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Album Review #10: “XOXO” – Exo

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You know that weird, constipated feeling you get when you’re speeding up on the ramp of the highway and the gear hasn’t shifted yet, so you’re stuck feeling like you’re pushing a few dozen bricks with your tires for three hundred yards or so until the car finally kicks into high gear and you’re driving at the speed of traffic again?

That’s basically how I feel about this album. It’s not the most glamorous metaphor in the world, but at least it’s accurate. My initial love affair with Exo was relatively short-lived; their debut mini album didn’t really do it for me, and the fact that their post-teaser career was composed almost entirely of lipsynched performances of “Mama” effectively quashed any obligatory SMTown-fueled loyalty I might’ve had for them. By the time the “Wolf” leak surfaced on the internet, I didn’t even have it in me to be concerned for Exo and their inevitable fate as K-pop’s resident werewolf laughingstocks. The combination of “Mama” and “Wolf” made it difficult to believe that Exo wasn’t a musical lost cause.

But then there were the teasers. If anything, the music from those 23 teasers and the hope of it eventually reappearing on a formal Exo release were the only things that kept my foot on the gas pedal and prevented me from pulling over into the shoulder and sobbing pathetically into my hands for all eternity.

So obviously, my appreciation for this album is full and vast.

-✶-

Shweta left this comment over at Seoulbeats the other day:

Four Signs of a Good K-pop Album:

1. Non-stans found it enjoyable. Check.
2. The album can be replayed without skipping half of the songs. Check.
3. Everyone disagrees on which song is the best. Check.
4. No one thinks anyone is stupid for liking whatever song they do like. Check.

Well, good job Exo.

It’s amazing how accurate this is — accurate in that XOXO does indeed fulfill all four of these requirements, but also accurate in the sense that these four requirements are fair and reasonable and are not fulfilled easily by any means. There are very few K-pop albums that fulfill all of these requirements — and this isn’t meant as a cheap shot towards the artistic quality of K-pop music as much as it is a testament to the fact that the “goodness” of K-pop isn’t made to be objectively assessed anymore. The factoring-in of idols into the K-pop music equation skews everything towards the mentality that everything that your bias sings is automatically musical gold. This isn’t manifested just in the rabid fangirl defenses of truly awful music sung by their biases, but also in the idea that a plain ballad by your favorite group becomes just that much better simply because it’s from your favorite group. Even as someone who has no issue with lambasting Shinee’s crappy music on the regular, I’ll admit outright that I would not give the bulk of Shinee’s “good” music a second glance if it wasn’t sung by Shinee; if it wasn’t sung by idols for whom I have a personal affinity.

It’s a glowing red indication of bias, sure, but let’s face it: fandom runs on bias. It is bias. And while the matter of whether that’s a good or bad thing is still up for debate, one thing’s for sure: ensuring the satisfaction of a decidedly un-fickle fanbase biased in your favor pretty much becomes a no-brainer. It doesn’t matter that the last three Super Junior albums were utter shit, because Super Junior already has a huge fanbase full of fans who genuinely like the music and think highly of its quality simply because Super Junior is singing it. Of course, it’s not as if K-pop companies just throw whatever garbage they want onto the albums of popular idols because they know fans will love it no matter what — I mean, K-pop companies gotta still have some self-respect, right? — but instead, they can get away with releasing all sorts of weird, avant-garde nonsense under the names of their more established idols because they’re no longer looking to appeal to a wider, mainstream audience. The nets they cast with weird songs like Shinee’s “Punch Drunk Love” and the entirety of DBSK’s Time album are small, but that don’t mean that the fish aren’t still a’bitin.

This, then, sheds a contrastive light on XOXO‘s widespread appeal beyond the Exo fandom. This phenomenon of an album being so well-received by fans and non-fans alike usually never happens in K-pop — and even when it does, it’s with older, well-respected sunbae artists that most K-pop fans today probably don’t know well enough to have the balls to criticize their music.  The fact that Exo is a rookie group with such a well-received first album makes things all the more unusual — but it also makes perfect sense. Say what you want about the Exo fandom and how well-established it’s managed to become despite Exo not doing much of anything for their first year after debut, but the fact still stands that as a rookie group, the marketing ground for Exo is still soft, fertile, and vast. The comparatively small group of fans that have managed to hang on during Exo’s 13-month long period of inactivity is not the powerful, indiscriminate, loyal fanbase that SM wants to market to — not yet, anyway. They’ve saved up some of their safest, most universally appealing, and arguably best music for XOXO because they’re looking to appeal to the widest audience possible. If Exo had Catch Me as their first album, for instance, non-Exo fans would have very little reason to care any more about Exo than they did already. But give them an album full of music that’s high-quality, relatively unoffensive, and altogether quite beautiful, and it’ll be impossible for them not to pay attention.

