To put it mildly, it has truly been an amazing year for Core Contents Media: their showcase girl group, T-ara, has had what is unquestionably the best year in their history. With a string of hits starting with "Roly-Poly" this summer and following up with "Cry Cry", T-ara has brought a satisfyingly fresh sound to the menagerie of K-Pop hits this year.
That wasn't all - the agency's resident vocal group, Davichi, also struck gold with "Don't Say Goodbye", promptly erasing fears that CCM would be left without a strong voice-based group after the disbandment of SeeYa which had struggled under a tumultuous history. And Coed School's sub-unit, 5dolls, managed to bring some shade of success to what was (rightfully) classified as a 'flop' debut in 2010.
As if CCM were seeking to crown their achievements with yet another jewel on their tiara (pun not intended), they released one final swan song for 2011: a joint project between T-ara and Davichi called "We Were in Love".
If Super Junior is known for their 'SJ-funky' style, and 2NE1 has claimed powerful hip-hop as their own, CCM takes it a step further - they've developed their own style of ballads, which we'll call for the sake of argument 'CCM ballads'.
CCM ballad styles are distinctly recognizable for their unique traits - a dependence on heavy strings, coupled with moody piano, all layered behind male or female vocals that focus intensely on vibrato.
The melody usually is trot-inspired, with its sweeping highs and lows - sprinkled in between with some chances for the singers to show off their high notes (Davichi's "Time, Please Stop" comes to mind).
CCM ballads (examples include SeeYa's "The Last" and T-ara's "Good Person") are soulful, usually dark, and often are written in a minor key. This differentiates them from the similarly-styled 'SM ballads', which are generally more cheerful and written in major.
The latest entry to the long list of CCM ballads, "We Were in Love" represents, perhaps, the climax of CCM's unique style, where everything comes together in a way that mimics a well-written recipe brought to life by a skillful chef - all of the ingredients are stirred perfectly, with no one segment or personality outweighing the other. Everything is in perfect composition, every note, crescendo, and diminuendo working in harmony to create what could easily be termed the showpiece of CCM's ballad style.
If CCM's previous efforts sometimes faltered, whether because of the vocals or the instrumental, "We Were in Love" bridges those gaps nicely. If in Davichi's "Time, Please Stop", the chorus was a bit awkwardly placed, seemingly out of its element in the comparatively quiet track, that has been remedied with "We Were in Love" and its use of a similar instrumental and volume throughout. If Coed School's "I Loved You a Thousand Times" was hampered by sub-par male vocals, "We Were in Love" brings out the best.
T-ara's Soyeon is a recognized vocal powerhouse, and Davichi's Haeri and Minkyung need no further explanation. Jiyeon and Hyomin also pull their weight - Jiyeon's voice has always been somewhat underrated, shackled by T-ara and their dependence on "hook songs", but she gives a strong performance here. Hyomin's voice, on the other hand, is a bit drowned out between the belting vocals of Haeri and Soyeon. Hwayoung makes a quick appearance as well.
Speaking of Hwayoung, it's impressive to see how much she's improved within the group - her rapping, while still somewhat unremarkable, has noticeably improved from her "Yayaya" days. Thanks to T-ara and their habit of unequal line distribution, Hwayoung has had barely a chance to shine, but because of "We Were in Love", the public is able to see more of her talent, and it's worth terming this song a success if only for that welcomed role alone.
However, "We Were in Love" still suffers from some problems that come with the CCM territory. It sometimes tends to stray too far into the vibrato, overloading the listener with sound waves that would've been better had it been muffled just slightly more. Also, the song seems to be mostly carried by Haeri and Soyeon - while they do have the strongest voices, CCM's bad habit of leaving some members in the dust to focus on a select few once again rears its ugly head here.
Also, this author has never been a fan of inserting raps just for the sake of having a rap; although Hwayoung and Minkyung's contribution is welcomed, it's still hard to see what the track gains from it. In fact, Davichi's "Don't Say Goodbye" manages just fine with only the bridge and the chorus, and proves that rapping isn't an essential element to a ballad. It's an added bonus at best, and unwelcome luggage at worst. It's the only part in an otherwise perfect piece that remains out of its element, the only scratch in an otherwise pristine celadon vase, and had it not been for Hwayoung and Minkyung's stronger-than-expected handling, it would have been something far worse.
That being said, "We Were in Love" still represents the apex of the 'CCM ballad'; it stands as a veritable "perfect storm" of vocals, instrumental, and mediation, and the song tends to flow in the same way that a river winds its way across grassy plains - slow, yet always knowing where it's going.
2011 has truly been T-ara's year - it marked their ascent into the high-stakes field with the highly addictive "Roly-Poly"and solidified their gains with "Cry Cry", a strong track in its own right. Davichi also would be proud of their year-end achievements, with an enviable promotion cycle for "Don't Say Goodbye" that netted them four awards on 'Music Bank' and 'Inkigayo'.
"We Were in Love" represents T-ara and Davichi's small little gift to the year 2011, the year that gave so much to them both. It stands as both the strongest example of CCM's ballad style, and a useful blueprint for where the style could grow in the future.
The track is 2011's swan song, the final cry of an amazing and tumultuous year - and what a song it is.
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