Neon Bunny (야광토끼)
(Seoulight, Poclanos, 2016)
I have a pretty uneasy relationship with South Korea’s music. In my kindergarten year, one of my classmates got us all into HOT, and we all ended up learning the choreography for one of their songs for a school talent show. Way before my dad intervened with Pink Floyd and The Doors later in grade school, there was no resistance to the catchy hooks and thumping choreographable beats. Looking back, it feels a little embarrassing, usually because my parents and aunts keep digging that up and maybe because it also got me into late-90s pop groups such as the Backstreet Boys. Even today, much of Korean pop music still centers around groups, churning out ever catchier songs with increasingly flashier dance routines, dominating streaming services and packing stadia worldwide.
My rockist streak turns me away from Korean pop and most Korean music in general, until Korean Indie turned me towards Neon Bunny and Stay Gold, which editor Chris P proclaimed a likely favorite for fans this year. Im Yujin played keys for the Korean indie rock band The Black Skirts before striking out solo. As 야광토끼 (or Neon Bunny, in English), her last release was also her first: 2011’s Seoulight, a delightful collection of bright, chiming electropop and cheerfully funky pop-rock that could soundtrack the opening of a Korean comedy-drama. It’s refreshing for me to find singer-songwriters in a national scene dominated by massive pop groups and mighty music magnates, and one who can chart different directions in their R&B/pop sound.
Im’s adventurousness can be heard right from the beginning with lead single “Romance in Seoul”. Gone are the sunny yet busy pop-rock instrumentals for a traditional gayageum (a Korean zither like the guzheng or koto) and a mellow R&B clap-beat, giving greater space for Im’s breathy voice to flow and putting her lyrics front and center. If Korean pop is the incessant energy of Seoul’s nightlife, “서울 하늘” is walking through the historic 창덕궁 palace past night as the fog rolls in. In an interview with Sumgyeojin Gem, Im’s “hate and love relationship with Seoul” brings her more to the historic and traditional cultures, in contrast to the “too fast and modern” atmosphere that most tourists gravitate to as marketed by the government’s tourism bureau. Here then is her love letter to her town, blending both traditional and modern like the meticulously maintained palaces strewn about the sleek modern metropolis, drawing from the past and present, whether the gayageum or the spirit of Dinah Washington’s romantic tour in “Manhattan.”
Stay Gold treks through the nooks and crannies of Seoul and its lifestyle, remaining consistently engaging by constantly switching up moods and sounds with each passing song. After the midnight stroll of “Romance in Seoul” and the dreamlike swing of “Forest of Skyscrapers” comes the morning after in “Room 314”, where swelling synthesizers and bright polyrhythms beam through like sunrays as Im plaintively asks her lover to stay, yet wondering if the whole thing was a dream or not. On the other hand, “It’s You” stands as the most poppish number on the set, with the immensely simple yet infectious refrain: “너여야, 너여야, 너여야, 너여야만 해” (“It’s you, it’s you, it’s you, it’s only you”). Yet the album’s second (or ninth) crowning moment comes with “Don’t Forget Me,” a solo piano ballad that brings us full circle back to the early jazz influences that inhabited “Romance in Seoul.” Here’s an artist to eagerly look forward to–잊지 않을 께요!
(Postscript: If you are still interested in Neon Bunny, Jung Bae at HelloKpop has a more detailed review with far deeper insights and analyses into Stay Gold than I can muster! Check it here!)