20130606_cmpatricia_shineeThe exact same thing could be said about Shinee’s first full-length album. The fact that comparisons between XOXO and The SHINee World were drawn so quickly and so naturally only further alludes to the idea that the first albums of idol groups are filled to the brim with good, likable, sophisticated music, created that way in the hopes that it will pull otherwise apathetic non-fans into the loyal, centralized fandom fold. Granted, The SHINee World was released almost exactly three months after Shinee’s debut and allowed SM to strike the potential fan market while it was still hot. Exo, on the other hand, still has a 13-month gap of public apathy to try to compensate for — but to be honest, the overwhelming positive response for XOXO from all over despite a year’s worth of “Mama”-stained memories speaks for itself.

But what happened after The SHINee World, and what happens after XOXO? There seems to be a general fandom consensus that holds The SHINee World in an untouchable, unattainable position, as if it were something that Shinee would need to “work back up to.” It’s not to say that Shinee’s subsequent works really sucked that hard in comparison, but they certainly lacked the kind of sophistication, smoothness, and unoffensive appeal that the music on The SHINee World had. Today, Shinee’s music holds little appeal to those outside of the Shinee fandom — a bit of a shame, considering how initially well-received The SHINee World was, but nonetheless expected. Shinee has a large, thriving, profitable fanbase that likes Shinee’s music just as much as they like Shinee. With that, there’s no need to appeal to a greater market. There’s no need to expend a song like “Baby Don’t Cry” on Shinee’s album when SM knows that Shinee fans will love a song like “Hitchhiker” just as much.

In that sense, I guess it’s a little depressing to say that XOXO is as musically good as it’s going to get for Exo and that it’s all downhill from here. But I mean, let’s face it — I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that XOXO is a little too good to be true, especially when we’re talking about SM and their perspective on musical integrity. SM has poured a shit ton into Exo, and it’s not as if they’re going to skimp out on the music. If anything, I’m happy that XOXO is a neat compilation of some of the best music that SM has, performed by idols who, despite being rookies, are still quite good at what they do. All speculations and projections on Exo’s musical future aside, XOXO is a damn good album — the best album SM’s released in years, probably — and I have nothing but positive words and warm, fuzzy feelings for it. So many warm, fuzzy feelings, in fact, that here is a track-by-track review of the album (which I haven’t done in aaaaages!) because I need a place to put all my feels.

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[Click to listen: 한 = Exo-K; 中 = Exo-M]

1. 늑대와 미녀/狼與美女 (Wolf) [][]

And of course, amidst all these praises for the album, this track is the unspoken (but very much assumed) exception. I’m still debating whether or not the leak did more harm or good for this track. On the one hand, the finished version is far more polished than the leak, and even having the rough cut around for three months before the release gave people time to grow into it — y’know, in that Stockholm-y kind of way where you just learn to love anything you hear as long as it’s been mercilessly drilled into your brain enough times. On the other hand…I mean, who wasn’t bracing themselves for awfulness after hearing the leak?

The newest (and most accepted) excuse for “Wolf” is that it was written as a performance piece and isn’t meant to be listened to on its own. Putting aside the fact that the choreography for “Wolf” is a big steaming pile of ridiculousness (SM’s love affair with Tony Testa shoudl’ve ended, like, three singles ago), I can buy the argument that the lead single ought to be performance-centric, as live performance tends to be SM’s forte.

