Ballad Roundup: OST Edition – B1A4’s Sandeul, Red Velvet’s Joy, EXO’s Chen, Lee Hi, Sohyang

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The MAMA awards are coming up, so it’s as good a time as ever to touch on the nominations for OST (that I haven’t already covered) and then maybe toss a couple more into the bucket for good measure

Sandeul (B1A4) – “Slightly Tipsy” [She Is My Type]

Even webtoons get OSTs now? I guess that’s the COVID-19 economy for you. Sandeul has always been a reliable balladeer, his duet with Gongchan on Who Am I ranks as one of my favorite K-Pop ballads ever. Slightly Tipsy” is pure coffeehouse fodder, nothing too exceptional though I do enjoy it when the orchestra kicks in during the final chorus. No knock on Sandeul himself, whose boyish croon remains intact even after all these years.

Gaho – “Start Over” [Itaewon Class]

The popularity of “Start Over” seems due to Itaewon Class’s breakout success more so than to the quality of the song itself. Compared to the rest of the MAMA list, “Start Over” feels a bit underproduced and cheap; Half the time I’m not even sure the instruments being played are real or synthesized. “Start Over” is also Gaho’s breakthrough hit, a relative newcomer having only debuted in 2019. Pouring through his YouTube channel I actually really enjoy Gaho’s voice, and I appreciate his ambitious choices in cover songs. “Start Over” is alright but if it were attached to flop drama we wouldn’t be talking about it at all.

Joy (Red Velvet) – “Introduce Me A Good Person” [Hospital Playlist]

I covered the other Hospital Playlist song nominated in a previous article, but, due no doubt to the immense popularity of the show, they get a twofer per the nomination list. “Introduce Me A Good Person”, originally by BASIS, has been covered a couple times over the years to varying success. A jazzy rearrangement strips some of the more annoying features out of the song, but doesn’t really add anything to write home about. Joy does a good job on the song for what its worth, it’s right in her range and definitely fits her persona’s vibe. No surprises or risks here just straight fluff.

Gaho’s song has the best chart success and probably takes the win. For me the gold still goes to Yerin Baek’s song, the melodic hook still goes 9 months later.

Jung Seung Hwan – “Day & Night” [Start-Up]

The Start-Up OST is actually loaded with interesting tunes: a Red Velvet synthpop burner, a groovy gallop from Oh My Girl, and yet another classic belter from Davichi. But the structure and quality of this Jung Seung Hwan song caught my attention immediately and only got more interesting after repeat listening. Unsurprising for an Antenna artist.

That second pre-chorus specifically, where the piano stabs in and then the strings and the music box come in, it’s fairly erratic, especially for such a delicate ballad. But JSH simply thrives on the chaos, and his voice, purely through confidence and skill, becomes the anchor tying all the movements together. It’s like a 12 episode series all in itself. Not to mention the range is on full display, living comfortably in his falsetto for the chorus and sinking down to those bass notes effortlessly during the versus.

Red Velvet – “Future” [Start-Up]

Fuck it, lets talk about synthpop.

To AJ’s delight, the entirety of the K-Pop A&R hivemine has signed off on making the 2nd half of 2020 Synthpop Autumn. Precluded by Everglow’s “LA DI DA”, confirmed by Blackpink “Lovesick Girls” and Twice “I Can’t Stop Me”, and now bandwagoned by a myriad of 2nd tier group’s and OSTs alike. My models say we should see the true nugu push around 2nd week of January 2021, and then the movement petering out towards Valentine’s day.

(What’s next? The swelling in my right knee says 90’s hip-hop/New Jack.)

But is this a ballad? Not really. While the mood is dictated by RV’s vocal tone, the main hook is all instrument which is the biggest strike against any pro-ballad argument. Pop ballads require a strong vocal hook to rank, otherwise we’d be letting any old pop song into the party. “Future” is a cool song but the listener derives pleasure from the texture of the production and the melody of the synth line versus whatever is happening with the vocal melody.

Great song though, sounds like Dreamcatcher“Which A Star” or AOA“10 Seconds” or Carly Rae Jepsen“Your Type” or, most recently, the entirety of The Weeknd’s After Hours. And, if we really consider the latter, it means that we are effectively in Oneohtrix Point Never‘s K-Pop Wave, which is a phrase I did not expect to be typing out.

Chen (Exo) – “Your Moonlight” [Do You Like Brahms?]

Before evading the angry EXO-Ls by joining the military, Chen was able to squirt out a couple ballads including this one for Do You Like Brahms?. The classical music-centric Drama has an OST loaded top-to-bottom with talent, with Taeyeon, Baekhyun, Gummy, Heize, K.Will and many others making appearances. Although, going by ratings and chart performances, DYLB didn’t make the biggest mark with audiences.

A cursory listen through the playlist perhaps signifies why. Most of these ballads, along with Chen’s track, are quite underwhelming, meandering contests that fail to showcase anyone’s talent. But I will take the opportunity to use Chen’s only OST contribution of 2020 to celebrate one of my favorite male voices in K-Pop. His uniquely wiry tremolo hooked me from day one, coupled with the fact that Chen’s particular brand of over-singing is one that SM typically despises the most. And over the years, Chen has met the company’s demand for increased breathiness and decreased improvisation somewhere in the middle to my dismay. But the unhinged, “What Is Love” Chen is always lurking behind, peeping out a little bit here and there like in the bridge of “Your Moonlight”.

Josh Daniel – Nothing On You [The World of the Married]

By all metrics, The World of the Married is one of the most successful K-Dramas of all time, literally the highest-rated drama in Korean cable TV history. Based on a BBC One miniseries, it actually makes some sense to have an English artist on the OST, and Josh Daniel does a stellar job. The OST flashes star power with Huh Gak and Baek Ji Young, but additionally it features this song by X-Factor contestant Josh Daniel, who holds his own with the subtle but juicy “Nothing On You”.

The popularity of the show has not extended to the soundtrack, partly because of the older viewer demographic, party due to the show not overexposing the soundtrack as a Korean Drama typically does. But it’s also this kind of western/eastern hybridization of both the production and the soundtrack that makes its unprecedented success all the more interesting.

Sohyang – Beautiful Destiny [Birthcare Center]

Sohyang indisputably crushes any OST work assigned to her and “Beautiful Destiny” is no different. Her balladry’s defining character is how effortlessly her voice does all these acrobatics. Even compared to the best idol singer, Sohyang sounds like she’s doing laps around them without breaking a sweat. Clear, emotive, and powerful, there are simply no flaws here.

LeeHi – Brave Enough [Start-Up]

Ok I’m sorry but one more cut from Start-Up. I’ve been returning to this one from LeeHi over and over again while writing this article up, and I think it’s a very specific personal nostalgia for sad-core indie bands from the Pacific Northwest that causes me to do so. Her mealy-mouthed delivery of the first verses directly channels stuff like Pedro the Lion and 764-HERO that I’m just particularly beside myself when I hear it. It’s also funny how she completely abandons it after the second chorus, dropping the mumble monotone like nothing ever happened.

Waiting patiently for some enterprising new agency to produce an American Football-type concept.

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