Lee Hyori, in my opinion, is the epitome of the face-before-talent K-Pop idol. Her general lack of noteworthy musicality subsequently deprives her of the label (or my label) of someone truly artistic. However, while I'd be lying if I said I've had an epiphanic change-of-face regarding this opinion after listening through the release of her latest album 'Monochrome', in no way do I want to downplay some of the surprisingly enjoyable points contained within this album. While far from groundbreaking in any regard, the indie-reminiscent journey contained within the album's tracks lends itself to be an immensely listenable effort.
The first pre-release, "Miss Korea", is a straightforward, albeit sensuously so, swing track that unabashedly paints Hyori as the pinnacle figure of Miss Korea. In fact, she needs to reitify her powerful attraction to the Korean masses, she mentions that she is Miss Korea a staggering twelve times (and who said she wasn't a creative lyricist). But now those with watchful ears probably noting this: the phrase "I'm a Miss Korea" is said not twelve, but thirteen times. You would indeed be correct, but I should point out that the last line of the song is translated to "You're Miss Korea". This phrase falls under the context of Hyori confronting someone else who seems to be a cranky goose that they're not this status, as their only care is their appearance to the eyes of others or that they feel bad when something goes wrong. Hyori comes out and basically says, "Oh no, it's OK, you can a Miss Korea too!". I'm not sure if this advice is viewed as sympathetic or attacking towards this fictional perceiver of the message.
In one light, it certainly paints her in an empathetic light by casting her title onto some other lowly figure. But at the same time, it sarcastically reinforces her undeniable position of power by demonstrating the degree of instant gratification, self-centeredness, and undetermined the other can be. In this light, this feels like a jab to the younger K-Pop artists—Hyori is in her 30s, after all—or the various snooty complaining green-eyed daughters of the various daddies of capitalist modern Korean. Whereas these younger ones may feel that only money and prestige will be able to make them the apple of Korea's eye, the stigma of "Miss Korea" is undeniably, unarguably attached to Hyori regardless of whom the superficial label is attached. Thus, the temporary passing of this label onto someone else seems ultimately like a "shut up/look at yourself" move by Hyori. But then again, this is probably reading a bit too far into this.
Anyway, I'm not going to argue Hyori's hierarchical position one bit, for I think the outcome and fame from her mainstay endeavors in music, commercial films, and television speak for itself. The song, however, is quite simplistic and doesn't require anywhere near the highest level of virtuosity to pull off. However, Hyori performs it as confidently as anyone could ever desire. Layering her singing over the dichotomous section textures between the refrain and verse results in an overall solid effort.
The other headlining track, "Bad Girls", is an upbeat, beach rock inspired track which has all of the elements to make it a long-stay chart topper. Again, it's not artistically interesting in any respect, but it satisfies the musical needs of the casual K-Popper. The lyrics are what you expect with such a title: they glorify the position of a "bad" girl compared to the squeaky clean "good" girl image that is pervasive among most female K-Pop idols. But the message of the song is overall banal. OK, I get it, bad girls are great, sing your anthem while it's here and I certainly hope nobody considers this a liberating anthem in the slightest. Still, the critique is interesting to think about nonetheless.
If any female idol could pull off the content of this song convincingly, it would be Hyori, especially considering her achieved status from the latter years of her career. Her evolution in becoming the eminent sex symbol of Korea clearly places her in a class outside of the "good" girl image set by the standard of naive innocence alone. Albeit he sex object status still places her in the fanciful gaze of the male eye, and her dollification doesn't necessarily progress feminist representations of the Korean female in any manner. But Hyori, or her producers, seem to be aware of this in "Bad Girls", and especially so in the music video. Ultimately, the "bad girl" Hyori is demonstrated breaking such basic tenants as filial piety and chastity in the music video. While disobeying her dysfunctional family is a rebellious enough of a statement from the young "bad girl" character, openly fulfilling male sexual desires by easily—but tinged with hints of annoyance—exposing her goods to the men breaks the social code of what many see as the ultimate act of Korean female innocence. She separates herself from the lustful thoughts of sexual desire from males by personally fulfilling their desires in unorthodox and taboo situations. Thus her actions clearly demonstrates herself as "bad".
