Monday, 23 January 2012
TVXQ "Keep Your Head Down" Album Review
Who would have believed that the Keep Your Head Down album by TVXQ has already been out for a full year?
It was thanks to TVXQ for getting me into K-pop actually, so yes, I was a Cassie first before anything else and still regard TVXQ as my favourite group, whether they are a 5 or a 2. Naturally, like every other Cassie on the planet, when I heard the news of their split I was also left heartbroken...I knew my chances of seeing them live was slim anyway but now I wouldn't be able to follow them and get excited with new releases. "Bummed" doesn't quite describe it.
Fast forward a few years and - lo and behold - what is this? The remaining members of TVXQ - screaming champion Changmin and dance expert Yunho - decided to still go ahead! Of course it was sad that it wasn't all 5 members, but I personally was quite grateful that they wanted to keep the name alive and followed their footsteps when their new releases came. My dream finally came true and actually, I saw them both live last year at the SMTown Paris concert. With the growing popularity of K-pop in the UK, who knows? Maybe I could even see them in my home country soon!
So, it seems fitting that I review their latest album "Keep Your Head Down" shortly after their year's anniversary. To read my review, just carry on reading!
The original album was released on January 5th 2011 but the edition I have (the repackaged album) was released March 16th 2011, so the repackaged album is the one I'm reviewing.
So what's the difference? The repackaged album is like the "Before U Go" special edition. It has the Before U Go monologue, the song itself, and it also ends with a Before U Go instrumental, plus it has an extra track which features Seohyun from Girls' Generation. The standard edition has none of these songs.
In my review I will go through all the songs in the track listing and give you my opinion on them.
1. Before U Go (Monologue)
I absolutely love the song "Before U Go", so was really excited to see I basically had the Before U Go special edition album. Almost straight away when you hit play, a speaking voice is heard with the instrumental to the song playing in the background. The opening line is "TVXQ..." and then something that sounds like "We gonna tell about this". The person is quite obviously a Korean speaking English so has a bit of an accent, which is to be expected, but in comparison to the seriousness of the melody, it's kinda funny and out of place. Needless to say, when I first heard it my reaction was "...what the hell." But that's not all. The person then continues to talk in Korean for a full one minute and 13 seconds. Now, I know what you're thinking: "why do you find this so weird? It's no different than listening to a foreign song!" and you're right. I just wasn't expecting to hear a lot of talking on an album, especially on the first track. And songs are a bit different; with the emotion in the voices, the effects used and the melody of the tune, you can pretty much tell what the song is about. But what's this monologue about? Is it related to the song? Is it just an introduction? I have absolutely no idea, which is fine as it's a Korean album aimed at a predominantly Korean audience, so I can't exactly dock them marks for it. But still, as a foreigner, this track tends to sort of go over my head.
But then after one minute 13 seconds, TVXQ leader Yunho comes in and...starts talking a bit more. I was like "Yes! A voice I recognise!" and then the best thing happened...the talking stopped and Changmin started singing. And actually, it wasn't to the tune of the Before U Go we know, they had changed it a bit so it was like a whole new version of the song despite the instrumental being the same. As soon as this happened, I immediately wished they had brought out another version of the same song because, despite the instrumental being same, the tune they sing it to is completely different and I love it. It's just such a shame that the song itself doesn't last very long, but it's the song at the end that completely saves this track for me. If it wasn't for Yunho and Changmin singing (a whole 35 seconds out of a 2 minute 22 second track) I would automatically skip this everytime I listened to this album. If you don't understand what I mean, please search it. Go through the "what the hell?" phrase and blend right into "this is beautiful" phrase just like I did, and you'll see.
