Welcome to another edition of UMM, which is probably similar to the apprehensive sound you’re making seeing that I’ve usurped this column. I promise, nothing here is different except the person behind the curtain. Here we are free to loose ourselves of the burden of what is trve and revel in what the rest of the normal, well-adjusted folk listen to. This month, we’ve got more from the frontlines of k-pop, some choice melancholic folk, and of course: Dave.
Top of the Pops
TOMORROW X TOGETHER – The Chaos Chapter: FIGHT OR ESCAPE (k-pop, pop punk)
TOMORROW X TOGETHER, pronounced Tomorrow BY Together and known colloquially as TXT, are the lovable, awkward middle child of Big Hit/HYBE labels. Sandwiched between global sensations BTS and young firecrackers ENHYPEN (which, god, what a wasted opportunity for a party slam band name), TXT have gone through a complete reconceptualization to differentiate themselves from their labelmates. Marketed as the “voice of Gen Z”, TXT debuted in 2019 as just another wholesome, youthful boy band attempting to capture the wild uncertainty and tribulations this generation of teens and young adults has to face. Running through a blistering release and promotion schedule for all of 2019 and 2020, TXT hit the ground running, trying desperately to carve out their own niche in the extreme shadow cast by BTS. They’ve always dealt in high concept, often constructing mini-films to accompany releases that feature CGI and animation among the loose plots acted by its members. The best part about TXT through all of it has been the five members themselves, each of whom eschews a traditional k-pop persona. No matter how polished they are through rigorous training by some of the industry’s best, they’re still irredeemably awkward and goofy young adults trying to figure themselves out under the international gaze. That genuine human element makes them extremely relatable with an unspoken air of “How did we get here?” permeating their performances.
The Chaos Chapter: FIGHT OR ESCAPE is technically a repackaged, full length version of their EP The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE, released earlier this year. The album features two new songs and an “emocore” remix of the release’s first single, bringing us to the real reason I wanted to shove this down your throats. Once ENHYPEN debuted last year, TXT lost their identity. All of a sudden, they were no longer the golden maknaes to BTS, with even younger, hotter, more traditional k-pop trainees storming the scene in their place. Big Hit had already been experimenting with catering solely to a Western audience through BTS’ blockbuster hit “Dynamite” (followed this year by a couple more English-only releases like “Butter”), and felt it was time to take TXT into uncharted territory to give them the leg up they needed. This release marks the first time a k-pop group has experimented with, let alone acknowledged, entrenched Western genres like pop punk and emo, or what they consider those genres musically.
“0x1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)”, the lead single from Freeze, prominently features ringing power chords and twinkly leads buried under acoustics and arena rock drums, while vocalists Taehyun and Huening Kai affect their voices with the trademark grit of a modern alt rock frontman. On top of that, it’s just a damn good song, and was a startling, innovative shift from their almost cookie-cutter boy band antics. TXT released a couple more singles off the EP, including “Magic”, their all-English answer to “Dynamite” in hopes of drawing the same critical praise BTS did (to no avail, since no one in America cares if it’s not BTS or Blackpink). “LO$ER=LO♡ER” however, a pretty straightforward rock song with punk underpinnings, was added to the repackage and released as its promotional single, and continues the story told in “0x1=LOVESONG” both musically and through the accompanying music videos. This time, all five members get a chance to show off their rock vox, even crossing an unspoken boy band line in the process: cursing. Sure, it seems trite, but idol groups generally stay just this side of decency in order to appeal to everyone. Older solo artists and groups whose fanbase have aged alongside them cross this line more often, but having a young group backed by one of the biggest k-pop conglomerates prominently singing “fucking” in a title track is unheard of. You won’t hear it on streaming sites (to keep the explicit tag off the track), but watching the video or one of the live performances, the boys slip it in a few times.
