Wonder World (JYP Entertainment)
by Phil Freeman
Wonder Girls are the Korean pop group who’ve made the greatest inroads into the U.S. music industry; they were the Stateside opening act for the Jonas Brothers in 2009, and toured the country on their own the following year. Their single “2 Different Tears” was released in three different versions: Chinese, Korean, and English. Wonder World, released November 7, is their second full-length album, following 2007′s The Wonder Years, but there have been several singles released in between—”So Hot,” “Nobody” and “2 Different Tears”—which aren’t on either album.
Those seeking more K-pop like the balls-out (so to speak) insanity of 2NE1 will likely be disappointed by Wonder Girls. They’re fundamentally a modern R&B group, explicitly modeled on Destiny’s Child and other, similar outfits, from the smooth melodies to the uniform wardrobes. There’s no attempt to break individual girls out of the pack and make them garishly individual, as there was with, say, the Spice Girls. Min Sunye is the primary vocalist, and she’s got a terrific, soulful voice that reminds me of Beyoncé, but more restrained. The other girls back her up, with Park Yeeun taking the lead sometimes, too. The music behind the group varies from track to track, but it’s fairly straightforward and could easily appeal to Western audiences. When it’s uptempo, it might be overtly disco-ish, or Euro-style rave techno; when it’s slower, it’s contemporary R&B in a “quiet storm” style rather than some fractured, post-Timbaland soundscape of pings and bleeps. Strings optional. The first single from Wonder World, “Be My Baby,” sounds like their producer, Park Jin-Young, fed all Beyoncé‘s solo albums into a computer and spat out a perfect amalgam of all her hip-cocked, finger-snapping, girls-together anthems.
Here’s the video (note the choreography, designed to be imitated by girls on YouTube):
Other tracks are weirder and cooler. “Act Cool” is a crazed half-Korean/half-English rap by the group’s newest member, Woo Hye-Rim, with a hilariously anthemic chorus (phrases in [brackets] are in Korean):
[I rap in Korean and] I can rap in English
[I can sing in Chinese] Speaking 4 languages
I sing, I dance talking sh*t about me?
It ain’t cool; shut up and dance, boy
Album opener “G.N.O.” is a thumping dance track with a synth melody that reminds me of “We No Speak Americano,” but slightly less maddening. “Sweet Dreams” is a swooshing disco track; “Girls Girls” puts acoustic guitar and bongos over a hip-hop beat and reminds me of 1990s tracks by Des’ree or India.Arie; “SuperB” is a minimal techno track that sounds like it could have come off one of the Kompakt label’s Total compilations, except for the girls’ mesmerizing vocals.
Wonder Girls are supposed to release their U.S. (and full-on English-language) debut CD sometime in 2012. The ultra-tired American music scene could really use them. In the meantime, Wonder World and the rest of their discography is well worth investigating, if upbeat, melodic, fun pop music is of any interest to you at all.