As can be seen from the above discussion, there is a noticeable theme of Hyori's songs not possessing much virtuosity yet still being enjoyable to listen through. These theme, fortunately or unfortunately, weaves itself through the album's entirety. But for the rest of 'Monochrome' to retain the level of replay value that it has speaks wonders to the quality of the engineering and production teams and their ability in transforming Hyori into the product that she puts out in 'Monochrome'. While most full-length albums tend to suffer greatly outside of the lead singles, there are a surprising number of self-identified gems that I'd like to give proper kudos towards.
The track "Trust Me" is highly reminiscent of the elements that strain through Amy Winehouse's 'Back to Black' album effort. While it would be an insult to compare Hyori in anyway to the late Winehouse on a level of artistry, the unmistakably neo-Motown background feel of "Trust Me" creates a hauntingly irresistible sonicscape to listen to, one that I wouldn't mind hearing more in K-Pop. Hyori is again serviceable here, but she certainly doesn't detract from the overall feel in anyway—her glissandic note changes are quite nice in this instance. This song will definitely be on a playlist of mine somewhere for just the instrumentals alone.
The following track, "Special", probably demonstrates Hyori's vocal ability the best in this entire release. This is demonstrated primarily in the well-controlled vocal hiccups during the refrain sections. While I still doubt Hyori's ability to actually belt out in her songs, random moments like these shows that she does—in this uberly-polished product—does seem to have both a good understanding and control of the pipes she was given. While I was initially put off by the human bass introduction in the beginning of this song, "Special" ended up being an undeniable gem and one of my favorites from the album.
Speaking of gimmicky introductions, nothing beats "Wouldn't Ask You" and its ridiculous kazoo intro and solo. But this revealed to what was a really fun little track to listen to. It's obvious that Hyori is incredibly comfortable in her duet with the solo acoustic guitar, and she brims with confidence in her swinging, upbeat performance. However, I find it rather ironic that the lyrics for "Wouldn't Ask You" are rather dark: the protagonist is on the brink of destroying her life because of a seeming recent breakup. I'm not quite sure if this irony is intentional, but Hyori has been known to be a social critic in the past—"Wouldn't Ask You" could very well be a slapstick mocking of breakups. Regardless, this song, as utterly simplistic as it is, is really quite fun.
I absolutely love the Hyori's vocal quality in "Show Show Show". She has a fuzzy, doubled vocal quality that I found readily reminiscent of sections from my previous favorite release by her, "U Go Girl". However, unlike that song, "Show Show Show" hauntingly timid quality actually fits the chilling musical scope of the track provided by the near monochord progression of the neo-folk-like instrumental.
For those who are familiar with german pop girl group Monrose, "Show Show Show" is actually a reinterpretation of their song "No No No". "No No No" vaguely describes a failed relationship whereas "Show Show Show" divulges into something deeper. The lyrics here demonstrates the facade of the real and perceived real of performative actions of performers when they publicly perform their art. This songs suggests the inability to express sorrow and sadness to the public, which appears to be a quality that is not only a potential hidden emotional state of Hyori, but arguably to K-Pop idols in general. Like "Wouldn't Ask You", the potential for strong political undertones are present here. Despite the overwhelming sense of negativity, this song exceed my expectation of Hyori.
While I am very much aware this review neglected to comment on other notable tracks that the listener may or may not have had in mind, I believe the summary of these self-identified gems of 'Monochrome' is sufficient enough to prove my overall feeling of the album. While I don't necessarily believe that Hyori is brimming with copious amounts of sheer talent, this album overall is immensely enjoyable to listen to on a whole. There are numerous gems, and seeming social critiques, throughout that provide just enough of a sense of thought-provoking moments and completeness which is rarely found in other endeavors. And for these facts alone, I think this is definitely—and surprisingly—one of the better releases thus far this year.