Album Review: EXO, “XOXO”

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Here is a list of random EXO events leading up to their first album that details my slow death by stanning:

1. News of the group’s “comeback” was starting to become the K-pop equivalent of Martin Scorsese winning an Oscar before he won his Oscar.

2. There was a member with pink hair who reminded me of a Chinese Weetzie Bat, for some reason.

3. His name was Luhan. He looked thirteen but was actually twenty-three.

4. The group had four Chinese members. This was an oft-quoted fact and a quote that was oft-mocked, mainly because of the way it was said and who said it. It was one of the group’s leaders, Kris Wu who did.

5. A short clip containing “AYO WASSUP KREASE?”/”AYO WHAT’S UUUUUP?” that was looped ad infinitum was available on Youtube. This call and answer sparked EXO stans to mock Kris once again, but I was captivated by the dirty bass of that “AYO WASSUP KREASE?” Not since T.O.P has there been a more appealing absence of an audio-video lock. This time, it came in the form of one Park Chanyeol.

6. The group’s name was derived from a concept originating from the group’s mother company, SM Entertainment about the boys coming from an EXO-planet.

7. EXO was made up of two groups – EXO-K, who promote in Korea, and EXO-M, who promote in China, but they are to be viewed as one.

8. The group released a bizarrely titled mini album that came out in 2012 consisting of six bizarrely composed tracks.

9. SM Entertainment released twenty-three teasers to showcase certain members of EXO. Kai, one of the group’s lead dancers was in eight of them.

10. The dance rehearsal video clip for  EXO-M’s”History” stayed on my browser tab for ten days.

If the “History” dance rehearsal video clip was anything to base EXO’s comeback and my future as an EXO fan/stan by, it promised intense times ahead. Opening with EXO-M’s backs to the camera, hands planted into pockets start fanning out fabric when the pulse kicks in. The choreography makes no sense, yet it mesmerizes. What in the world are these boys doing? What is that and is that even a dance step? Every squeak the group’s sneakers make on the wooden floor of that rehearsal studio sounds like part of the song. When the boys slide across the floor, you could hear it in your head.

EXO was everywhere and nowhere during the long wait for their comeback. “Everywhere” meant they were all over my Tumblr feed. (“They” meaning photos of a pink-haired pixie boy named Luhan flooded my daily feed as he arrived at an airport. There were hundreds of these shots spread over a dozen different angles and varying picture resolution. I liked the color of his hair – like fading strawberries left out in the sun, and his skin almost as white as Johnson’s Milk Bath. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this beautiful, lonely-looking creature with invisible pores! Luhan – stanning EXO was all about this boy from the get-go!) “Nowhere” meant that the group had not yet announced an official date for their comeback and EXO stans were getting antsy, making inside EXO jokes to pass the long wait to comeback stage. Rumors abounded. EXO-M’s leader Kris allegedly disappeared or left or temporarily fucked off to return to Canada on family/personal business. “Everywhere” meant fics. “Nowhere” meant endless re-blogging of “MAMA”-era gif and photo sets.

The demo for what would be EXO’s “carrier single from their first album” leaked on Tumblr. The title was “Wolf”. With only EXO’s mini album “MAMA” to judge the group’s strengths by, I liked the track immediately. I didn’t know what I was waiting for when I clicked on play. There was a flute-like instrument slinking across a blank page, and then a rude sounding rap part without any apparent melody or direction. It was exciting – where was this song taking me? The words sounded wet and slightly sticky, and it dropped beats of its own counter to the ones laid on the track. Then the second verse came rushing out from the opposite direction, its pace not even following the tone set by the first one, but then there’s another dirty-as-hell syllable stretch and I’m hooked being passed back and forth between the non-melodies. The vocals sounded weird and creepy against the cascading blips and the scratches that punctuated the measures. Recorded an octave lower than what would appear on the final single, the vocal tracks sounded more menacing and malicious on the demo track than on the single SM Entertainment would eventually stamp their approval on for release. The high-pitched “Ah sarangheyo” came out more like a jeer than what we would have on the final product. The song’s middle eight was like a weird mating call. The vocals on the demo version in general were raw. Without much technical cleaning-up on this track, some vocals did shine more than others.

I liked “Wolf” a lot. The track that appeared as the first track of “XOXO” was cleaned up, engineered so that its once-mangy fur now shone in the spotlight. The album track lost some of the bite from the original mix and tamed it to the point that it no longer sounded threatening. Good for pop, but the glossiness made it a little less interesting.