But there’s a difference between a dynamic performance and senseless theatrics. Thank goodness that SM hasn’t adopted YG-levels of guitar-smashing, live-animal abusing overindulgence in their performances, but the fact that “Wolf” itself is so strapped down to a concept that’s so hard to pull off without looking silly just makes the whole ordeal extremely burdensome to watch. I haven’t heard anyone use the term “SMP” in years, but “Wolf” is proof that the genre still exists. SM’s pursuit of the SMP style is perhaps best described as a careful toeing of the line between actual pop music and dance performance remixes — you know, the stuff that high school dance teams hire out a second-rate DJ to cobble together for them for their dance choreography. A song like “Wolf” is best interpreted as performance music — which is probably what SM’s been trying to get at all along, but putting it as the first track of an album and allowing it to play out in an industry where music, not performance is still king — no wonder no one gets the point. All you’re left with is a really weird, really unappealing song that doesn’t fit anywhere on this album, despite being the lead single.

The track isn’t without some redeeming points, though. The bridge is pretty great — it has a good build, and the strategic positioning of the vocals (e.g. Chanyeol/Kris’ oddly melodious “너는 그냥 거친 야수인데/只追求這樣荒繆的愛” (2:49) underneath all of the punchy high notes) really helps to crank up the intensity.

2. 인어의 눈물 (Baby Don’t Cry) [][]

I really didn’t expect to love this song this much. The initial teaser sounded uninteresting; the melody line of the verses seemed kind of cyclical and unsettling, and I thought that the song itself relied too much on the dramaticness of the chorus to make up for the vanillaness of the verse. But the one big thing about “Baby Don’t Cry” that I couldn’t see with the teaser was the ebb and flow, the push and pull of the song. D.O. delivers his “When you smile / Sun shines” perfectly in contrast with Suho’s line before it; there’s a firm but gentle warmth in the way he sings the line that breaks up the driving boldness of the rest of the verse. A ballad like “Baby Don’t Cry” runs a high risk of becoming overly linear, particularly when you consider the fact that the Exo members are still relatively inexperienced and more technical than emotive in their singing.

The minimalist piano in the verses is gorgeous in its own right, but it’s a risky move to make because it leaves the vocals pretty bare. Suho’s lines are significantly weaker in this regard; his delivery is careful, calculated, and a little too nice-sounding — to the extent where it clashes with the piano a bit. Baekhyun does a great job with the opening, though — he adds so much character to his lines and opens the song with an unsettling mood despite the melodiousness of the piano.

It’s for this reason that I prefer the K version over the M version, and the same could really be said of all of the ballads on this album. Luhan, Lay, and Chen are the only real vocalists in M. However, Luhan and Lay’s voices are so different from Baekhyun and D.O.’s voices in K. Their voices lack the kind of intensity that Baek and D.O. have, and the R&B-heavy ballads on this album require that intensity in order for the delivery to be truly compelling and successful. Of course, Luhan and Lay’s voices fit in wonderfully elsewhere on the album, but the M version of “Baby Don’t Cry” seems much, much weaker.

Chen, on the other hand, has a perfect voice for this song — but the fact that he isn’t a native Chinese speaker is always going to stand in the way of him showing his full potential as a singer in M. The lyrics of “Baby Don’t Cry” are conversational rather than outrightly poetic, and K succeeds in delivering that natural, conversational vibe. Chen has the voice to pull off the song, but his lines seem almost filtered — not necessarily because of his accent, but because there’s an audible cognitive disconnect between the words that Chen is singing and the emotions that he is showing through them.

3. Black Pearl [][]

This song is so slick. The contrast between the low-key verses and the heavy, dynamic chorus is handled perfectly. I think the real value in this song isn’t the vocal performance as much as it is the production. The instrumental is so nuanced, so smooth, and the background vocals are edited just right and integrated as parts of the instrumental. Suho’s delicate handling of the pre-chorus definitely added a good contrast to the dynamism of the song.

The rap seemed really out of place in this one.

I didn’t think Baek and D.O.’s adlibs would work in this song, but they really helped to amp up the end of the song and added a lot of character to the otherwise “blocky”-sounding chorus.

Luhan sounded really good on the opening verse. Luhan’s voice is on the thinner, plainer side of things, but his delivery of the opening verse (and the rest of the song) was weighty and compelling. He sings in an almost-whisper at some points, and it really reveals a dimensionality to his voice that’s hard to see when he does ballads.

4. 나비소녀/蝴蝶少女 (Don’t Go) [][]

I thought this was one of the weaker songs on the album; kinda generic, not very interesting — just line after line after line. The best part of this was Sehun(?!) and Tao(?!?!)”s  “조용히 눈에 띄는 몸짓 강하고 부드러운 눈빛/就像風隨你到處遨游 貼著風隨你路線去走” (2:40). This was the one part that saves this song from total pop genericness.