2. Before U Go
Yep, this is the real song now. The tune, the melody, the voices, the lyrics...well, most of it anyway. This version does differ to the song in the dance MV which means no dance break. Heck, it even differs to the other MV (you know the one, the really epic MV that actually has a storyline) because although the storyline MV has the version of the song that's closest to the version on this album, there's a lyric in the chorus that makes all 3 versions of the song unique. Three versions of one song! Mental. Well, four if you count the 35 second clip in the monologue (see above). What I'm trying to say is, is that the version on the repackaged album (because the song Before U Go isn't even on the standard OR special edition albums) is not the version you hear in both MVs. You've probably read this and thought "WHOA. I'm confused!" so to make it easier, I'm going to break it down for you.
Version 1: Before U Go on the repackaged album
Version 2, the storyline MV: Has a different lyric in the chorus. Everything else is the same as the repackaged album version.
Version 3, the dance MV: Different intro, backing singers are more involved, same lyrics as the storyline MV version plus has the dance break. Also has a different ending to both versions above.
So what's my favourite version? It has to be the dance MV version. Don't get me wrong, I do still love the album version because I find the slow R&B tune and the melody heartbreakingly meaningful and beautiful, but there are elements - small elements, like the way the song starts and the way the backing singers go "hoo hoo hoo" after the first verse in the dance MV version, not to mention the dance break and the climatic ending - that I miss in the album version. And my brain still spazzes everytime it hears that new/different lyric in the chorus. Still, it's nice to have a change now and then so I don't always skip it, depending on which version I'm in the mood for. But really, it's the tune, the melody, the voices and the emotion that sells it to me everytime. It has elements of sadness and sorrow, regret, heartbreak, but also love and passion (especially if you've seen the dance MV. Hello thrusts!) it has so much emotion in it that, regardless of what version you're listening to, you really can't help but fall helplessly in love everytime.
3. Keep Your Head Down
Right on! The first and lead single from this album. Their comeback single after that horrid hiatus! And man, they came back with a bang. Can't you just feel the energy and suspense when those first few notes blast through your speakers? "Keep your head down...Yunho time!" it's just epic from the word go. Oh, and also "You know what time it is? This is...return of the King!" I love it. Before their hiatus and split, TVXQ were enormous, leaders of the Hallyu wave plus they're able to boast about having the biggest fanclub in the world. "Return of the King" is just so fitting. If JYJ were able to create a new group, start a new singing career and be all "Ayy girl, we got a song that has Kanye West in it! Wanna see me roll down mah sexeh window?" (Thank you Eat Your Kimchi for this epic line.) then why shouldn't TVXQ explode back onto the scene with the same confidence and hard hitting attitude that they've always had? They're like "Yeah, there might only be two of us, but we're not gonna let that bring us down. We're not gonna let our fans down. We're coming back and we're coming back with a vengeance!" and come back with a vengeance they did.
The song is quite different to their older stuff - the only comparison I can make is "Rising Sun" with it's mindboggling amount of different musical elements - because it sounds a lot more mature. More angry, hard hitting complete with rapping, rough vocals and screaming from the once so innocent Changmin, not to mention the constant booms of drums in the background which really gives it that military, army feel. The song wouldn't be complete without those echoed cries of "wae" in the background, which sound haunting and seems reminiscent (not that I've had first hand experience) of an empty battle field where someone's just shouting "wae?" to empty space. I find the song - the chorus in particular - really quite war like. It's definitely an impressionable comeback single whether you like it or not, but for me, despite my "Whooaaa, what is this and what are those nasty tribunal fur suits they're wearing in the video?!" reaction, it grew on me very quickly and stuck to me like a leech. It's epic. The Kings have, indeed, returned.
Maximum is a song that often shared the stage with "Keep Your Head Down" during TVXQ's live TV performances and could be mistaken as an official single, except there is no MV for it (yet there's 2 MV's for Before U Go, 3 versions of the song plus a re-released album pretty much dedicated to that song despite the fact that it wasn't on the original album? Okay SM, you make complete sense...) I think it fits nicely with KYHD as it still has those strong, aggressive beats that are similar to the lead single. As a song that boasts about wanting to be the best that they can be, the music fits well with the theme as the song as it really pumps you up, makes you feel energised and raring to go. And have you seen the dance practice video to this song? There's only one word for that dance routine and it's called "epic".