“XOXO” had two versions – “Kiss” had the EXO-K tracks in Korean, and “Hug” had the EXO-M tracks in Mandarin. Both CD’s carried the original final version of “Wolf”. “Kiss” had bonus tracks of the EXO-M version and a Korean version while “Hug” had bonus tracks of the EXO-K version and a Mandarin version. That’s three times more “Wolf” in every serving per CD. These are inclusions I don’t really understand, but these must have choreography implications for EXO down the line. True enough, as of this review’s writing, the shoot for the Mandarin version of the song has just recently wrapped. (For all intents and purposes, I won’t try to differentiate between “Kiss” and “Hug” versions unless someone’s vocal performance stands out against either version. I have no Korean nor Mandarin background, so can’t even comment on the lyrics.)

“Baby Don’t Cry” is “XOXO”‘s second track. This sounded familiar as it was featured on Teasers 1-23, with Kai taking the lead. There’s the ebb and tide of piano keys leading the track in, all soft caresses before the beat and rattles drop. I’m not sure if Kai is the only one who knows the choreography of “Baby Don’t Cry” as he has performed snippets of this song during several group appearances since the album was released but he has done it so well, I always think of him slinking across my screen when this track plays, regardless of which version happens to be playing.

“Black Pearl”‘s muffled bass visually strengthens the third track – it sounds like a secret being dredged up from the depths of the sea. The chorus is refreshing, splashing bursts of “hey”‘s in the background.

“Don’t Go” is thematically similar to “Baby Don’t Cry”, but on its own is also a strong track. A version of this track has also been previously released as part of Teasers 1-23. This makes me wonder just how many songs EXO has actually recorded but haven’t released. I’m guessing they have at least another album’s worth of material just waiting to be mastered. Exciting!

Gears shift on “Let Out the Beast”, and it’s great that the album refers back to the “Wolf” motif established earlier on the album. This track has some great hooks, but whether or not it has legs remains to be seen. Rumors that the drama version of the “Wolf” MV are really for “Let Out the Beast” are circulating. That would make for an interesting story arc for “Wolf”, so I hope this is true.

“365” has been previously described by a lot of reviewers as sounding like a One Direction B-side. This sunny piece of bubblegum pop sticks out because it’s the only track that sounds the way it does on the whole album. It’s a nice little break from all the tension of the other tracks.

It’s back to darkness and tension again on “Heart Attack”. It doesn’t really live up to its title because this one feels like a steady pulse rather than skipped beats and palpitations. I feel like maybe the songwriting team could have done more with this song, like maybe added a middle eight or a bridge to break the monotony. Still, it’s a good song that doesn’t deserve skipping.

“Peter Pan” on the other hand, sounds the way you might imagine a song with that title should sound like. It almost begs to be included as the closing credits for a sweet romantic anime for teens. This song suits Luhan’s vocals well on the “Hug” version. The harmonies work really well as the track swells towards its climax. I could write a fic around this song, that’s how good it is.

“Baby” has some old-school 90’s boyband touches and a chorus that annoys me because I know the songwriters snuck in one too many Bieber references in there. Damn it!

The closing track, “My Lady” is my favorite next to “Wolf”. This is another notorious Teaser 1-23 track and another “Kai as lead dancer” one at that. “My Lady” scored pretty low on other reviews, but I will fight for this track, and it’s not just because I get wet every time I see Kai’s dance. “My Lady” sounds light-years more mature than anything else on this album. There’s some slinky guitar and snapping that takes me back to the 80’s for some reason. It sounds like something that sidles up to you from the 80’s, carrying a secret message from the past, but in a good way, in the best way even. This track skates dangerously toward some serious Hall and Oates shit, I’m not kidding. I imagine Kris bringing so much to this track, even though it’s really Chen that brings in the muscle vocals-wise on the “Hug” version, and actually that chorus is pretty tricky. So much love for this track because it’s all eager to please with “I’m rushing into your heart” and then reverting back to their native tongue when they get flustered. “Don’t be too late” – a line that captures my pedonoona imagination with premises of curfew and an early bedtime on school nights. This song is a life ruiner.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “XOXO” makes it to my Top 2013 albums. It certainly has been instrumental in sealing my K-pop pact. I listen to this album straight through without skipping anything, and I don’t mind if it loops right back to the beginning. It’s a very solid first album that marks an intense and memorable comeback from EXO. There’s a lot of complex stuff happening throughout the album that will engage older listeners and those curious about K-pop. This thing’s got some fangs, but they’re baby wolf teeth for sure, the kind that tickle as they bite.

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