Friday, January 27, 2012

IN REVIEW: TVXQ!'s Different 'TONE'

This one was a long work in progress. Forgive me.

Call it bias (because it is), but formally writing a review for TVXQ! (in this formation, as it's a Japanese release, known as Tohoshinki) and their most recent album release in TONE was painstakingly difficult for me. Now, as the duo embarks on their first official concert tour stage since DongBangPocalypse, their first formal headlining tour since 2009's 'The Secret Code', also in Japan, there is no better time than the present to reflect on this not new but certainly different version of TVXQ!

TONE is TVXQ's fifth release in Japan, but unlike its counterpart in fifth Korean release Keep Your Head Down, TONE feels more full, more confident and less jumbled. On the whole, while I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about the Japanese music scene, I've always personally felt that TVXQ's Japanese releases were their strongest (case in point - fourth album 'The Secret Code' being their strongest release top to bottom ever, in any language, period). The reason for this to me is clear -- this material allows them to express what in their native country they couldn't. Part of that comes from the emotions that are exuded through the material. Since Japanese is for most members of 5-TVXQ! their second language, they are continually forced to dig to the heart of the material in order to breathe life into it, whereas, with their Korean material, understanding would come to them naturally.

The project opens with a piano and strings-assisted, dream-like intro dubbed "Magenta", playing off the TONE label, before launching in to the set's third official Japanese single, sexy uptempo "B.U.T (BE-AU-TY)", written by their Korean Max Martin go-to maestro Yoo Young-Jin. If you are first listening to the album without hearing any of the previous singles, "B.U.T" is exactly the kind of confident uptempo pop song Yunho & Changmin need to re-assert their dominance, as it plays right to their vocal strengths and the holes left remaining in their harmony are glazed over in the thumping drums. It's the sexiest (Japanese) lyrics that TVXQ! has been able to get away with since their "Mirotic" days of yore.

My moving fingers from the shoulder to the waist
Oh, feels good (girl, what is the love you need?)
Oh, feels good (baby, what do you want from me?)...

This kiss turns so hot, I can't handle it
B.U.T., the heart that you might read
I'm already so in love
Attracted by fate...

It's dejavu, as if it's impossible
We meet like a scene from a movie
And cling to each other
You become mine
And you say that your instinct said so
It's the best excuse, the only one...

Instead of kneeling down and offering you tribute
Just take me, feel me, baby

Next up is "I Think U Know", and there's a reason why it feels so Euro-Swede-tastic, as it's a Dsign Music (from Norway) production, responsible for several Monrose cuts, along with Girls' Generation's "Genie", BoA's "Hurricane Venus" and f(x)'s "Danger". It's one of TVXQ's first real dalliances in the true dance music category, and in my opinion, would really soar with a proper house remix (or even without it!). While the range plays to Yunho's strength, much of the verses are fairly low for Changmin, while the hook inserts falsetto (Changmin's strength rather than Yunho's) -- a vital example of the reason why this album is called TONE, and how versatile TVXQ! is vocally. However, just when I think Yunho and Changmin are pretty equally matched, the bridge is called up and Changmin slaughters it till its begging for mercy (that's not bias, it's fact). Well, what can I do?

Sparkling Ballad "Duet" is the first glaring reminder that this incarnation of Tohoshinki is missing its three central voices, and it's the first real pity of the album, as the song itself is so heartbreakingly pretty.

If time you and I spent together became a song
I would play few sad notes
Because happiness prefers friendly people
It's a duplet filling the space
Between you and me with two notes
Neither groundless rumors
Nor startling bad jokes
Will ever mislead us
As long as we hear them together...
Whatever I do, I will never hurt you...
It's a never-ending duet

Insert lonely and crying Cassiopeia, insisting this gorgeous midtempo is a sign of strength between our favorite duo, and a sad letter to the "missing" three, here. As often as I'd like to assert that the fan overreaction to lyrical material is unnecessarily (it's never more prominent than in this fandom, I find, and sometimes, it's with good reason), it doesn't get more damning than the word "Duet."

"Thank You My Girl" is called up by a faux orchestra introduction before the arrangement is cut up and distributed in remix form with handclaps and a very distinct orchestral round that is Pachelbel's "Canon" cleverly inserted. It reminds me quite a bit of Jade Valerie's "Unbreakable (Moonlight Sonata)". Despite so much going on in the background, Yunho & Changmin's voices don't necessarily get lost, but are two new musical threads weaving in and out of the round effortlessly.