The other good thing about this song is that, when they were a 5, Yunho was pretty much just the rapper and the main dancer, with Changmin basically just doing the high screams, but this song finally gets to showcase that there's more to them than just those talents. Yes, maybe Yunho did have the weaker voice between the 5 of them, but that doesn't mean to say he can't sing and this song proves it. Likewise with Changmin, he's not just a screamer. Both artists have a whole verse to themselves so you're able to hear their voices clearly and really hear what they can do. And while I know that as they're now a duet they're more inclined to get an even amount of lines now, the fact is that as a song that was performed live on numerous occasions on Korean TV, more people have been exposed to their vocal talent rather than just the diehard Cassies who have already heard Yunho and Changmin showcase their voices on previous solo songs on past albums.
5. How Can I
A change of pace; a nice slow ballad after those two hardcore songs! And not an R'N'B ballad like Before U Go, but just a nice, gentle slow song with nice, gentle vocals, complete with a simple piano tune, soft drums and strings in the background. The music in the background sounds like it belongs on an OST as it sounds rather orchestrated (I'm not very musically inclined when it comes to instruments so bear with me!) It's a song I tend to listen to when I'm away in daydream land and it becomes a background song. Again, back to the OST - it really is one of those songs that would go well in a movie where a character is in deep thought and making a big decision, and the song starts playing to reflect the moment. At least, that's how I see it anyway - the general public can see it in any way they want and obviously people might disagree with it, but that's just my view. It's not my favourite song on the album, and...in case you haven't already noticed, there only tends to be one word to describe this song and it's "nice".
"It's yours!" blasts through the speakers the moment this song plays in perfect English, quite a nice change from the Konglish accent that can be heard in the first track! But this English speaking voice is neither from Yunho or Changmin's lips; in fact, a man named Jay from another SM Entertainment duet group called TRAX lays down some vocals on this song (the perfect English stems from the fact that he grew up in California, US).
I actually really quite like this song. It's a mixture of R'N'B with it's smoothness but it's also blended with a bit of pop, due to it's boppy beats that makes you want to bop along with it. It's a hard song to describe; it's kind of both mellow with a bit of funkiness attached to it, but it's a song that you can't help but sway your body to and it's definitely got "sing along song" slapped on it. Well, I'd sing along if I could sing Korean, but the English parts I definitely can't help myself with. Yunho and Changmin's vocals add a playful, boyish nature to the song whereas Jay definitely has the low, manly voice which adds a nice flavour of sexiness to it. Not too much, but during his rap the tone of his voice is definitely one to make you melt. But I suppose it depends on the age of the listener; a 15 year old might not find it appealing but as a young lady of 22, I happen to find his voice rather attractive and sexy to listen to which adds a slightly naughty element to the otherwise playful, boyish song with a touch of cheekiness. The music also contains a lot of synthesizers and electronic effects which is rather reminiscent of the 90's, plus it also includes a bit of - what I can only describe as - beat boxing from Yunho while Changmin's busy serenading the lyrics "my baby...so crazy.." So, if you're a 90's kid like me, you'll probably like the song!
7. Honey Funny Bunny
I really can't help but like this song, despite the odd weird bits. It's definitely an odd title track and not exactly erm, manly, considering it's Yunho's solo song on the album. However with that aside, when I first heard it I didn't really know what to think of it. It's not the kind of song I pictured Yunho to have, and - what do you know - it actually features NO rapping whatsoever! Which is great, because it really just concentrated on the vocals and he even challenges himself with some beautiful high notes. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this song once I got passed some of the weirdness.
So, what are some of these weird things I keep mentioning? Well, the one thing grates me the most about this song is that, the last note at the end of the chorus is completely computerised, and it just sounds like something from a Mario game. Honestly, I'm not joking. Go search for it so you can hear it for yourself, it sounds like some sort of "level up" noise! I honestly cannot describe it any better, so needless to say when I first heard that I thought "what the hell?" and there are times when the music sounds over produced and you can't quite hear the quieter vocals at certain moments of the song, but maybe that's me being picky.
