Review Summary: city bops
City pop is back…baby? What a great time to be retro. Anyone taking the vaguest notes on 2020 pop will have tuned into the ‘80s disco revival spearheaded by the likes of Roisin Murphy and Jessie Ware, but it’s interesting to see how many Korean artists have displayed corresponding inclinations towards vintage Japanese city pop. For the uninitiated, city pop is a parallel-universe approximation of classic sophistipop, built on bustling visions of urban luminance and plasticity and articulated in colourful and often impossibly groovy smatterings of funk and/or jazz. It’s a combination that has aged, uh, inconsistently; city pop is so melodically rich and instrumentally busy that its lesser configurations are in constant danger of oversaturation or burnout, especially when compared with the timeless straightforwardness of Western disco. ‘Stagnant’ is a word I see quite cogently thrown around a lot for run-of-the-mill city pop; it’s easy to tell when uninspired songs find themselves crushed under the weight of their own dense arrangements. You approach a genre underpinned by such a legendary standard of bass grooves and you’re playing with fire; any lazy songwriting or listless hooks stand out a mile. It takes a certain something to hit lasting glory as a vocalist with that kind of backdrop behind you.
Whatever that something is, you can be damn sure that Japanese-born Korean showmistress Yukika has got it. Having done the rounds of South Korean showbiz over the last few years, she’s settled (for now) on a singing career and made a landmark opening statement with her debut album Soul Lady
. It is, as they say, a good’un: the kind of record so so transparently excellent, universally popular and so instantly inviting that it’s likely as immune to the pop cynicism and circuitous whatabout-ism as anything in this year’s twisted hellscape of a washed-up landscape could ever hope to be. Seriously, nitpick this album all you like; there’s very little that provokes substantial quibbles beyond the token-ness of “A Day For Love”’s token balladry and the potentially extraneous placement of “I Need A Friend”’s spoken word recording. Yukika and her small army of composer/arrangers have a keen ear for details, and they find inventive ways to put this to good use from song to song without disrupting the album’s near-seamless continuity. The best example of this is “pit-a-pet”, where Yukika gives city pop’s retro synth palette a modern makeover and displays shrewd footwork as she keeps up the steps of faithful revivalism while sliding her heels over the threshold of wider K-Pop vogue. I’m not sure whether or not there was a need to bring anything this glossy into the mix, but it smacks of enough conviction to sit comfortably alongside the album’s other, more traditional fare.
All this is quaint and nice, but this is not the kind of affair where scrutinising the small things is particularly conducive to overall appreciation; if your ears aren’t firmly trained on those absolute monster
hooks, you’re wasting your time here. Soul Lady
is stacked to high heaven with impeccable pop immediacy, and the concentration with which this supercharges it song-to-song is dazzling. Take its flagship banger, “NEON”. Finally at home on an LP tracklist after over a year in orbit as a single, this track practically rewrites the criteria for an impressive pop song in 2020 with the space between each note. Its juggernaut of a chorus is surprisingly fleeting, with most of the track oriented towards cementing its three-beat bass groove, and by the time the chorus does roll around, this rhythm has Yukika cooking on gas. She’s not one to waste that momentum on aimless repetition while just two iterations of that
vocal line per iteration is more than enough to stick in your head for days. Fat free and unforgettable; that’s how you play ‘em.
It doesn’t get any better than “NEON” whichever market you cherrypick from, but the fact that it isn’t that emphatic a standout within the record’s opening salvo speaks volumes for the calibre on show here. “I FEEL LOVE” is a note-perfect icebreaker full of charming delivery; “SOUL LADY” is a whirl of giddy energy that makes for the album’s most intense and rousing cut; “Yesterday” tones down the tempo and leans more heavily into its rhythm section for an irresistibly danceable knockout. What a run. The rest of the album never attempts to reach corresponding highs because it doesn’t need to; riding the rush of the early stretch, later numbers like “Cherries Jubiles” and “SHADE” find themselves with the space to toy with more expansive vocal melodies, and they take full advantage of this. The assorted flourishes of the former’s promenade kitsch and the gorgeous romanticism of the latter’s chorus are every inch as impeccable as the album’s megahooks. They offer just the right changes of pacing for the record’s 35-minute runtime to play out with as much contour as concentration, both to extremes. And so it is that Soul Lady
slaps like no-one’s business. Yukika sets herself an intimidating standard here, anchoring city pop’s traditional aesthetic of metropolitan excess to the ageless simplicity of romantic lyricism. She doesn’t beat about the bush when it comes to sweeping the genre’s typical nostalgia for heyday Tokyo under the carpet, breathlessly asserting her own time and place in its stead. This is a sound of right here, right now
: more, please.