[Review] Red Velvet find success with straightforward summer sound for “Umpah Umpah”

Red Velvet’s past three Korean title tracks have split opinion, each becoming more experimental than the last. It’s a wonder, then, that the group have maintained their popularity with music that has been so polarizing. The girls opened their “ReVe Festival” trilogy only two months ago with the release of the carnival-esque Zimzalabim. Though that track was dismissed by many, I found its quirky charms to be quite addictive. For Umpah Umpah (음파음파) (they love an onomatopoeia, don’t they?), Red Velvet have dialed back the weird in favor of a classic pop sheen. This results in their most instantly palatable single since 2018‘s Bad Boy.

Picking up where Weki Meki left off last weekUmpah tackles an iconic summer sound — breezy and bright and straightforward. In the hands of a lesser group, this could result in a forgettable product, but Red Velvet have one of the tightest set of vocals among K-pop girl groups. They also rarely resort in the kind of chanted aegyo that would have pushed a song like this into saccharine territory. Instead, Umpah is light on its feet and funky. It vibes on a sticky groove, powered by rhythm guitar and bursts of brilliant harmony. I love the “Umpah Umpah” vocal hook that anchors the track, masquerading as a pseudo-bassline rather than over-caffeinated exclamation.

Umpah’s chorus takes advantage of Red Velvet’s airtight blend, and harnesses a fully fleshed out melody rather than the kind of beat drop catchphrases we’re so used to hearing in modern K-pop. In a way, this direct approach kind of throws you off balance, especially as part of a Red Velvet title track. I kept waiting for some odd detour or grating element, but the arrangement remains buoyant and unflinchingly pleasant throughout. This puts me in a hypocritical position because, as much as I always yearn for classic pop melody, I actually think Umpah could stand to be just a little weirder. There’s no doubt that it’s an accomplished piece of polished song craft, but its relative normality makes it feel more like a strong b-side than a momentous title track.

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IATFB says: Wasn’t as enthralled with it as others seemed to be, but it was certainly an improvement in terms of being listenable and certainly fun.

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