This album is a winner. Some might dismiss it as pure kitsch, standard Korean ballad / R&B fayre, but it’s always just within the bounds of good taste.
For those unfamiliar with K-pop stars, Kangta is a solo act which spun off from the now defunct boy band H.O.T. (Highfive of Teenagers) and is somewhat of a cult in China. He deserves to be. He composed half of the songs in this album, and his voice has star quality: the instrumental-only tracks which conclude this CD seem like concertos without the soloist, or like fill-in music in a TV soap: not really worth listening to on their own.
While the tempo of this album never gets much faster than a slow moderato there’s enough variety to sustain interest. Instrumentally, while the string section and electronic drums provide the backbone, Sam Lee’s sensitive and tasteful acoustic guitar-playing lightens the texture, while harmonica, oboe and piano add additional variety.
Kangta as composer steers clear of the majority of compositional cliches that plague the Korean R&B industry, and his tracks (the first five on the album) stand up well against what one assumes are the tracks composed by the professionals. His tracks suit his voice perfectly, in particular showing off his well-controlled and sensitive top notes.
When it comes to the pros, apart from the instrumental tracks, track 6, No more than my dream, is the weakest spot. The writer, Lee Yoon-jae, comes from the its-the-last-chorus-let’s-crank-up-the-emotion-by-modulating-up-a-tone school of ballad composition. I don’t know what it’s doing on this album. Its mediocrity is out of place.
Track 7, Ahn Ik-su’s contribution, provides a pleasant change. It’s a Brazilian samba number where the slightly treacly strings and that shimmery tinkly thing are balanced by the sharpness of the harmonica. Possibly the wisest move was to give the string arranger and conductor Song Kwang-sik free rein for a couple of tracks. His slow swing number Blue Snow (complete with horn section and lounge-style pianistic doodlings) lets Kangta show off a completely different style to his voice, while the parlando track Always… well, if I were a girl and Kangta whispered in my ear like that, I would be his for the night, or for as long as he wanted me. The final vocal track, Prayer, a Kangta / Song Kwang-sik collaboration, survives very well with no percussion at all and is really rather gorgeous.
I don’t know why, but I was expecting to be luke warm about this album. But I think I’m ready to emigrate to China and join the Hahanyizu.