5. Let Out The Beast [][]

So we all agree that this should’ve been the lead single, yeah?

The song has this weird Usher-ish vibe to it that works surprisingly well despite being this big, stompy macho song. I didn’t expect to like this one either, but the great thing about this song is that it doesn’t stick to a strict melody, which helps to keep the song moving. The latter third of the song (particularly the instrumental break) sounds really reminiscent of Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” which I really loooooove.

6. 3.6.5 [][]

I like this one because Kris and Chanyeol sound really good in it.

In all seriousness, this song is corny as hell but I’m glad it made its way onto here. It breaks up the heaviness of the rest of the album, and while it runs the risk of sounding like a cheap One Direction rip-off, there’s a warmth to “3.6.5″ that makes it kinda special and a little less, er, boring? There’s no reason why this song couldn’t have just been left alone as an obligatory pop-fluff song, but the warmth in the song gives it a little more life and character. It’s much more apparent in K’s version; Chanyeol, Baekhyun, and D.O.’s voices don’t fit this song at all but they all pull off their parts with such conviction that instead of sounding out of place, it succeeds in adding a different kind of character to the song.

7. Heart Attack [][]

If there’s one thing that idol rappers are good for, it’s songs like this. This is probably an unpopular opinion but I think “Heart Attack” really needed Chanyeol and Kris with the low, dissonant “heart attack”‘s at the end for it to be really complete. Kris and Chanyeol sound really good in this song overall — and I’m saying that not just because I like their voices, but because they both have a husky, grainy quality that fits in really well with the instrumental. Their voices aren’t as clean-sounding as the others’, and it adds depth to the performance of the song.

The opening instrumental is so beautiful and woodsy while being really punchy and compelling. Love.

“Heart Attack” is pretty linear and it can be easily accused of not really going anywhere, but there’s so much tension in the song that that in itself gives the song enough life to sustain it all the way through to the end without needing a substantial climax. The chorus is kinda eh, but I think anything “bigger” would run the risk of upsetting the careful balance in the rest of the song. The little harmonies in the chorus are nice.

Lay sounds really good in the M version. I have a hard time fully accepting Lay’s voice because it has a really unsubtle, piercing, hollow quality that makes it hard for it to slide in anywhere. Lay’s voice fits in really well at some points — particularly his “如果是一場夢 怎麼會痛” line (2:30) — and….ugh, it just really makes me happy when people with unconventional voices find places in songs where they really fit and sound good.

8. Baby [][]

Ahh, this song is so Kenzie it hurts. A part of me thinks she’s been hoarding this song since the “Hot Mail” and “One” days because this song is preeeeetty dated, lol. It’s pretty vanilla as far as ballads go, but it’s nice and sweet and unoffensive.

Listening to Kris singing way too many lines in this song makes me chuckle at the fact that a guy like Kris is singing a song called “Baby.” Keke.

9. Peter Pan [][]

I love this song. I want to hug it. It’s so cute, so youthful (ha), so endearing, and the chorus is so pure-sounding.

The M and K versions sound completely different. Baekhyun and D.O.’s voices have really similar timbres, and it’s kind of amazing how the character of an entire song can be so easily overtaken by the tone of their voices alone. The M version has that classic, pure, delicate sound to it while the K version is deeper. Like….if the chorus of the M version is like sliding up and down a thread, the K version is like blowing down a wooden straw. If that makes any sense.

10. My Lady [][]

Ahh. This song. This songggggg.

Won’t lie, I’m a little disappointed — but it’s not really fair because I was so blown away with this song when I heard it in the teaser; it was really the only teaser song that stuck with me. The pre-chorus was so tense and moved so well; the “harmony” high note was just so good.

