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True to Younee – a review of Younee’s international debut album

Younee_album“It’s not my kind of thing. Why don’t you have a listen?” So said a well-connected jazz buff to me a couple of months ago. He happened to have a promotional copy of Younee’s debut Western album. “She’s coming to London later this year to do some gigs at Pizza Express.” I was happy to get advance notice of a Korean musician coming to London, and to hear what she might sound like. So he sent it to me, before it appeared on Amazon.

The album was True to You. I put the disk in the CD player as soon as it arrived, and immediately knew what he meant. I wasn’t sure it was my kind of thing either. I didn’t know what to make of it. “Jazz-infused pop” is how it is described on one website. I couldn’t put it in a particular box. There was pop, rock, some jazz, a bit of boogie woogie thrown in… I had it on in the background while I was at my computer and when it finished I was happy to continue blogging in silence.

Then something strange started happening.

The tunes kept going through my head. And the tunes were clever, sometimes doing things you didn’t expect, like seeming to cut the final four bar phrase a bar short, or inserting a quirky chord.

My interest was piqued. And as this was a Korean artist I thought I’d go the extra mile and listen to the album again.

Whereas with some disks you listen to it again and still you don’t connect, with this one you are converted, and the songs felt like they had been part of me for ages. It’s strange how if you can’t put things in a box, can’t link it to something you’ve heard before, sometimes you’re not prepared to give it a try. With this disk, it’s worth a second go, and much more.

What strikes one most about the collection of songs is the way they radiate warmth. So many songs today seem to be written in the minor key, but in this collection the major is equally prominent. Even the slower ballad Home to You, written after a break-up with a lover, has a poignant nostalgia rather than mawkish sentimentality – and combines the use of major and minor keys.

Younee performing True to You with solo keyboard
Younee performing True to You with solo keyboard

This is an international album, designed for an international audience (Younee already has a domestic name for herself back home), and has an international line-up: a Korean on keyboard and vocals, and a range of UK-based musicians including Richard Niles on guitar, who has worked with a number of the big names in pop and jazz. The album was composed over a long series of Skype calls, with Younee in Seoul and Niles in London, and this spirit of collaboration adds to the sense that something special is happening here.

The results are, in the publicity jargon, “beyond category”, but will appeal to a wide audience. These are tunes which stick in your mind without driving you out of your mind.

Some might find the album very occasionally over-engineered, with twirls and tweaks of instrumentation which detract from the music itself. But this is a matter of personal preference having heard some of the numbers performed just with solo keyboard. The disk drops marks for an occasional lyric which would be better off in a Chas n Dave number (“Things were going pear-shaped”) and its one use (in East-West) of the “it’s-the-last-verse-so-let’s-shift-it-up-a-key” cliché that bedevils so many third rate Eurovision and Korean R&B compositions. The Kwak / Niles combination is better than that. But these are minor quibbles which do not detract from the quality of the collection as a whole.

True to You is officially launched at Pizza Express Soho tonight. I wish I could be there, but I’ve suggested to the well-connected jazz buff in question that he might want to go along instead. Having seen Younee perform with just a keyboard in both formal and informal settings, I know she’s gonna be a blast with a live band.

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