Album Review: REBOOT – Wonder Girls

That’s it – It’s happening. I’m finally going to start reviewing K-pop albums. Perhaps not regularly, mind you, but any reason I may have had against doing so in the past is starting to look a bit arbitrary in light of how little content I’m able to get up on this blog these days. Sometimes if an opportunity appears, you have to take it. And people should know about such brilliance as this. People. Should. Know.

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Released:
August 2015
Label:
 JYP Entertainment
Genre: K-Pop
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It’s not enough for the album to sound like the 1980s, it has to look like them, too.

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TRACK LISTING

1. Baby Don’t Play
2. Candle (feat. Paloalto)
3. I Feel You
4. Rewind
5. Loved
6. John Doe
7. One Black Night
8. Back
9. Oppa
10. Faded Love
11. Gone
12. Remember

1980s pop musical tributes may not quite be a dime a dozen at the moment, but they’re certainly in vogue. When someone as big as Taylor Swift decides to emblazon her polaroid-inspired album artwork with the title “1989”, you just know a trend is in motion. Synth hooks, big bass and full-ham electronic mixing are all back and you don’t have to look very hard to find them, as this entertaining 2014 list from Pigeons & Planes paints clear as day. And that’s amazing, because the musical quirks that define a “1980s sound” are pretty damn fun, particularly when used skilfully. Trend or no, I’ve always got time for a good 1980s inspired album.

REBOOT, the aptly named, long-awaited comeback piece from one-time Korean supergroup Wonder Girls, is a very good 1980s inspired album.

The fact that the Wonder Girls have come back at all after more than three years off the airwaves (several lifetimes in K-Pop time) is a bit of a shock if you ask me, particularly given the sense of finality that marked their mid-2012 disbandment. And yet so much of it makes sense. Though losing two members, including one of the group’s best singers, was always going to be a difficult barrier to overcome even for K-Pop royalty, the recent rise of old school Wonder Girl Sunmi as one hell of a solo artist has fashioned a powerful re-replacement. Then there’s the fact that the Wonder Girls kind of used to carry the torch for “retro” themed song concepts, and they never did tackle the ’80s…

Indeed the stars have aligned somewhat for REBOOT, one of the most tonally cohesive, not to mention performer-authored, K-Pop albums I’ve ever heard. All twelve of its tracks plant themselves firmly in the aural stylings of the affluent decade, spitting out references to several of the artists that defined its sound. And from there the Wonder Girls add the catchiness and vocal signatures that helped make the group famous in the first place.

The intent is unmistakable from the first track, with main vocalist YeEun’s echoed tones calling out the upbeat refrain of Baby Don’t Play to the sound of reverberating stadium drums a la Tears For Fears. By the time the chorus proper rolls around, with its sharp pseudo-orchestral punctuation, electronic bass guitar and eh-eh-eh’s, the album’s laser focus on period appreciation is laid bare.

And it does not let up from there. Candle is straight-up Pet Shop Boys, committing to layered, full-sounding synth while letting YeEun’s vocal power take a back seat to Sunmi’s breathier style. Its a strong match only hampered by the surgically inserted rap cameo from featuring artist Paloalto.

I Feel You is the real multi-pronged nostalgia weapon, as it uses its lead single status to construct an on-point, early-MTV homage music video (at the bottom of this page) that starts with the signature “JYP” call from classic Wonder Girls hits. The song uses the A-Ha tactic of employing a synth hook in lieu of a traditional chorus. And it is glorious.

Rewind is the first time the album really lowers the tempo, but it does so with a crunchy base of new jack swing rolling along under some damn smooth vocals and a synth melody reminiscent of the Astral Observatory theme from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Yes, I know that was in turn inspired by ’80s tunes – I just wanted an excuse to mention it). Then Loved goes all 8-bit with its percussion and all wistful and rap-heavy with its vocals, leading nicely into the almost Lionel Ritchie-esque John Doe, with its sci-fi opening, flashy party chorus and YeEun lead lines.

Though main rap vocalist Yubin is the strongest writing presence throughout the album, One Black Night is an almost entirely YeEun-penned effort, and its more risque lyrical content is a perfect fit for some nice early Madonna-inspired beats. Then things take a surprising turn on Back, which strips out everything except confident, rustic percussion for a Lim/Yubin rap duet that sounds straight out of the fledgling days of the rap genre, save for the Korean language of course. The wordplay is fast, the lyrics full of swagger, and the chorus a boastfully repetitious anchor that gets more melodic as the song progresses. It’s great fun.

Unfortunately things peter out a little with Oppa, the semi-traditional Lim solo track that seems like it’s attempting to go for the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun points, at least tonally. Yet it lacks the catchiness of Cyndi Lauper’s megahit, not to mention the endearing goofiness of Lim’s last solo song Act Cool from the Wonder Girls’ last full album back in 2011. It’s a bit of a shame, but luckily REBOOT bounces back with Faded Love, a Sunmi-written, Sunmi-dominated ballad with a bit of a Toto edge, the odd orchestral flourish and some lovely complementary vocal work. It’s pretty close to being the best song on the album.

The comeback wraps up by staying on the downbeat side of things for a pair of very different songs – Gone is all ethereal ’80s movie soundtrack backing and echo-y, pleading vocals for days, while album closer Remember is actually the most typical K-Pop song on the record, in that stereotypical “Asian karaoke” style that was initially popularised in – you guessed it – the 1980s. It’s an overplayed style of song in the industry to be sure, but I can’t say it doesn’t fit the album, and for what it’s worth the song does take off on the last chorus in that power ballad sort of way.

REBOOT is that rare example of a musical release that comes out of left field and yet still manages to be both an impressive devotion to a singular thematic purpose and a standout release on its own merits. It’s not the Wonder Girls’ best album, but it is so good at what it does that I don’t have any hesitation recommending it to anyone – K-Pop fan or not – with a weakness for that distinctive 1980s sound. With the likes of Apple Music now available, you don’t have much of an excuse not to give it a listen if that sounds like you.

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THE VERDICT

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Strongest Tracks:
 Baby Don’t Play, I Feel You, Rewind, One Black Night, Back, Faded Love
Weakest Tracks: 
Oppa
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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