Another fun experiment in uncharted territory, TXT’s stylists have, of course, dressed them in punk plaids or ripped black jeans and band tees for this release. Faux metal designer shirts or Hot Topic-ready band tees aren’t uncommon in k-pop fashion, but Big Hit went the extra mile for this release. I have personally confirmed reports that label staff raided Depop and bought old vintage band merch from everyday metal Twitter folk, resulting in one of the weirdest, most anachronistic crossovers in recent history. It’s not featured in the official music video, but in every subsequent live performance and accompanying recorded content, member Beomgyu can be seen rocking Shadows Fall and Body Count shirts. I can’t even describe to you what happened when I spotted them, as I turned into some sort of hooting, hollering primate, pointing and screeching at the TV in garbled metalcore speech. Honestly, it brought a tear to my eye, as if this easter egg was placed there specifically for me, just me, the only person currently covering both completely disparate genres in the world. (I don’t know if I am, but please let me have this.)
Beyond the “emo” aesthetics and rock tracks, the rest of the album is still a damn fine saunter through current k-pop soundscapes, from the popular ballad “Anti-Romantic” to the disco-pop “Magic” and the feel-good ode to their fanbase, “MOA Diary (Dubaddu Wari Wari)”. The ‘emocore’ remix of “0x1=LOVESONG” leaves a lot to be desired, since it’s really neither emo nor core, just more overdriven guitars and an electro beat added over the original track, but it’s a fine throwback to wrap up the record.
Hats off to the creative team behind TXT on this release for exploring something out of the box while still delivering on a solid album. I’m keenly interested to see if they continue on this path, or revert back to a more traditional concept for their next release, but The Chaos Chapter: FIGHT OR ESCAPE will go down as a memorable moment in k-pop history regardless.
Best of the Rest
Andrea von Kampen– That Spell (indie folk/singer-songwriter)
You’d be hard pressed to find a sub-genre more over saturated than the once-niche space of folk-adjacent singer-songwriter. You know what I’m talking about: your Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and so on. Their success, perhaps mostly Bridgers’, has piqued the interest of both sides of the industry, record labels on one end and aspiring artists on the other. However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t good music that can still be found within it; those who think that the popularity of a genre automatically means it has less merit have forgotten the age old saying about water, upwards mobility, and boats. As more money and interest (what’s the difference?) flow into the subgenre, more artists get to make their music and see it have the oxygen which it needs to live.
Case in point: Andrea von Kampen’s That Spell. Although neither her nor her success is that new (she appeared on Audiotree back in 2017 for example), it would be easy to count her off as yet another artist looking to cash in on the fad we described above. However, that would be a mistake. Reminding us of the excellent Cinder Well, which we’ve covered extensively on the blog before, von Kampen’s formula for making interesting indie folk is to infuse it with plenty of melancholy and well researched and rendered folk influences, creating an album that can be cheerful, sad, interesting musically, sweeping, intimate, and more. In short, it creates an album that’s engaging and interesting, lifting its head above the cut.
The main reason for that is how diverse the work is; if you listen to the first two tracks, you might think it more akin to the aforementioned Cinder Well. The tracks are forlorn and center deftly strummed guitars with the dulcet, and melancholic, vocals of von Kampen herself. The subject matter, that of longing, wanderlust, and a certain faint but very present religious feeling, is also similar and engrossing. But the album doesn’t want to just dally on these ideas and sounds. “That Spell”, the album’s self-titled track, is much more uplifting, with its lilting melody and beat. This is further expanded upon by the tracks which follow (chief among them the excellent, defiant and moving “Water Flowing Downward”) until we find ourselves with “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder”. The track features sweeping string instruments and, in general, goes much “bigger” and more dramatic than the rest of the album.
All of this returns us to the two closing tracks, which bring back the melancholy and guitar-focused music. As you can tell, there’s much to dig into with the album and plenty of surprises along the way. It’s interesting because von Kampen’s voice is definitely at the center of it all but she has this way of picking, not different timbres, but different moods for her voice that work incredibly well with each track’s direction and music. It all boils down a fascinating album, showing that there’s still plenty of beauty to be explored within the somewhat-tired genre that it lives in. Hopefully more and more artists come to see that as well and take the bold, and arduous, approach that von Kampen has chosen in keeping to push her music forward.
