|f(x) are (left to right) Amber, Luna, Victoria, Krystal & Sulli.|
Now just shy of four years past debut, South Korea's SM Entertainment and their red-headed step-child in their youngest female group f(x) have finally established a pretty clear identity of who this fierce fivesome is. They are definitely much more than Girls' Generation's and SHINee's cute baby sisters, and are definitely not attempting to bite the hand of their comptemporaries in 4minute or 2NE1. No, no, no. Unlike all of these fun KPOP artists I've already mentioned, f(x)'s appeal is much more subtle. But just because subtlety is their strong suit, this doesn't not give you the excuse to sleep on them -- as proved by their latest full album release in Pink Tape (released back in July), arguably one of the most interesting and unexpected releases to carry the SM Entertainment name.
f(x) are no longer rookies in the KPOP game. They are not variety show queens (although a select few have found some fame in musical theatre or dramas), nor are they Idol Royalty. Despite this (or maybe because of this), they are are able to take larger risks (to a degree). After listening to Pink Tape, I feel they would be much more comparable to TVXQ!'s more recent output (not on a vocal front, on a presentational front) -- there is a variety of songwriters/production teams and the overall sound is quite varied without feeling forced or unwarranted. Unlike with, say, Girls' Generation's I Got A Boy (which had its high moments as an album but overall felt quite jumbled, sonically), Pink Tape has something for everyone but all of those somethings still sound f(x) complete with thin but warm, warbling vocals. This might be due to the fact that the f(x) sound has been less polished and developed like that of their big sisters (or indeed, of their big brothers in SHINee or Super Junior). Their identity is much more fluid and that really rules in their favor.
The project is centered around lead single "Rum Pum Pum Pum", which continues f(x)'s trend (in singles, anyway) for hooks with nonsensical sounds. Literally almost all of them carry this mindset -- it is the thread that links their releases together ("La Cha Ta", "Nu ABO", "Pinocchio (Danger)", and "Electric Shock"). On the surface, it looks like this could be just another single to toss off into that category -- the video itself looks like a carbon copy of "Electric Shock". But then again, this is SM we're talking about. Why fix it if it ain't broken?
Unlike previous singles, "Rum Pum Pum Pum" does stand starkly apart from the rest for -- what else -- it's subtlety. The "Rum Pum Pum Pum" hook itself mimics the pseudo-walking bassline featured throughout. It's filled to the brim with lazy guitar twangs and when the chorus kicks in, high on the musical scale in a bold contrast to the deep, low bass sounds, the overall starkness of this track itself mixed with the multi-layered vocal is even more audible. The verse lines taper off with utter dissonance, momentarily uncomfortable but all the memorable for it. Even more arresting (especially for current KPOP standards) is there is no synth. The overall sound feels much more vintage and for once, their Forever 21 hipster "retro" pastiche makes sense. Despite what the video might lead you to believe, it's a total reversal from "Electric Shock".
The main reason for my obsession is because it sounds so unique. Bravo, f(x), and Bravo, SM for allowing this risk.
The rest of Pink Tape continues in the pathos established by the Electric Shock mini last year -- don't judge f(x) by the singles alone. Their b-sides tell a totally different tale of who these ladies are as an artist.
"Shadow" feels a bit like the animatrons from It's A Small World creepily come to life, telling a tale of overwhelming love on the verge of obsession set to jarring xylophone. When you hear it was co-written by Sophie Ellis-Bextor (yes, really!) the monotone coldness makes even more sense. High energy "Kick" is robotic and space-agey. It was produced by Hitchhiker (who provided many high points from SHINee's latest project -- I'm more than okay with them being SM's new go-tos). "Signal", a Kenzie jam, is intrinsically a 70's roller-skating disco jam inside and out.
Have you ever wondered what happened to Euro-Trash Girl Group with Potential, The Paradiso Girls? Founding member Aria Crescendo co-penned the funky "Step" (nothing like the fab Kara single of the same name -- but that's okay) that is vaguely reminiscent of the burlesque-y, confident feel Paradiso did well, but with a lyrical push that is very f(x) where sneakers are favored over heels (While you fix your makeup/I tie up my shoelaces and run.../Watch My Step/I pass you wearing your risky heels so fast and run). Also the climactic bridge ends in a huge note, I'm assuming by my fave of the group, Luna.
Everyone's favorite KPOP "tomboy" Amber co-penned soft ballad "Goodbye Summer", which heavily leans on f(x)'s vocal powerhouse (Luna) and has a sweet male harmony provided by EXO-K's D.O. (EXO fans take note -- D.O. sounds fantastic and controlled. Lovely.) Nintendo-esque "Toy" is full of 8-bit goodness and was produced by the legendary Herbie Crichlow (who also worked with SHINee recently).
"Airplane" (along with "Rum Pum Pum Pum") is a Dsign Production, a Norwegian team that was responsible for Girls Generation's big breakthrough with "Genie (Tell Me Your Wish)". It's the best kind of dance ballad, the type that populated so many mainstream Top 40 radio streams in the late 90's and early 00's a la DJ Sammy's "Heaven" cover or Alice DJ's "Better Off Alone".
If flying somewhat under the radar is what allows f(x) to produce a fabulous piece of work like Pink Tape, then I have to say I'm all for it. Give it a listen and I guarantee you won't be disappointed.