amazingly catchy and have spent a good time in my head since being released. It’s ironic that my two favourite Japanese pop songs at the moment are in fact by a Korean band. Regardless, both these songs are ridiculously fun and it’s no great surprised they were released as singles prior to the official album drop. Despite the general low-budget feel of the MVs—got to love that damn box—it’s nice to see other U-KISS members aside from Kevin. Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Kevin (and his peach lipgloss!) but Forbidden Love especially gives a lot more screen time to the likes of Kiseop and AJ, which is refreshing. The choreography itself deserves a mention as you can do no wrong with that amount of pelvic thrusting.

Eventhough A Shared Dream, the title song of the album, is in fact a ballad it’s pretty decent as far as soppy songs go. The melody is beautiful and the vocals meld together wonderfully. Perhaps there is just something about the Japanese language that lends itself more to ballads than Korean as in general I stomach a larger percentage of soft Jpop than Kpop. All in all this album has a very distinct ‘Japanese’ sound despite U-KISS themselves hailing from Korea, made all the more noticeable by the translated inclusions of Bingeul Bingeul, Man Man Ha Ni, and Shut Up!! While these tracks don’t necessarily take away from the album, they don’t actually bring anything to it aside from highlighting the prominent difference between the respective Jpop and Kpop sounds.

Orion and Believe are both weaker ballads than A Shared Dream but they’re still nice enough to listen to. Unlike several ballads by various bands I have torn apart, these tracks still manage to build towards something which is why they escape—if only barely—being a total snooze-fest. The one joy of ballads is the opportunity they present for vocalists to shine and Kevin, Hoon and Soohyun definitely showcase their talents flawlessly in these three tracks.

Show Me Your Love is not a bad song but it’s not particularly outstanding. It’s one of the weaker tracks on the album as is pretty standard for a Japanese pop song. It’s not overly catchy or supremely boppy so certainly falls short against Forbidden Love and Tick Tack. We Set Off!! and The Sound of Magic would be in the same class as Show Me Your Love were it not for the way these songs gain momentum as they progress. The slow build up is intriguing and certainly kept me interested and most importantly listening until completion. They have noticeably more energy than Show Me Your Love but still fall in the middle of the pack as far as the overall album is concerned.

Eeny, Meny, Miny, Moe joins Forbidden Love and Tick Tack at the pinnacle of this album. The sound is edgy, punchy and quite different to the rest of the tracks assembled on A Shared Dream. The rock inspired rift at the opening of the track gives me goose bumps and as it opens up into a delicious rap verse, I’m equally as impressed. In general, though, the song has the feel of pure pop with which one associates U-KISS. The speed of the vocals in the chorus is great and U-KISS should be proud of the effort placed into the study of Japanese language.

A Shared Dream is a diverse album straddling the divide between Japanese and Korean pop; however, the overall feel is noticeably Jpop, which is a relief considering it is in fact a Japanese album. With a mix of great, high-energy pop songs in the like of Forbidden Love and Tick Tack combined with not-so-painful ballads, A Shared Dream is a nice, complete album of which U-KISS should be proud.

[ALBUM] Jin Akanishi – Japonicana

Japonicana might provide a good pump-up backing tape while one is getting ready to hit the town on a bender, but aside from that, it’s borderline painful to listen to.

When I first heard Test Drive many months ago I unconsciously slapped myself in the forehead. I can’t say I’m surprised Jason Derulo occupied more vocal time than Jin himself but to think he would add to the quality of the song was a gross miscalculation. There is virtually nothing that could have saved this track short of demolition. Test Drive is a bit of a bore for a club pop song and the poetic substance of the lyrics is sorely lacking. In fact, any thirteen-year old boy could offer more than what Jin has bought to the table. Sun Burns Down is a mild improvement on the first single but still contains the same basic R&B sound overlaid with banal lyrics. Well done, Jin. This didn’t have my hopes particularly high for Japonicana but only time would tell how much of a mess this brave new endeavour would prove to be.

Akanishi’s desire to debut in America would have come at no great surprise to the ordinary KAT-TUN fan. His passion for the R&B genre and desire to sing in English was well documented since his boy band days when a great number of his solos were preformed in English. The infamous Love Juice could have been construed as a pallet teaser for Japonicana but it really wasn’t: Jin has taken the smut, innuendo and R&B feel up a hundred notches to produce something I’m not entirely sure how to respond to. Love Juice, by comparison was a relatively decent song when put alongside the treats Jin has on offer with Japonicana. Classy like none of these hoes? No, Jin, I really don’t think so.

