Ballad Roundup: Chungha, Suho & Younha, IZ*ONE, Dreamcatcher, Sejeong

If we take away the fake votes, Gaeun places 5th…

Sorry for the delay! Been slow on getting this out because time is now a flat circle and I don’t know what day it is anymore. Wash your hands and stay safe out there.


Chungha – “Everybody Has”

Chungha was my personal favorite (go Mariners) in the I.O.I. gang, but I was pleasantly surprised when the main dancer was receiving some prominent OST work. So while her success post-I.O.I. has been built on the back of her pop cuts, project single “Everybody Has” finds her back in the ballad game.

Chungha’s voice sounds great here; like I said about LOONA’s Yves last month, Chungha’s development as a singer has been about her maturing dramatic ability. Songwriters can always write songs that fit your range, but a good ballad requires a vocalist to be able to sell the melancholy the arrangement is trying to evoke. She shows great pacing here. Not a huge fan of how thick the reverb is on her voice though.

The wavy synth that serves as the warm base texture in the arrangement is one I’m seeing pop up a lot in K-Pop. It’s always fun when the production hive-mind finds a new toy to play with.

CRUSH – “Digital Lover”

Wow, what a video! Thanks to Hyundai, Crush gets a music video with the production budget the size of a full-length Netflix series.

In the mainstream, Crush basically occupies the same career space that Zion.T does, as in his collaborations seem to hit harder than his solo singles. I don’t think “Digital Lover” changes that trajectory for him, but I do think that, speaking strictly as a solo artist, Crush shows much more flexibility in his styles than Zion.T does. Or maybe, Zion.T’s unique traits stand out so specifically there’s no mystery in it.

As for the song, Crush does Crush things, there is a piano, but there is also more than just a piano, and the music video is incredibly polished. Also points for being pro-social distancing. Wash your hands!

Note: loving the new Zion.T and Sumin song. Not a ballad though.

Dreamcatcher – “DAYBREAK”

Tossing one to the boss here. But lets talk about it!

The new album is very very very good. For me, it’s the cleanest sounding Dreamcatcher release ever, which seems to be the key to my personal enjoyment of the album.

“Daybreak” is the most ballad-esque on the release; the measured R&B flow encroaching a bit on Red Velvet territory but in a good way. First the cons: The mix on the track feels out-of-whack. The leaden, double kick is a bit overpowering in this context. Bass is busy but doesn’t hit a groove. All-in-all maybe the cheapest sounding instrumental on the record.

But the vocals shine brilliantly here. This is not a sound Dreamcatcher has had much experience with, but it works well with the fact that all of DC is very comfortable in their low registers. From Dami‘s rap to Siyeon doing the heavy lifting, “Daybreak” shows a competency for the genre that would surprise the casual Dreamcatcher fan.

Dreamcatcher’s Yoohyeon – “It’s Not That It Can’t Work, It’s Just Too Late Now”

We’re double dipping here, but also, this is truly, wonderfully a real ballad. And we also get a rare non-Siyeon ballad!

Yoohyeon’s voice is wonderful and robust, hitting the big meaty parts of the chorus with proper force and flair. The way she drops out of the big crescendo into her softer voice is handled really well. And though some of the held notes sound like a bit of a strain, the key and melody serve her range rather than expose it.

But AGAIN I have some issues with the production here. The volume of her vocals are at war with the strings throughout the entire track. I’m 99% sure this has nothing to do with her own vocal skill since when the strings are out, she sounds fantastic. This just needs a little more EQ love. Give her voice some space!

Cheon Dan Bi – “Stupid”

I don’t really take much credence in the vocal analysis that K-pop fans seem to hold so dear. I care much less about who can hit an E5 than who actually fits the songs they’re assigned to sing. Singers are like actors, their vocal color defines the range of roles they can play. Most of the time this is limited to a narrow range, more rare are the ones who can fit almost any concept.

In this respect, Superstar K7 runner-up Cheon Dan Bi is a character actor, her character being the Fragile Broken Woman. And like Joe Pesci is to Italian Mobsters or Kim Byung Ok is to Conniving Chaebols, this is the role she was born to play.

Songs exactly like “Stupid” have been sung over and over again in the annals of pop music, but after hearing Cheon Dan Bi’s performance it’s hard to imagine even veteran balladeers do better. Her timbre is like a willow branch that’s just about to break. Seeing her live on M Countdown only reinforces the image; she stands straight and tall and her eyes stare inward rather than outward. And every performance I’ve seen of her’s has been exactly the same. But why change perfection?