Dave – We’re All Alone In This Together (UK hip-hop)
It was February 2020 and my partner and I sat down to gawk and sneer at the BRIT Awards. For the non-Brits among readers, the BRIT Awards is the UK’s answer to the Grammys: glossy production, pop royalty, Twitter storms, gaffes galore. Discussion of the legitimacy of music award shows and their wider place in popular culture is—at this point—almost as omnipresent and trite as discussions over who actually wins the most coveted awards, so I’m not going to dwell on those too much here. Up until this point I never tended to catch the show on TV, but after a probably quite short conversation with my partner and the promise of all that good British Stuff™ like mocking over-earnestness, bullying past-their-prime presenters, and cringing at hokey performances, I accepted, and thank god I did.
Those in the know will be aware of what came next. Dave sits in the relative darkness of the stage, and languid but focused fingers play the opening piano notes of “Black”. In the following few minutes, my body and expression is still as Dave deconstructs the Black British experience, his gestures becoming more urgent as he goes but all the while staying dextrous. The contrasting worlds of the lyrical content of the track to one of the biggest stages in the British music industry is stark and chilling, it feels wrong that this blending of worlds is happening, but all the more exciting because of it.
Thankfully, the high that Dave’s stellar BRITs performance gave me is once again flowing through my veins on numerous occasions throughout We’re All Alone In This Together. Just like that night at the BRITs, Dave’s impeccable wordplay and song craft leave you cold with grief at the cruel state of British society one verse, and tense with the vigour to want to change things the next verse. It’s that constant interplay combined with the classic, moody and sparse sonics that provide for some of the most spine-tingling, socially-conscious moments I’ve heard all year. “Three Rivers” is a highlight for this exact reason with its grief-stricken piano phrase, overflowing strings and occasional choral jabs that intersperse Dave’s verses like a flower-adorned gravestone. Weaving historical accounts and recent failures of the UK Government regarding treatment of migrants with desperate tales of endless hardship and personal turmoil, Dave simply does not let up for a single second. I don’t use ‘endless hardship’ lightly but in this case it seems very appropriate when—as of last year—there are still thousands of people in dire straits years after the government perfunctorily decided to dish out compensation for those affected by the Windrush scandal. He doesn’t stop there either, diving headlong into Eastern European conflict in the 90s and the plight of those caught up in political upheaval in the Middle East, urgently delivering lines like:
‘You run away with your kids so you can give them a chance/But your asylum has got you in a different war/Because the British wanna know what you’re livin’ here for/We rely on migration more than ever before/They’re key workers, but they couldn’t even get in the door/When you’re at Heaven’s Gates, what you tellin’ the Lord?’
Zooming right back in on the individual and bursting out of the sunken place is actor Daniel Kaluuya, with a piece of vulnerable and candid spoken word, epitomising the entrenched and paralysing way in which minorities are squashed in this country: “But, I had to get silent, but it’s not like man’s goin’ against the tide/’Cause goin’ against the tide still makes it about them/Still makes it about the poison that you’ve internalised in your mind, you feel me?”
WAAITT is a stricken odyssey of an album, a deeply brooding listen, but Dave also shows the true size of his heart and his yearning for genuine togetherness in a time when isolation is easier and feels more dangerous than ever, just look at the propulsive title track. Be warned, those coming to the record expecting hip-hop maximalism may be disappointed as it is definitely more of a slow-burn. There are shorter, sweeter moments to enjoy here, like the sunshine Nigerian rhythms of “System” and the ultra-melodic “Twenty To One”. There is the suggestion that these more pop-focused moments are a jarring switch from the more wounded sections but I’d actually argue that they provide a release from the vice grip of tracks like “Heart Attack” and prevent the album from becoming too one-note. WAAITT is Dave’s response to the past year and a half and the political incompetence, social upheaval and mental wringing-out that have plagued us all. Just like Run The Jewels’ RTJ4 seemed to immaculately and harrowingly fossilise the point in time the US found themselves in last year, I expect and hope Dave will achieve the equivalent accolade for the UK.