K-Pop Roundup - June 2014

With summer officially arriving, K-pop in June was filled with huge comebacks from veteran artists like PSY and Taeyang as well as rookie groups like Got7 and the controversial solo debut from Hyomin.

Taeyang - "Eyes, Nose, Lips"

With so many comebacks and debuts going on, sometimes you have to take the risk and stand out with a piano-driven sentimental ballad (being sexy and shirtless in the music video helps too, but we’ll get to that). For his latest comeback, coinciding with his first full-length solo album in four year, Big Bang’s Taeyang has released “Eyes, Nose, Lips”, and made us all swoon. The tender break-up ballad starts with dramatic piano and follows Taeyang’s expressive crooning through confessional verses and a powerful chorus. He sings about his selfishness in their relationship and coming to terms with her leaving, remembering her “eyes, nose, and lips”. To top it all off, the song makes a cinematic modulation for the last chorus, really playing up the cheesy sentiment of the song.

But most importantly, let’s not forget about shirtless Taeyang. The music video opens like an homage to D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” but the camera keeps panning out all the way (he’s wearing pants). The closeups in the beginning capture his vulnerability, but seeing him full body adds to the theatrical quality of the performance, especially when the billboard lights on fire. Also, the camera constantly pulling back farther and father reflects the lyrical theme of Taeyang feeling more and more distant from his failed relationship.

PSY - "Hangover"

I may be one of the few people out there who think that “Gentleman” is not only a funnier music video but also a better song than the inescapable smash hit “Gangnam Style”. But for his recent comeback, viral sensation PSY has really missed the mark. The song is an abrasive, obnoxious mess of trap beats and annoying hooks, which is likely the point, but at an interminable five minutes and eight seconds, it’s all just too much. He and Snoop Dogg trade verses about having the night of their lives and the next morning after-effects, but surely we could have kept it under three minutes.

The video does add a layer of humor to the affair, though. It’s entertaining to watch PSY and Snoop have a great time together, especially because everyone around them hates it and finds them as obnoxious as I find the song. But still, this is not a song I ever need to hear again. I get it, though; it would be almost impossible to not struggle at least a little bit after having an international mega-hit like “Gangnam Style”, and to date, “Hangover” has 94,000,000 views. So it may be annoying, but there’s still an audience for it! Good for PSY.

AoA - "Short Hair"

For the title track to its first mini-album, AoA teamed up with hit-maker Brave Brothers about finding empowerment through cutting your hair. The girl group previously collaborated with Brave Brothers on its “Miniskirt” single from earlier this year, and “Short Hair” pulls out many of the same tricks. They’re both R&B-tinged dance-pop songs with wordless hooks, funky chords, and touches of brass. But self-plagiarism aside, both songs are pretty great.

At first, the video seems confusing because not all of the girls have the eponymous short hair, but as it goes along, you realize that’s the point. We see each girl unhappy (and often incompetent) at her job, while they sing about feeling insecure. The comedic various job scenes are cut together with sexy choreography that might not make much sense in the storyline, but who’s really complaining about sexy dancing in music videos? As the video goes on, each girl goes into ChoA’s beauty salon—aptly named Short Cut—to switch up their look and take control of their life. And, of course, it works. Their problems seemingly disappear and they’re free to keep dancing sexily in the beauty salon!

Got7 - "A"

If new boy band Got7’s debut track earlier this year, “Girls, Girls, Girls”, left a bit to be desired, “A” is certainly that track that will win you over. The JYP Entertainment group brings out all its charm for its new single and music video, and it works. The uptempo R&B song features memorable hooks with a laid-back vibe. The group members sing confidently about how they know you’re into them with lines like, “You thought that I wouldn’t know that you liked me / That was cute of you”.

Despite their confidence, though, the music video tells a bit of a different story. The Got7 boys go around town competing with each other to get a girl who seems to not even notice them. But mostly they just dance. In fact, they kind of drop the girl chasing plot in the middle of the video and decide to keep focusing on the incredible choreography. They boys don’t seem to mind too much, either. They’re great dancers and seem to have fun doing it and we enjoy watching, so who needs her anyway?

Hyomin - "Nice Body"

Last month T-ara’s Jiyeon made her solo debut with “Never Ever”, and now fellow T-ara member Hyomin is also going solo with “Nice Body”. “Never Ever” may have been a good song and a great music video, but Hyomin seems to know that if you really want to get people talking, make something controversial. “Nice Body” is one of those “is this satire or is this really problematic and awful or is it maybe both?” videos. And that ambiguity makes for more heated online discussion and think-piecing. The video begins with Hyomin in prosthetic makeup to appear overweight while she eats doughnuts and cheese puffs. Then she passes out and dreams that she is confident and sexy and, of course, has a “nice body”, If you weren’t aware what a nice body should be, her outfit has numbers printed to remind you that a girl’s chest should be 34 inches, her waist 24, and her hips 36.

As fat-shaming and shallow as it all may seem (I mean, she does twerk while holding a measuring tape across her ass), it may actually be trying to bring attention to the ridiculous standards we place on women and pop stars in our society. The lyrics are too over-the-top to be completely sincere, overemphasizing how dieting and being skinny will make “a prince of my dreams will appear for sure”. Guest rapper Loco even compares her imaginary self to “those Western girls who work out”.

It might be sincere, or it might be satire, but it’s likely aiming to reap the benefits of both perspectives. Even setting aside those issues though, the song itself is very strong. It’s another Brave Brothers production, and it certainly sounds it, but it’s fun and summery and the chorus is undeniably catchy. Just, whatever you do, don’t read the comments section.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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