S.E.S. – ‘Remember’


Remember by S.E.S. (SM Entertainment/KT Music, 2017)

With nostalgia in pop reaching the late ’90s, the return of S.E.S. feels appropriate. The Korean pop trio of Sea, Eugene and Shoo celebrates the 20th anniversary of its debut this year, first appearing with I’m Your Girl in 1997. By Love, their peak success of album from 1999, they rode the coattails of the decade’s trend in R&B; “Twilight Zone” from the album echoes the mellow jams of, say, Mariah Carey from a few years prior. And the three brought the era back with a throwback to New Jack Swing in the single “Paradise” last December.

“Paradise,” though, is a little more than a simple copy of their prime decade. The stocky yet slinky percussion nods heavily to the source, and the keys glow like the yesteryear, but the liveliness of it all whites out any vintage fade. It’s instead a rightful 2017 take on the ’90s: a revamp of the sounds of yesterday with the savvy of today. Their reunion album, Remember, shares that feeling as a whole as it posits S.E.S. as not just veterans of K-pop but still competent to fit with the pop climate of the present.

Other parts of Remember stick to nostalgia at its core. The balmy synth whine, the pillowy bed of keys, and especially that girl-group chorus stamp “Love [story]” as a piece of the times. “Birthday” bring in a sticky bass line as well as retro-house pianos to live up a party. Yet present-day production quirks slip in between the cracks. The former’s percussion briefly crinkles as if the flashback wrinkles with the fabrics of the present for a second. The latter’s filtered intro flirts with the dance-pop of today, swaying in the warmth of the tropics.

No major-label player of pop isn’t free from balladry, so Remember isn’t without a few. But their context of a throwback puts an advantage to fit the ballads as less of an obligation, the booming EDM drums notwithstanding. And for this reunion album, especially for a record trying to playing with today’s stars, it suggests an interesting point that some things in pop hasn’t changed. The title track could’ve been released any time during the group’s 20-year career. The title also adds a wink with a call to reminisce on not just a love that got away but also a certain decade in pop as well as S.E.S. themselves. This added layer can only come with time, the very quality S.E.S. has above everyone else.


Toyomu – ‘Insho VII: Maboroshi no Kehai’


Insho VII: Maboroshi no Kehai by Toyomu (no label, 2016)

*Listen/Purchase via Bandcamp

Thanks to Apple Music and Tidal being inaccessible in Japan, Toyomu had to create his own The Life of Pablo at the time of its event release in February. Given only sources available online like Who Sampled and Genius, he cobbled together less a remix project than a simply surreal, creative listening experience of the newest Kanye album.

The Kyoto producer’s latest for his Insho series his re-imagined Pablo was his third installment — works somewhat in reverse for American listeners. His seventh release, Maboroshi no Kehai, remixes J-pop icon Utada Hikaru’s Fantome in its entirety. The source record created as big of a buzz in Japan as Kanye’s did in the U.S.: Fantome marked a return of arguably the biggest J-pop star of the 21st century after her six-year absence. But again, Japan’s music-industry politics with streaming services gets in the way for anyone in the U.S. to listen to the much-talked-about album digitally.

So true to the title, Toyomu’s project stands as an impression of Fantome for American listeners. And as far as resemblance goes, the body of work is a fun-house mirror reflection Utada’s work. For one, the hip-hop influence of the album gets amplified. “Ore no Kanojo” is beefed up with punchier drums in “Watashi wa Taiyou.” “Kouya no Ookami” hilariously transforms into a drum-machine-heavy electro beat in “Sunaoka no Gunman.” And “Tomodachi” gets groovier through funky sample chops and skittering drums in “Kakawari.”

A more sensitive exploration is the original album’s experience of grief. More than a few of Utada’s songs shoulder a deep sense of loss, inspired perhaps by her mother’s death during the writing of the album. Though the original piano take of “Manatsu no Tooriame” rules superior, Toyomu offers an intriguing alternative with a more flat melody and wonky sounds in “Emmert no Housoku.” His takes of “Sakuranagashi” and “Hanataba wo Kimini” suggest the experience much after the initial loss as both “C#” and “Hanataba Ne-chan” float like specters.

Toyomu’s treatment of the original source in the latter hits a deep note. Utada’s voice echoes infinitely distant, detached from the physical world. And the phantom of a chorus disappears far too soon like a fading of a memory. The original song deals with messages the singer wishes she can share but no longer can, with the titular bouquet of flowers as her compromise. While Toyomu’s “Hanataba Ne-chan” gets at her desire to communicate, a lack of resolution adds a much more heartbreaking note to end on.

And like “Hanataba Ne-chan,” Maboroshi no Kehai works best when Toyomu interacts with the source samples. Following the maudlin song comes “Kamomesama ga Miteru,” a take on “Nijikan dake no Vacance,” Utada’s collaboration with Ringo Shiina. The two daydream about an innocent escape in the original, and Toyomu takes it one step further by adding a larger sense of distance. Seagulls and ocean waves, a crackle of radio waves crackling, an intermission of an older Ringo Shiina record the whole thing sounds like ambient music at Utada and Shiina’s fantastical vacation.