The song is a mixture of cute and sexy. It's cute in the way Yunho sings "Honey...funny...bunny..." but it's also sexy in some parts. It just sounds like such a come on, and after reading the translated lyrics...well...wow. He's definitely frustrated...and not in the angry way.
I'll leave this review right here...
I do like this song, but in all honesty I find it rather similar to "Crazy" in the sense that it's that kind of easy going, mellow-yet-poppy song that gets you bopping along and singing the lyrics. I know all of my reviews have been really long so far, but fear this one is going to be quite short. The only difference really between the two is that it doesn't feature Jay from Trax, and this one has more of a "smooth" factor to it. To (re)read my review on Crazy, just look above!
Yunho's had his solo, but now it's "Max time!" The song starts off with just a piano which immediately tells you this is going to be a ballad, and a ballad that Changmin co-wrote I might add! What's really nice about this track is Changmin's soothing vocals (no screaming here) and the use of real instruments. The past few tracks have been full of computerised effects so pianos and strings were very welcome to my ears. Another thing that I like this song is the simplicity of the melody and instruments used as well; there's no over production, no "noise", just pure music.
The only thing about ballads is that, although I like them, I do have to be in the mood for them. Likewise with the song "How Can I", the only word I can conjure up to describe this song is "nice". Not terrible, but not overwhelmingly brilliant either. It doesn't take me to places or fill me up with emotion like "Before U Go" does, but that may just be me. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there that undoubtedly love this song, and I do like it, just not a lover. But good effort to Changmin for getting stuck in with the writing though - I suck at songwriting and kudos to him!
10. Our Game
This is one of my favourite tracks. Not a ballad, not one of those easy-going boppy tunes, but one of those songs with a solid low beat and a good bass. Did you miss some rapping? Well you're in luck because this song welcomes back Yunho's famous talent of rapping. It's got a hip hop vibe but nothing too hardcore, but it's one you can tap your foot and nod your head to. I also feel like this song has an underlying suspense which I think is helped by the repetitive hard beats, and after reading the translated lyrics it's easy to see why they've given the song the effects it has. With lyrics like "The enemy tempts me every day- wants me to crumble down but you can't stop me- My fans are like a sunflower looking at the sun" , "Stop right there- attention! You're a fake winner who imitates me. The elegance of my footsteps are different. Don't laugh- you still can't beat me" and "You're like a blade of a knife, why? (so sharp) You endlessly stab but my song is a shield that cannot be pierced" (many thanks to this website for their translated lyrics) it's definitely a song that evokes a lot of emotion, reminiscent of "Keep Your Head Down" and "Maximum".
In comparison to those two songs though, which are much more aggressive, hard hitting and attacking, this song seems like water in a saucepan that's simmering under the surface waiting to just boil. There's such tension and suspense, like a snake waiting for the perfect opportune moment to attack it's prey. I know you're probably thinking that's really quite over dramatic, but I think it makes sense once you've heard it for yourself.
Another one of my favourites. I absolutely adore this song. It does kind of sound like a typical boyband ballad with the clicks, but it has a beautiful piano and violin tune as well. What I like about this track is that it has a nice mixture of real instruments vs computerised effects, so it still has that modernised ballad feel that still has a beat but is still soothing at the same time. Not only that, along with Before U Go, it's sung with such emotion and love. When the chorus comes it really lifts you up and it just makes me feel really happy. There's nothing crazy about it, there's no over production, just beautiful music, beautiful melody pieced with beautiful voices. It is quite simply a love song, but one that I think is done so well.
12. Athena (Athena OST)
Probably the most different from all the above songs and one I think most vocally challenging. This is another song that I love, and was the first song I heard when TVXQ announced they were making a comeback. It's also the theme tune and on the OST for a Korean drama that goes by the same name, which features Choi Siwon from Super Junior.