I can’t say there is one track on the album by which I am particularly impressed. Perhaps my deep seeded hatred of R&B is clouding my judgement but Japonicana seems to me to be a monumental failure.  This album fails to the showcase even a fraction of the vocal talents fans of KAT-TUN know Jin possesses. Tracks feature forced, rough wails—which are needless to say unpleasant to the ears—or monotone spoken verse that could be perceived as a horribly pitiful attempt at rap. Either way Japonicana does not present Jin as a talented vocalist or a great composer. All it does is paint him as a pathetic wannabe who is trying so very hard to be something which he is not and will never be. I am a little embarrassed for him.

Despite what the album title suggests, Jin has abandoned any notion of Japanese pop idol he may have still contained in favour of good ol’ American R&B. While assimilating into something already familiar to the American audience may have been the only way for Jin to gain any sort of attention, the fact remains he has brought nothing new to the genre. While iTunes claims this album to be an example of sleek, modern R&B/club it doesn’t succeed in meshing to two together—Japonicana’s tracks contain elements of both sounds but each song is distinctively one or the other.

The club house component of the album is an utter disgrace. Aphrodisiac and That’s What She Said are classic examples of club pop and aren’t something you would enjoy listening to outside of a bar and even then you probably wouldn’t like it that much. As to be expected of this specific genre the lyrics are minimal and this works in Jin’s favour as he didn’t have to strain himself too hard thinking of something profound about which to sing.  Aphrodisiac sounds just like every other song I hear when breaking out some moves on a club dance floor and I probably wouldn’t distinguish it from the constant drone of the DJ’s mix. I guess if you like club music you might appreciate Japonicana but for the average pop fan it’s not an album you would put on just to listen to. It might provide a good pump-up backing tape while one is getting ready to hit the town on a bender, but aside from that, it’s borderline painful to listen to.

That’s What She Said has been the centre of controversy prior to the album release. I don’t particularly feel like getting involved in the shit storm involving rape connotations and misogyny that inevitably appeared on the internet following the leak of the lyrics and will say nothing more than Jin’s English vocabulary is obviously more limited than one first thought. I’m impressed he understands the meaning of neologism but with Jin coining awe-inspiring words along the lines of Tixy—created from ‘tits’ and ‘sexy’—I can’t see these words taking off anytime soon. The beat of the music very much lends itself to a club dance floor and if you remove Jin’s pitiful excuse for vocals—is he even attempting to sing?—then it may provide something to dance to if there were nothing better on offer. The fact this song is a blatant play-by-play of a drunken one night stand with an overemphasis on oral sex really makes me question iTunes’ review asserting Japonicana is ‘consistently pop radio-friendly.’ Okay.

California Rock is utterly boring for a club song and once again with an incredibly narrow scope of lyrics it can’t have taken Jin any more than ten minutes to pen. Sex and alcohol seem to occupy a large portion of Jin’s brain activity so I guess one cannot blame him for alluding to one or both in all his songs. The boy likes to party but with a track as uninspiring as this one I don’t see myself jumping out of my seat anytime soon.

The first true R&B track manifests itself in Like You. This seems to be Jin’s first serious attempt at a decent song but once again fails to impress in any area. Set Love Free is much the same and perhaps the biggest disappointment in regards to these tracks is his singing. With uninspiring lyrics and bland melody, Jin needed to rely heavily on his vocal talents to achieve any form of praise for this album. Unfortunately for Jin his voice seemed far less impressive than it did when he was a member of KAT-TUN. I’m not sure whether this is implying his group mates are noticeably bad by comparison or whether Jin is perhaps not cut out for this genre of music regardless of how desperate he is to be a part of the American R&B scene. His voice seems strained and lacks the smooth sensuality he displayed in KAT-TUN’s discography. This is a genuine shame.

Oowah and Tell Me Why round out the relatively short album and are again nothing impressive. I listened to the entire album several times and these two failed to even register in my memory. That’s all I have to say about them, really.

While Japonicana seems to be mostly a genuine attempt to move away from his boy band roots, it seems like Jin should have stuck to what he was good at. Ultimately he has tried too hard and fallen flat in the process. Instead of challenging the music industry and attempting to further the genre he has instead added to a swollen pool of artists by offering much more of the same in an attempt to fit in. The result of this is an unimpressive pile of sameness that will remain unacknowledged amongst a sea of well-established and successful artists. Furthermore Jin’s vocals are pathetic and nowhere near the standard he produced as part of KAT-TUN. Way to take a step backward there, Jin.

If I was held at the point of some life-threatening weapon and demanded to pick a favourite track I would begrudgingly select Sun Burns Down. It’s the closest Jin gets to actually singing on the album and one of the few tracks that features him solely. He almost sort of manages to dance, too. In regards to the video, I fail to understand the relationship between seducing a woman and espionage, but hey, I don’t claim to understand Jin’s mind and I’m sure no one ever will.

 

If you’d like to check out what netizens are saying about That’s What She Said feel free to peruse this post on あらま They Didn’t!: http://aramatheydidnt.livejournal.com/3475605.html

It’s bound to keep you occupied for hours.