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[Review] 'Virgin' by After School

May 8, 2011 @ 10:27 am
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When After School ended promotions for "Happy Pledis", their 2010 holiday EP, the ladies took some time off to venture into sub-units, solo careers, and to snatch a new member, all before making their highly anticipated comeback this year with their first full-length album, "Virgin." Comprised of Bekah, Jooyeon, Jung Ah, Kahi (leader), Lizzy, Nana, Raina, Uee, and new member Yi Young, After School is Pledis Entertainment's leading girl group and one of the more seasoned idol ensembles in K-pop to date. - After School were initially pushed as the Pussycat Dolls of Korea, but as their presence in K-pop began to grow, so did their musical style and demeanor as a girl group. Unlike the Pussycat Dolls, After School pulled away from the showgirl-esque side of performing (although they were in that direction before Korea decided it was going to clamp down on girl groups for being 'too sexy'); they've kept their stages balanced between girly and classy concepts, as well as using all of their members as singers/rappers as opposed to having one person sing an entire song by default like in PCD. Basically, they're a classier version of America's last pop girl group. - After School kicked off their musical career in early 2009 with "Ah," followed shortly after with "Diva," where we were first introduced to Uee and the idea of this girl group growing like an extracurricular club. But it wasn't until the fall of that same year (after the 'graduation' of former member So Young and the addition of Raina and Nana), when After School released "Because of You",  that they started receiving the praise and recognition befitting a top girl group in Korean pop music. To this day, "Because of You" remains After School's strongest lead single and definitely one of the best releases of 2009. It was/is the perfect manifestation of every single thing After School stands for as a strong girl group. Now, with the release of "Virgin," After School have taken all of those things that worked before and woven them into a brand new set of songs. === Track List: 01. Let's Step Up 02. Shampoo 03. Virgin 04. 뱅 (Bang)! (2011 New Recording) 05. Play Ur Love 06. Dream 07. Because of You (2011 New Recording) 08. Leaning Against Time 09. Are You Doing Okay? 10. Funky Man 11. My Bell 12. When I Fall (2011 New Recording) === One of the relieving factors about After School is that they know exactly who they are as a pop group. They have come a long way, but it's undeniable that this is a set of ladies who have found what works for them and have maintained a consistency throughout the years that is un-matched by other girl groups (save for a couple here and there). "Virgin" opens with the intro track "Let's Step Up" (video above). This first song is very reminiscent of their "Bang!" mini album's opening song, "Let's Do It!", where After School are given the chance to showcase what skills they have acquired and to establish the tone of the album. Another thing that is establish is the fact that After School don't just come back just to come back; they are out to slay the half-baked concepts other groups come up with. They blew minds when they learned the drums, and now they're tap dancing? These girls aren't messing around. - After a moment of a crowd pleasing intro, the album segues right into "Shampoo," After School's lead single. "Shampoo" is a light song with a very calm instrumentation. It's much softer than I expected, but it's clear where they were going with this. "Shampoo" sounds like a quieter version of "Because of You". It features all the same elements, but this time, they toned downed the dynamic ups and downs from before, leaving a much steadier song rather than one that took the listener to all kinds of brilliant places. Not that important of a point, but one worth nothing is that"Shampoo" is the longest song on the entire album, and that's due to the extra long intro. It's almost one minute long, and for me, that's stretching it. It drags out more than it draws in and that's a fine line to cross with intros. But other than cutting back on the lengthy first quarter of "Shampoo," this song is a solid single. I think After School could have gone with a stronger song off of the album mainly because comeback singles tend to be the ones with the most punch, but then again this touches on the softer side of After School (without completely losing who they are), which is what they were probably aiming for. In that case, this works just fine. Following the lead single is the actual title track, "Virgin." It's a simply song with very little happening in the vocals, which you could say fits the techno-pop vibes of the original song - yes, this is actually a cover of an existing song, titled "Don't Touch Those Faders" by Canadian singer Jacynthe. Surprisingly, After School opted to remove many of the ad-libs and runs that the original songstress gave to this song. Without those nuances, After School missed out on taking this new song to a more interesting place. I'm sure Raina could have pulled out an epic high note on "Virgin" like she did on "Bang!," which happens to be the next song on the album (Virgin). - "Bang!" is one of three 're-recorded' songs from previous releases that made it on this collection and that's basically what it is; nothing major has changed in the overall style and form of the song other than laying down a newer set of vocals. "Bang!" was explosive when it was released and it's bringing that same explosiveness to "Virgin." What strikes me as a surprise is how well this track fits within the new set of songs. Usually, albums that feature old songs usually shove them to the end so to make it clear that they're not new. But "Bang!", along with "Because of You" and "When I Fall",  were placed in just the right transitional places so that they blend seamlessly with everything else. That's what a cohesive album is all about. Besides, who doesn't want to relive the epicness that is the middle 8 of "Bang!"