"Back To Tomorrow" is another string-assisted gem. Yunho really soars vocally here, and that's always lovely to hear. The chorus remains exciting despite the fact that it is the full embodiment of why the HoMin duet arrangement was slightly worrying at first as the divide between their two voices in the typical five-part TVXQ vocal arrangement is as wide as conceivably possible. The chorus uses that fact as a sonic strength insisted of a possible detriment, performed in octaves with Yunho supplying bass and Changmin supplying high tenor.

At the album's halfway point is where the Korean singles make their Japanese debut. Aggressive and intense "Why? (Keep Your Head Down)" (still goosebump-inducing) is paired with "Maximum" exactly as they are in the Korean release (only re-recorded in Japanese). "I Don't Know", a  promotional single for the record was an early favorite of mine for its rock-inspired elements and husky low vocal range it was performed in.

This brings us to "Superstar", the project's first new single after the "Keep Your Head Down" re-hashing. The fact that it's a Japanese lyrical revision of an original sung by another duo, British X-Factor irritating twin brother group Jedward is something I'd really like to forget entirely. The song (in English) was basically a lyrical re-tred of O-Town's "Liquid Dreams" as synthy "Everyday Superstar". Luckily for the rest of the pop world, we have a much more listenable version in Tohoshinki's redub, simply titled "Superstar", nixing all of the name-dropping and vocally trumping the original. Jedward, I hope you're pleased with yourselves (and I'm sure you are).

On a separate note, imagine my chagrin upon hearing "Superstar" (in its English version) was co-written by Drew Ryan Scott, a member of US boy-band Varsity Fanclub. His name just keeps popping up where I least expect it, especially in KPOP land, writing a lot of tunes I very much enjoy (case in point: Girlicious' "Maniac", Tynisha Keli's "Shatter'd", Blake Lewis' "Rhythm Of My Heart" and astoundingly, Super Junior's "Why I Like You" and the song that changed KPOP -- "Sorry Sorry"). Dear Drew Ryan Scott, keep writing for my faves, mmkay?

The album is rounded out by the beautiful, unassuming midtempo "Weep" (another to incite "weeping" by Cassiopeia).

I sing because you are watching
It's not for anything else
Just the fact that you are there
Makes joy well up in my heart
I couldn't forget you
There's no way I could forget you
The smile in front of me
Is so precious to me

On the whole, I enjoy the album entirely (surprised?). It certainly has it's holes, but it's strengths outweigh it's weaknesses. And then we get to the final bonus track, in the bewildering inclusion of "Somebody To Love", re-recorded for 2011 (ie, to feature just Yunho & Changmin).

I do understand the reasoning behind its inclusion, but it doesn't mean I necessarily agree with it. "Somebody To Love", first released back in 2005 as a part of Tohoshinki's first Japanese album Heart, Mind and Soul, was TVXQ!'s second official Japanese single. There is no question it was included as a further statement of TVXQ! is now (or at least currently) a two-man show, but considering this version sounds almost identical in output as the original, I don't see the point. Perhaps if they changed the tempo, altered the arrangement more prominently -- did something to make the changes in TVXQ!'s TONE more prominent, I would tearfully applaud it's inclusion. Instead, it felt a bit like trying to re-write history by bottoming out the gorgeous harmony-work and trying to forget three important people were there with you. Would they dare re-release "Hug" with just Yunho & Changmin? Case in point.

Instead of "Somebody to Love", I would have been happier with a Japanese version of the sex that is "Before U Go". Just saying.

The TONE tour has officially begun in Japan, and includes a brand new song, dubbed "Still". Set list, as provided by fans in attendance, is as follows:

1. B.U.T. (BE-AU-TY)
2. Superstar
3. I Think U Know
4. Mirotic
5. Toki Wo Tomete*
6. Thank You My Girl
7. Magenta
8. Maximum
9. Honey Funny Bunny**
10. Before U Go (Japanese Version)
11. Duet
12. I Don't Know
13. Telephone
14. シアワセ色の花 (Flowers With the Color
of Happiness)
15. Back To Tomorrow
16. Rusty Nail***
17. Break Out!
18. Easy Mind
19. Summer Dream
20. High Time
21. Why? (Keep Your Head Down)
22. Rising Sun
23. Still (New Song)
24. Weep
25. Somebody To Love

*=The last formal single released with all five voices in 5-TVXQ!.
**=Yunho's Korean solo song from Keep Your Head Down, apparently translated into Japanese.
***=Changmin's solo in rock cover, "Rusty Nail", originally performed by Japanese rock band X Japan.

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