Review Summary: K-pop starlets launch an impressive assault on the Japanese market.
There are all manners of prejudices about pop music from the Far East, a few of them quite reasonable, but one thing it's very good at is occasionally producing a song that turns heads by virtue of its sheer unbridled joy, making seasoned listeners wonder why the pop industry in the English speaking world isn't coming up with anything similar. Our biggest stars - Beyonce, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Christina Aguilera - all seem to take themselves very seriously, writing songs that are often defined by their muscular construction and sexual aggression. Even the exceptions (Justin Beiber and Taylor Swift spring to mind, as does the occasional Katy Perry song) can't even come close to the best K-pop and J-pop for pure glee and feel-good factor.
"Gee" by Girls' Generation may well be the best example of that in the last couple of years. Originally released in 2009, it was a song that lifted a few production tricks from the more innocent end of '90s R&B, but that seemed oddly out of time regardless - for a track that's a very accessible pop song at heart, it's remarkable how much it can feel like it's battering you into deliriously happy submission. 'Happy' and 'innocent' aren't words you can often attach to pop from the West without any qualifiers, but for "Gee", they're the only words possible, and that makes it hard to place. It's undeniably modern sounding, but in spirit it's closer to a track like "My Boy Lollipop" or "I'm a Believer" than, say, "Born This Way" or "Run the World (Girls)".
Unfortunately, on this album - their second self-titled effort, following 2007's Korean effort (this is recorded mostly in Japanese in a transparent attempt to crack the Japanese market) - not much else sounds like it. Instead, it's an album that aligns itself quite closely with the world of pop in 2011, with strong club rhythms and synths borrowed from the European dance music of the '90s. It's hard not to be a little disappointed by that, particular when "Gee" makes an appearance here too, albiet re-recorded in Japanese with a smattering of English; it's a sharp reminder of what you expected that disrupts your impression of what you're actually hearing. Having it at track 7 is poor programming - the only way the song would have been able to take a place on the album without disrupting the flow is either as the first or last song.
Yet if you take the time to get into the music on Girls' Generation
, you'll realize that this is still a fairly unusual pop album, for the simple reason that it is entirely devoid of filler. In a world dominated by albums that can be accurately described as 'singles and whatever else was lying around', that's an impressive, if simple achievement. It helps that the first ballad, "Born to Be a Lady", doesn't appear until track 12. The album is only 12 tracks long. This song and "Gee" aside, the album is focused on one sound, with the appeal coming from the songcraft rather than alternating between styles - again, that's fairly unusual for a pop album in the 21st century.
The question, then, is whether or not the songs here can match up to the best Western offerings. The answer is 'close, but no cigar'. Right now, the best thrills pop has to offer come from the almost cartoonish production borrowed from the most hard-egded club music, where songs end up sounding like the producers have gone into a studio and made a conscious effort to use every effect available to them - think of Diplo's production on Nicola Roberts' "Beat of My Drum" and Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)", or the dubstep influences on Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me" for a less extreme example. You would think that an album aimed at listeners in Japan, a country with a much stronger track record of enjoying sounds like this than America, would go all-out on these kinds of ludicrous synths, but Girls' Generation
doesn't even try. If it did, it's hard not to imagine that the album would be much better for it. Instead, the production here makes the songs feel second-tier rather than world class, playoff qualifiers rather than title winners. Still, 10 second-tier songs out of 12 is a much better hit-rate than most pop albums, right?
If there's any space in your collection for sunny, feel-good pop music with no aspirations of ever being anything else, I can't fathom why you wouldn't be happy with this album.