Gugudan’s Sejeong – “Plant”

Sejeong’s latest solo effort aims to recapture the magic she tapped into with the wildly successful Flower Road. Does she get there? Not quite.

When I talk about ‘drama’ in these blurbs, what I mainly mean is a combined effort of the typical climax-resolution we expect from pop songwriting, paired with the singer’s ability to play into it. A very easy way of extracting this drama from an less seasoned singer is to write in a key that flirts with the edges of the singer’s range, straining them through the actual melody of the song. “Flower Road” does that to Sejeong over and over again: at key points of the chorus as well as the vocal climax. These moments become instantly recognizable. It’s one of the reasons why people enjoy the song, and why other singers find it fun to cover.

“Plant” on the other hand feels more traditional and a lot less ambitious in that respect. The melody seems very comfortable for Sejeong, just gently blooming like the title implies. But the impetus for drama now rests solely on her shoulders, and while “Plant” has it’s moments, it’s altogether too relaxed to get much of a reaction from me. Her voice just doesn’t quite have the lower resonance to make those melodic resolutions hit in a satisfying way.

Funny enough, the pitchiness and unstable breath control of her live performances make this version of the song much more compelling.

BTS – “00:00”

BTS’s singles since “Blood Sweat & Tears” have been hit or miss with me, but their ballad work since then has been overall excellent. The Truth Untold and Singularity are both top tier efforts that really showcase the unique vocal dynamic that BTS has but rarely seems to display on their title tracks (give me back my falsettos!!!).

So color me disappointed to find the “ballads” on Map Of The Soul: 7 to be mostly clunkers. In the pursuit of bending genres, the slow songs on the new album group tend to never commit to a narrative and end up doing nothing particularly well.

“00:00” gets the closest to satisfactory, at best a B1A4-esque midtempo pop ballad that has some space in the verses for emotional exploration. Even so the vocals are still incredibly overproduced, all subtlety unnecessarily wrung out by what sounds like at least triple-tracked harmonies. But at least there’s only a minimum of trap pandering and no dimwitted EDM drop to completely ruin the mood.

Thanks BTS, you made me miss Steve Aoki.

IZ*ONE – “Someday”

Yes, I know it’s rigged, and yes I know she’s probably one of the main beneficiaries, but I’ve been a big Jo Yuri fan going back to Idol School, mainly for her somewhat refreshingly dour attitude and unique vocal tone, like a husky voiced Eunji. She’s not rolling in the OSTs quite yet so “Someday” I believe represents her most significant ballad work yet. And it’s a solid effort!

Asian Junkie has written before on how writing credits are mostly BS, but from the behind-the-scenes footage its apparent that Jo Yuri did the topline for the song. Yena and Chaewon come in to provide support and are decent enough singers, able to emulate Yuri’s vocal tics admirably.

There’s a nice amount of rhythm play leading up and following through the chorus. The melodic line takes a J-pop friendly approach, which isn’t surprising. The pitch correction (or some other vocal processing filter) distracts in the quiet parts, and the instrumental can be a bit smothering, especially when Chaewon sings.

Point is, this didn’t have to be anything and it turned out to be pleasant so I’m satisfied.

EXO’s Suho Featuring Younha – “For You Now”

TheBiasList covered EXO Suho’s title track already, and for the most part they’re spot on; “Let’s Love” is easy, safe and boring.

“For You Now” is ENTIRELY my shit though; a taut, emotional ballad that does everything right. The addition of Younha, one of the best voices in the game, is a key ingredient to the song’s success. But I propose that “For You Now” would still be the best song on the album even without her appearance.

A big, bold melody and tastefully minimal instrumental hit just right (love the interlude between chorus and verse). There is ample space in the production and the duo make great use of it, flying up and down their vocal ranges unhindered. And like I spoke to above re: “Plant”, the falsetto in the chorus put just enough stress on Suho to eke some juicy drama from his voice.

Younha really understands her role here well; as the more proven vocalist she expertly plays a pure supporting role to Suho, providing a safe tether and allowing Suho to risk a bit more and hide his weaknesses as a vocalist. Most of the other songs on the album kind of leave him a bit too exposed.

Feel like this kind of performance from Suho is a one-off but I’ll listen to future releases with positive expectations.

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