Thursday, January 20

Album Review: ‘The Boys’ takes SNSD in a gutsy new direction


SOUTH KOREA: How can you tell SNSD (a.k.a Girls’ Generation) is a big deal? Why, over the amount of debate they can generate, of course.

Few artistes can create the kind of sharply polar reactions that SNSD’s third studio album ‘The Boys’ garnered upon its release on such a huge scale. There was unbridled praise right alongside vicious criticism, both domestically and overseas, and that’s just the listeners.

Critics were similarly divided – I’ve seen professional reviews that declared ‘The Boys’ one of the better idol-group albums of the year, as well as ones that pronounced the album a resounding failure. Oh, and I hear that SNSD’s been selling a few albums, too. So yeah, they’re a pretty big deal.

Seriously, now. The nine members of SNSD are now, for all intents and purposes, the faces of one of the largest, richest, most influential entertainment agencies in the land – SM Entertainment.

Four years removed from debut, they’ve developed into not only arguably Kpop’s most popular idol group, but also into economic movers and shakers. Just like anyone else who’s been in that position before them, they have a particular standard to live up to.

People want to know that they belong in that position. That’s why ‘The Boys’ falls on such a critical time in this group’s history: succeed here, and SNSD cements their spot. SM knows that, and ‘The Boys’ is the result.

I said before that this album’s been debated over, and naturally the most oft-debated topic is the merits of its lead single ‘The Boys’.

Immediately noticeable is the way that this track sheds former SNSD formulas: this is most definitely not a hook-song, does not indulge in cutesy mannerisms, and has practically minimalist instrumentation compared to former productions.

What we have here is a hard-hitting melody, clinically sterile string rhythm, and dense, abrasive synth textures. They achieve the intended effect: ‘The Boys’ sounds sleek and attitudinal.

Tension is controlled well, as the relentless beat ramps up suspense with periodic breaks by the rhythmic, chant-like hook.

SNSD takes to the new theme well: listeners have heard this group’s brand of harmony dozens of times, but that chorus of “Bring the boys out” is as coolly chic as they’ve ever sounded. It’s a slightly different tack than that in ‘Run Devil Run’, but I think at least in terms of vocal performance, ‘The Boys’ is better.

Whether this track is actually engaging is another question, though – it has its share of problems.

That chorus melody (chant and all) sounds sleek, but it becomes monotonous fairly quickly; it doesn’t sound like an issue of arrangement, since the track’s structure sustains tension so nicely. It’s just that the melody itself is not very interesting to begin with.

Combined with the very generic lyrics (the English version is marginally better than the Korean, but they’re both pretty bland), the track doesn’t exactly leave a strikingly memorable impression.

Too, ‘The Boys’ still has remnants of the SMP “genre” embedded in certain aspects. Sure, Teddy Riley co-composed this (and it sounds like the guy’s definitely lost a bit of his old touch), but from the sounds of it, Yoo Young-jin and crew had a pretty significant contribution themselves: the track retains Yoo’s preferred style of melisma in the closing minute as well as the predictably jarring breakdown section before the final chorus.

And boy, that breakdown. I’ll say this: if SNSD is not going to run with a dedicated rapper, they may want to can the rap parts.

Yuri, YoonA, Hyoyeon, and Sooyoung all sound like they’re way out of their zone there, and the section as a whole nearly throws the whole track off (the English version gets it even worse). Things like this disrupt the track’s unity, and keeps it from reaching its full potential.

‘The Boys’ is ambitious, but the payoff isn’t as great as it should be.

Moving away from the lead single: true to the recent trend among SM artistes’ works, ‘The Boys’ (the album now) is full of quality uptempo pop.

These aren’t anywhere near as bold as ‘The Boys’ (the track), but on the whole are much more polished.

There’s the requisite Hitchhiker synthpop in ‘Telepathy’; while it isn’t as quirky as some of his other works, the deep synth is pleasant and the track has a lot of spirit.

The production becomes aggressive in ‘Trick’, with the verses and bridges powered by heavy, rough synth tones and the chorus riding upon a speedy club beat; it’s another very good track in the series of modern-europop songs that SM Entertainment has been importing.

Kenzie‘s slap-bass-toting, seductive Oscar rides a visceral groove; in the meantime, ‘Top Secret’ follows the tradition of last year’s ‘Hoot’ with its theatrical, brass-driven accompaniment. (It’s less campy this time around.)

The dropoff from there is pretty sizable, though. ‘Vitamin’ is a pleasant cheer-up song, and ‘How Great Is Your Love’, the only true ballad on the album, gives SNSD some breathing room to sing, but neither are great.

The remainder all suffer from at least one significant issue: ‘Sunflower’ – another Hitchhiker track, by the way – uses SNSD’s falsettoes a little too liberally, which in turn makes the song sound floaty.

While both ‘Say Yes’ and ‘My J’ have fairly attractive instrumentation, the melodies are unremarkable and the tracks unsubstantial. Taeyeon and Tiffany have good vocal outings in the former, though, and Sunny stands out in the latter.

‘Lazy Girl’ is probably the flattest track on ‘The Boys’, employing a retro melody with dubious execution and overly heavy synthesizer.

Really, the four uptempo tracks are the core of ‘The Boys’ – they form the substantive, high-quality portion of this album, and any of them could probably serve as centerpiece singles for most other girl-group albums in recent memory.

It’s interesting how that is, though: does the relative dullness of the slower tracks and the lead single say more about SM’s questionable track production and selection, or about SNSD members’ being more proficient at uptempo pop?

It’s probably a little bit of both. On the one hand, ‘Sunflower’, ‘Say Yes’, etc. are all crafted without the same attention to detail and quality as the dance tracks; in the case of the track ‘The Boys’, it’s more a case of muffed execution in a new genre, and while I’m not going to blame anyone for trying something new, the end result is less than great.

Now, on the other hand, SNSD does sound much more comfortable in the densely electronic tracks.

‘Trick’ is particularly notable: not only are the rich, magician-themed lyrics interesting, but SNSD members also perform with flair.

They audibly take more freedoms with their parts, with tonal shifts, embellishments, varied intonation and more.

Perhaps the composer might have “instructed” this stuff (we’ll never know), but regardless, SNSD was able to pull this off and do it convincingly.

Not so much in, say, ‘How Great Is Your Love’: most members, with the exception of Taeyeon, Seohyun and maybe Tiffany, have difficulty filling in the gaps left by the lack of dense instrumentation.

They don’t sound bad, but rather overly cautious, and therefore the song leads them, not the other way round. That doesn’t work too well in slower tracks.

Still, the good stuff is really pretty darn good, and that’s generally what defines an album – more so than the bad stuff. ‘The Boys’ plays upon SNSD’s and SM’s strengths, while taking the group in a gutsy new direction.

That’s my favourite thing about ‘The Boys’: SM didn’t sit complacently and churn out more of the stuff that put its flagship group where it is today. (I’m looking at you, TS Entertainment.)

As I’ve noted already, that experimentation in the lead single didn’t turn out so well this time. But so long as SM and SNSD are willing to be this bold, they’ll hit a truly great one – another ‘Gee’ – soon.

In the meantime, listeners get to enjoy ‘The Boys’ – it’s a well-put-together, pleasant pop album. Consider that spot at the top defended and cemented for now. –