It’s Gayo Daejun season, and SBS has been preparing their big showpiece for the past month, a producers’ showcase called The Color of K-Pop. Four major composers/producers - Sweetune, Shinsadong Tiger, Brave Brothers, and Kim Dohoon - have been assigned supergroups to write a song for, with proceeds from the singles going to charity. And these groups are super: the two boy groups each include members from 2AM, Teen Top, Infinite, Beast, and MBLAQ, while the two girl groups have members from Sistar, Secret, After School, KARA, and 4minute. The groups will perform these songs at SBS’s Gayo Daejun on December 29 in ostensibly a kind of battle or face-off, but mostly a celebration of the diversity of sounds in mainstream K-pop.
The songs are all very good, and make a solid introduction to each producer’s signature sound. Overall, what I was most struck by was how fresh all of them sound, even the most retread-y ones. They’re unaffected by current trends, with nary a dubstep wobble or shuffle (horse dance?) beat to be heard. It could be the new energy of the reconfigured groups, or the freedom this kind of project affords; and it’s worth noting that these four producers do the bulk of their work for smaller agencies, not the Big Three.
Here’s a quick overview of each song and its producer:
Kim Dohoon: Mystic White, “Mermaid Princess”
2012 highlights: AOA, "Elvis"; BTOB, "Wow"; FT Island, "Severely"; G.NA, "2HOT"; Juniel, "Illa Illa"
Kim Dohoon is perhaps the least well-known of the four Color of K-Pop producers, with perhaps the most diverse resume: he’s a go-to composer for both FNC Music, agency of idol bands FT Island, CN Blue, and AOA, and for Cube Entertainment, where he works primarily with G.NA and BTOB. His style seems to be having no style, instead immersing himself in whatever mode he’s working in, whether it’s New Jack Swing or hair metal power ballad. For “Mermaid Princess” he’s chosen a variation of Ace of Base-y reggae pop, balancing light melodies with well-chosen instrumentation. (Check that sax solo!) The structure is fairly straightforward, but the melodies are interesting enough that they bear repeated listens.
Sweetune: Dramatic Blue, “Tearfully Beautiful”
2012 highlights: Boyfriend, "Love Style"; Infinite, "The Chaser"; Kara, "Pandora"; Nine Muses, "Ticket"; Spica, "Russian Roulette"
When Sweetune’s Han Jaeho and Kim Seungsoo put their collective mind to it, their songs are some of the best being made right now: each of the singles listed above is polished and unique, retaining their personal stamp but freely experimenting with different styles, from traditional Korean music to calypso. Unfortunately, they tend to phone it in with their other songs, and “Tearfully Beautiful” is the same unambitious, pleasantly glossy pop we get from most of their filler tracks and OST work. Dramatic Blue was drafted as the vocal group, and they all sound great together, but Sweetune’s focus, as usual, is mainly on melody, with little opportunity for the kind of vocal acrobatics some of these singers are capable of. Still, they can make a catchy song with their eyes closed, and this is perfectly sunny and sweet. It’s not challenging, but maybe that’s beside the point.
Brave Brothers: Dazzling Red, “That Person”
2012 highlights: Hyuna, "Ice Cream"; Sistar, "Alone"; Teen Top, "To You"; ZE:A, "Aftermath"
Brave Brothers is another producer with uneven output, not so much effort-wise as tonal. The plural in his name is apt: there’s the old guy who made hypnotic, completely subtlety-free dance tracks with U-KISS and Sistar, and then there’s the new guy who makes smooth, sad funk with Teen Top and, uh, Sistar. “That Person” is the work of the second guy, and fits comfortably alongside “To You” and “Alone”. Maybe a bit too comfortably, but I’ve talked about Brave Brothers’ tendency to reuse his ideas before, and anyway this is more homemade mashup than straight rewrite. It helps that he knows who he’s working with: both Hyuna and Sistar’s Hyorin are here doing exactly what they do best.
Shinsadong Tiger: Dynamic Black, “Yesterday”
2012 highlights: 4minute, "Volume Up"; Beast, "Midnight"; EXID, "Whoz That Girl"; T-ARA, "Sexy Love"; Trouble Maker, "Trouble Maker"
It appears they gave the “Dramatic” moniker to the wrong group, because Shinsadong Tiger is nothing if not the king of drama, riding a wave of minor key resolutions and moody acoustic instrumentation since his work on Beast’s 2011 album Fiction and Fact. (The outlier is his electro-disco work for T-ARA, but even "Lovey Dovey" is a shade darker than its previous incarnation as “Roly Poly”.) “Yesterday” is the most over-the-top yet: an anguished intro that smashes into a turbulent sea of electronics and upright piano before righting itself, eventually dropping into a stormy half-time breakdown that threatens to disintegrate completely before returning to the main melody. It’s kind of like the Ultimate Beast Single, but it’s heartening to know that total self-indulgence only makes S.Tiger’s work more interesting.