The actual chorus is just kinda…eh. It relies really heavily on the underlying vocals to carry on the character of the song. Baekhyun/D.O. do a decent job of it in the K version, but it falls pretty flat in the M version. The K version on the whole is much stronger than the M version, by merit of the fact that Baekhyun and D.O’s voices are practically built for songs like this, while Luhan and Lay’s just…aren’t. This brings up a pretty interesting problem for the future; a lot of Exo’s music fits Baekhyun and D.O.’s voices almost perfectly (not surprising because um they sound just like Yoo Young-jin), but Luhan and Lay sound nothing like them, and at the moment it just sounds like they’re getting dragged along with the ride…like they’re doing covers of their own songs. It’s unfortunate and I wish that someone had the foresight to address this earlier (or maybe they did by putting Chen in M?) but while Luhan and Lay have proven that they can still pull their weight in these songs, it’d be nice if they could get music that fits them well too.

The rap is everything an idol rap should be. The sudden modal change is really compelling and really smooth, and I just have such a soft spot with the kind of rap-singing here. The “꿈꾸고 싶어/夢見到你” (1:58) is just too good.

The one thing I really hate about how this song ended up is the transition into  the ending. The sudden change in tempo doesn’t make any sense, especially at the end; there are just so many other ways it could’ve gone, but the ending as it currently stand just sounds like a cop-out.

-✶-

I think this is the first time in a long time I’ve listened to an album and was actually sad when it was over. All of the music on XOXO jives with me really well personally (like…if I were to ever become a music producer, this is exactly the kind of music I would want to make), but more than that, I’m glad to see an album from an idol group (and an SM idol group, at that) being so well-received. It’s said that no one’s really ever in K-pop for the music — and while there might be a smidgen of truth in that, XOXO does a good job of testing its limits.

 

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  • http://colourmesplendid.wordpress.com Ree

    RE: SHINee and EXO comparisons. I almost feel as though SM is already at that place with EXO where they feel as though they have enough stans/people who will love them via SMTOWN osmosis, so that they can forego having a conventionally good title track. Of course, the album as a whole is really great, but Wolf is just… so glaringly bad? With SHINee’s debut and proceeding tracks (Replay, LLO) everything about them screamed of mainstream appeal. I mean, this could really obviously be due to the fact their images are pretty much polar opposites on the K-pop boyband scale, but I mean, it can’t really be impossible to have a metallic/manly song that still holds wide appeal? The reaction to EXO’s wolf was really telling, so it’s not as though SM had no idea about how poorly received the song is. But I can’t buy that any company actually composes a song with the intention of having it poorly received (yes, this goes for all of Super Junior’s music too). So I can only figure that SM has really strong faith in EXO’s ability to sell things via live performance — but then, why have them lip synch more than half of the MAMA stages? Is it fear that they aren’t ready yet, and if they did live perform MAMA it’d just backfire on the kind of impression they’re supposed to make. But then again, not live performing MAMA does the exact same thing. Questions. Sigh. Questions that are probably meaningless because I’m overthinking this.

    Re: Voices. I think this is one of the (many) limitations of having both groups record versions of the same song. Generally speaking, SM’s A&R team are pretty on point, they know how to make their groups sound good. But when K and M are sonically sound so, so different, it’s only inevitable that it’s going to backfire for some tracks. Plus, I have no doubt that most of the songs were written with D.O and Baekhyun’s voices in mind — so it’s probably always going to be M that’ll be the square trying to fit into the circle. Also, Chen carries a lot of the vocal weight in M. The line distribution between Lu Han and Chen is really uneven compared to the distribution between Baekhyun and D.O. It’s understandable, since Chen is just, a lot better than Lu Han, even though Lu Han is good in a lot of ways. But as a result, Lay gets even less. As a result, as a vocal group M just feels like it’s a lot more non-cohesive.

    Anyway, this entire comment is really negative, even though my impression of the album is anything but. I might even like it better than SHINee World, if only because the music is more to my taste. It’s unfortunate that the era that marks such a great album is going to be remembered as ‘Wolf’. K-pop’s choice of title track is so much more conscious than that of Western Pop? For better or worse. Like, Wolf is obviously THE weak link in this album — but I’m trying to think of it from an SM employee’s point of view, and Wolf just… sounds really title track-esque? Not even because it’s good. But it’s just such an obvious choice, that if it wasn’t the title track, it probably wouldn’t even be on the album at all.

    Ergh. This comment is just one big tangent. I really enjoyed reading this review (as I do with pretty much everything you review), and I agree with almost everything!

  • http://splashofinspiration.wordpress.com/ Shweta

    Beautiful review, Patricia. It’s totally on point.