Girls’ Generation’s cannonball into the Japanese pop scene – starting with the initial crossover singles last year and fully splashing with a record-breaking Japan-only album this year – charmed plenty of people, among them the foreign-born music writers/observers living in this country (guilty!). The shiny new sound of K-Pop gems like “Gee” and “Run Devil Run” towered way above the majority of J-Pop coming out at the same time…helping fuel the love for Girls’ Generation was the release of a new AKB48 album, universally hated (and deservedly so) by the pop culture thinkers occupying my Twitter…and carved out a space in a lot of people’s music-loving hearts.
Now comes the Korean album (but easily obtained in Japan) The Boys, the first major release by Girls’ Generation post their Japanese self-titled. The same folks who proclaimed that LP one of the best pop joints of the year heard The Boys and said…meh. I gathered opinion from a small sample size, but the few folks/places in Japan giving this new release a shot mostly dismissed it. The title track got dismissed as “Pussycat Dolls like” or bearing too much of a resemblance to 2NE1, while the rest of it got hammered for featuring gloopy ballads and other cheesy tracks that had more in common with J-Pop than the sounds coming out of Korea. Some called it a step backwards.
I’m not arguing against the idea that Girls’ Generation sounds way better than The Boys, but I think the group’s latest is getting hammered a little too strongly. I think Girls’ Generation – which, should be noted, repackages five popular singles from Korea, compared to the all new material on The Boys – made Girls’ Generation seem a bit too perfect for a lot of people encountering them for the first time. This might sound obvious, but Girls’ Generation…and K-Pop in general…has a lot of bad songs buried in the closet. My first exposure to this group came with “Oh!,” back in college, and it wasn’t because of the music – rather, the clip popped up on a bunch of college football blogs because of the group’s groping of an Iowa Hawkeyes’ helmet (and, being in a rival Big Ten school, we got an extra kick out of this). Then, it sounded like a really annoying re-imagining of the already-terrible “Numa Numa Song” (now, I just hear a hail mary at trying to recapture the lightness of “Gee”). And don’t forget cheese like “Into The New World” and “Day By Day.” So…I basically think people got a little too excited by not-J-Pop music and weren’t ready for a bumpier release.
The Boys, though, has some really great moments! “Trick” speeds up the flirtatious slurs of “Genie” and ends up stronger because of it, while “Telepathy” bangs forward courtesy strobe-light synths and big ol’ drum hits. “Vitamin” melds flashing synth blasts with a lite-disco bob, complimented by string sections. The title track – which also serves as the group’s first foray into Western markets which explains why this – has received the most criticism, accused of aping the Pussycat Dolls. Which is kind of true…see, the chorus…but did we forget “Run Devil Run,” which was just as blatant about it? “The Boys” hits way harder than that number, capped off by some great cheerleader-esque (have we forgotten how great “Hollaback Girl” was, for shame!) chanting. It’s a good, bone-breaking single that, truthfully, probably won’t be a huge hit in America (that’s a whole different article) but isn’t as bad or lazy as some places claim.
The rest of The Boys finds Girls’ Generation trying on different sonic hats. Some of these choices do end up being inexcusably bad – the two ballads included on this album fail to go anywhere interesting, “How Great Is Your Love” hoping a ho-hum Mariah Carey impersonation will fool you into thinking it’s good while “Sunflower” is just looking for an ending credits sequence to latch itself onto. Yet elsewhere, they flirt with disaster only to come up charming – “Say Yes” opens with a wince-inducing spoken word gigglefest, but leads into this sunny chirp of a pop song that is simple and sweet. “Lazy Girl” embraces the K-Pop trend of 60’s imagery/sound (see Wonder Girls’ “Be My Baby“), imitating girl group bop and merging it with modern-day synth burbles, all leading to the album’s best chorus. There is also “My J,” which I’ll cop to liking simply because it’s so cheesy and goofy it ends up being sort of sweet despite sounding like a Keisuke Kawata Christmas song. The Boys, though far from perfect, shows how diverse Girls’ Generation can be in style and personality – yeah, there is no “Gee” or “Mr. Taxi” (errrrr, except for the Korean version of “Mr. Taxi”) but enough to make this a pretty above-average release.
Much more deserving of eye daggers is KARA’s new Japanese album Super Girl, which really does suck BUT managed to break the record set by Girls’ Generation’s Japanese debut for most units moved in its first week by a foreign group. Super Girl finds KARA’s sound J-Pop-ified, all the worst contemporary touches of mainstream Japanese pop grafted onto KARA as a challenge to see if this would still sell. And hey…it did! We all lose.
Super Girl isn’t a total bust – most of the tracks here have at least one good idea or sound floating around (like the bass on otherwise turgid seasonal ballad “Winter Magic,” or the rapid-fire techno intro of “Go Go Summer!” which promptly settles for a slightly-advanced AKB chug), and there are good songs present! A lot of people point to it as the beginning of the end, but I hold that “Jet Coaster Love” is bouncy and bright enough to rise above subsequent singles, while “Whisper” is kinda cool.
But man, overall this is just not good. The ballads are, unsurprisingly, the worst offenders, forced into the same rectangular cookie cutter that makes 90 percent of the ballads in Japan. “Ima Okuritai Arigatou” and “Missing” paddle around too long without building up to anything resembling a payoff…credit to Girls’ Generation, the ballads on The Boys at least hold interest unlike these slow roasters. “Dreamin’ Girl” features the line “I want to rock you” despite lacking anything one would constitute as rockin’, while closer “Girls Be Ambitious!” sounds as clumsy as the title hints at while existing solely to serve as the next viral wedding dance soundtrack. I’m all for female empowerment songs, but they should also sound good!
Let’s focus on the positive…KARA still have the Korean single “Step,” which remains one of the best K-Pop songs of the year. And Super Girl does feature “Only For You,” which is the fucking jam. KARA imitate the dated-but-oh-so-catchy sound that combined late disco with R&B, and K-Pop it into something that sounds simultaneously like a record you would find in your cool Aunt’s basement and a nostalgia-glazed number that could easily exist in 2011. Heck, this style of music has seen a resurgence this year – see Toro Y Moi’s cover of “Saturday Love,” originally by Cherrelle, and “Only For You” sounds like at least three tracks on her High Priority album. It’s not enough to redeem a very lame album, but geez “Only For You” almost makes it worth it. Almost.