Anyway, straight away your ears are bashed by what I think is mixed with an orchestra, computerised effects and an electric guitar. The speed the music's going at really builds up the suspense which is all of a sudden dropped to a quieter, slower paced level which is - in a way - reminiscent of "Our Game" in terms of that the hype has already been built up and it's continuing to rise by keeping you waiting for that crescendo moment. As the drama features a lot of action and thriller scenes, it's only fitting that they have a theme song that can keep up, emphasise and express the genre of the drama that it's promoting, and this song does it so well. The verses build up so beautifully it makes your heart rise, and the chorus is just an explosion. Powerful long notes with the drums in the background just give a sense of determination and desperation and you feel so lost in the music, but in a totally good way. When I heard the song for the first time, I felt so immersed and so involved. It doesn't matter that I don't know what the lyrics mean in English, the music lifts me and let's me run away with it and the vocals help carry me. I know that probably sounds insane and you're more than likely thinking I've lost the plot, but that's really what this song does to me, and hopefully you'll understand where I'm coming from if you listen to the song yourself.
A/N: The song features an awesome Changmin style scream towards the end.
13. Journey (feat. Seohyun from Girls' Generation)
This song starts off with an American woman giving instructions when you're about to land after a flight and you can hear airplane noises in the background. At first I thought it was kind of odd then thought actually, I suppose it does fit with the title of the song. The song then starts off with Yunho singing low and softly, with just a few trickles of music in the background which eventually builds and creates more of a beat. So on first impression I did honestly think "oh, another ballad?" but as the song continued and the chorus came into play, the music and tune lifted to reveal a song that sounded more happy and uplifting. I would say it's similar to "Crazy" and "Rumour", but this is much more of a pop sound and kind of like an evening summer tune. One you'd sing to with friends round a camp fire or something, or perhaps a song you'd use in a home movie to celebrate some good memories.
Eventually after a short instrumental piece, Seohyun comes in with her sweet, soothing pretty voice. It's quite a nice break actually to hear the voice of a woman, as all we've heard is pure testosterone so far so to hear Seohyun sing gives this song a different dimension and element than all the other ones I've reviewed, and it's just quite pleasant to hear the contrast between this song and the rest of the album.
It's not an outstanding song but by no means awful. If anything, what makes this song work is the fact that it's different to everything else we've heard and that it's towards the end, so it's not too out of place on the album.
I can actually imagine this song being the ending song of a concert, because like it does on the album, it's the kind of song that sort of sums everything up. From beginning to end, this album has made your heart feel like it's been thrown against the wall with Before U Go, it's made you feel angry and on top of the world with Keep Your Head Down and Maximum, it's made you want to party, it's made you fall in love again, it's made you want to cry, it's made you feel lost in the music and then there's this song, which is just happy and sort of puts you back in your balanced place. And that's what the ending song at a concert should do; it should piece you back together and make you feel happy after all the highs and emotions you would have felt during those hours watching an artist perform. Again, it's not the best song ever, but for me, it does the job.
14. Before U Go Monologue Part 2
Here we are, at the end of the album! We made it! And before you groan and think "oh my God, not another Before U Go confusion!" you honestly do not need to be confused by this. It is just music with no vocals whatsoever. By no means is it a sing along instrumental to the actual song, but it uses the same instruments the song uses and are played in a way that is similar, so you recognise that it's linked with that song.
Now, despite that it's just music, I absolutely adore it. After the ride of this album with it's variety of music genre, it's so nice to be greeted with slow, soft and mellow music to just zone you out and clear your head. Again, mixed with computerised effects and real instruments (including an electric guitar), it has that modern ballad/R'n'B feel with a hint of Blues. Kind of. It's a bit hard to describe! But I really love listening to it and hope you appreciate it as much as I do.
Overall score for the whole album as a KPop Fan: 4/5
Now for the part where we review how well the songs would do in the UK...