? One of my all time favorite middle 8s in K-pop history right here. "Play Ur Love" (Jung Ah, Kahi, Nana, Raina) calms things way down following "Bang!". This song is  a strong ballad and it has a very Western feel that reminds me of something I'd hear in America.  All of the parts were distributed to the appropriate member (and to the ones who could sing them), and what After School have that they can be proud of is talented song writers. This song could have easily fallen into oblivion had it not been so melodic from beginning to end. - Another melodic song is "Dream," which, in my opinion, is one of After School's strongest songs on the album. It captures the sophisticated aspect of the girl group, as well as giving them that girly flair without ever stepping into anything overly cute. And that's what After School are: strong female idols who can serve the fierce and soft sides of feminine music. The highlight of the song is when the sound of a saxophone makes an unexpected (yet a very pleasant) entrance at the middle 8. Never did I expect actual instruments other than pianos, strings, and hoards of synths to appear in a K-pop song. Not only does it surprise here, but the way it creeps in, then lets out a nice and strong complementing run really takes this song to a whole new level of enjoyment, and it works, which is the icing on the cake (Play Ur Love, Dream). - "Because of You" is the next track, rounding out the second of three re-recorded songs. Again, nothing too different from the original (Because of You MV). - Raina is one of the strongest singers in After School, as she has a pretty solid chest voice and is capable of reaching high notes from time to time, which explains why she was given the solo song, "Leaning Against Time." It's a decent ballad that has subtle flashes of late 90s early 2000s pop, and if you're sitting through this album, this is one of those songs you have to focus on for it to grab your attention, because otherwise you will miss it. It's good, but not as special as some other songs on "Virgin" (Leaning Against Time). - You could consider "Are You Doing Okay?" as one of those other songs, and what stands out about this one is that it is written as a classic Korean ballad. I don't think K-pop when I listen to this song, I think of Korea and the type of ballads I've grown to associate with it. Someone could throw this ballad in a time machine, send it back ten years, and it would fit right in, no questions asked. "Are You Doing Okay?" isn't over done, but it's not under done either, it effectively captures the emotion it was aiming for and After School pulled it off really well. As a testament to the style of After School's sub-unit, Orange Caramel, "Funky Man" (Nana, Lizzy, and trainee Kyung Min) strays away from the fierceness of the original group and steps into a far more tooty fruity style that obviously stands out from the laid-back feel of "Virgin." It has auto-tune, a 'pop' friendly instrumentation, and is almost unbearably cute, but doesn't quite go the full distance. Instead, it remains a super girly up tempo tune (Funky Man). And just like that, the ballads make a quick comeback as Jung Ah's solo song, "My Bell", chimes its way back in before the album ends. As a song, this one doesn't wow, especially when it's accompanied by so many more ballads; some obviously stronger than others. But we finally get a full dose of Jung Ah, who is considered a lead vocalist that hardly gets lines. Vocally, Raina hits all the high notes in After School's songs, but Jung Ah has better control of her vocals. Her voice is smoother and Jung Ah transitions nicely between her registers when she sings, which you can hear in this track. Like "Leaning Against Time," you have to pay attention or else this tune will fly right over your head (My Bell). - Which brings us to the last song on the album, the re-recorded "When I Fall." This version differs from the original in that it's fuller in the instrumental. Having very full ballads all over this album, I would have preferred they kept the original version because it was less resonant and cluttered than this one. This version of "When I Fall" features strings, a piano line, deeper dynamics, and different drums, so After School's producers changed the direction ever so slightly to make it fit with the rest of this album. Either way, this is one of the better tracks on "Virgin." It has a good pace and it's melodic enough to finish off on a memorable note for After School. --- Overall Rating: 4.2/5 --- What are your thoughts on this album? — Suggestions for a future review?  Hit the author up on Twitter (@rothsresidence) or via e-mail (arnold.arteaga@allkpop.com)! — Note: This article does not reflect the opinions of allkpop, only of the author.

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