Out of the whole album, Keep Your Head Down is quite likely to do well here. With it's strong beats, powerful vocals and edgy raps with an overall rock sound, it's the right blend of different but interesting that would make it appeal to a wide audience in the UK. It's less likely to do well with the younger teen generation, and more likely to do well with the more mature music listeners, because edgy military sounding rock doesn't appeal to the Justin Bieber entranced minds of young teens. (My dad, who is a lover of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and all that kind of rock'n'roll music, actually quite likes Keep Your Head Down! Point proven.)
Nevertheless, the song may well be able to reach the charts. The reason for it being more appealing to a UK audience despite it's clear lack of a Western sound is it's maturity. A lot of people who are not fans of K-pop usually use the word 'cheesy' to describe it when they first hear the poppy bright music, but Keep Your Head Down is strong, angry and out to attack, and there's nothing us Brits like better than a bit of angst. It's realistic, it's not overly happy or ridiculously sad, yet there's still a strong poignant emotion to it, and that makes it attractive.
Not to mention the sprinklings of English which are always fun to sing along to, who can resist imitating the low pitched 'Keep your head down'? Although, to appeal to a greater audience here, the song would of course have to be translated to English, which could make for more fun parts to sing along to. Whilst Yunho and Changmin's English isn't the best, if they were to debut globally, there's no doubt that like for their debut in Japan, they'd study hard to have the best English possible.
Another song that has the potential to do well is "Before U Go" I think, simply because of the R'n'B feel the song holds, and modernised ballads are really the way to go in the UK charts, unless you're special like Adele or something. But with Before U Go, what I find more attractive in this slow R'n'B ballad than in other English/American counterparts is the level of emotion and the use of backing singers to really emphasise the amount the song really holds. Not only that, it really brings some amazing untouched, raw vocals as well which also showcases the talent that TVXQ have. As trained A Capella singers, they need not rely on distorted vocal effects to get them by in the music industry, and this song really shows that off.
As for the rest of the songs, I'm not so sure they have the potential to do as well as the songs listed above. The thing with TVXQ, is that although they touch on pop, r'n'b, hip hop, ballads and such, there's still something quite contemporary about them and I'm not sure what it is, but for some reason I can't help but feel that the music they produce really sets them apart from other singers, both Korean and English. This is both an advantage and disadvantage; the fact that they are so diverse makes them more untouchable because whatever they come out with is a surprise and more often than not, it's done well and done with complete precision. However, it's also a disadvantage because as they stand alone, this means they also risk not being able to mould in with current trends which can, sadly, leave them forgotten about (this is more about England than South Korea) and give them a very short career. But would I want them to change their musical style just to fit in with the UK music scene? Absolutely not. If I wanted them to sound more generic, I wouldn't be listening to KPop in the first place and it's their uniqueness that made me fall in love with them in the first place, and I hope that my review has helped bring out some new Cassies!
So, in conclusion, my score for how well they'd do in the UK would be: 2/5
Okay. We've reviewed the songs as a KPop fan, and reviewed them how they'd be perceived in England. What about the packaging?
Before you think "Oh my God, where did you get a signed album from? Did you meet them?!" Er, no. Sadly I did not. However, as I am one of the people that run the London K-pop Dance Workshop and had SBS film one of our classes, they gave me a signed album as a gift. Delighted? Me? There were no words to describe the emotion that filled me as I received this CD.
Now, I have to be honest, I have seen better packaging for a KPop CD. In fact, it is quite similar to the standard CD packaging minus the plastic cover (I assume this hasn't been used for recycling reasons?) but I'm not disappointed with it nonetheless.
Although the colours are very grey and do tend to give off - erm - a boring vibe, it does actually go well with some of the angst, angry and heartbroken emotions of some of the songs on the album. The booklet comes with an array of photos, both black and white and colour, plus it also comes with lyrics. Obviously in Korean, which is barely any help to me but at least it tells you what the English bits are!
Thank you so much for reading my very first review. I hope you have found it somewhat interesting, informative and enjoyable.