It’s hard to believe it’s been four long years since Dal Shabet graced us with their second of three 2012 comebacks, “Mr Bang Bang”. Already this was the last of their great sequence of future-pop tracks produced by their originators, E-tribe, meaning a glorious era in demented sci-fi techno girl-pop had drawn to a close.
Today, no other group of their generation has better promised to slip into the shoes left vacant by the early (they’re still terrific, btw, but really a different group) Dal Shabet. You could say it’s been inevitable; and now, the inevitable has arrived:
Sonically, Laboum’s singles thus far have tended to a sweet, often retro sonic palette. But imagistically, Laboum is a colorful and high-energy ensemble that combines girly prettiness with a quirky streak of chic. The chic factor is most evident in the Solbin-ZN-Haein line, with baby Yulhee in the equivocal cute role which here gets made over into sci-fi funky.
With “Shooting Love” the chic side of Laboum comes to the fore, even if Haein no longer sports her early wild haircolors. With its sendup of Watergate-era spy tropes crossed with The Fifth Element-style costumes and color scheme, it’s a breakneck spy game of silly vamping and G-rated cartoon violence in illustration of the song’s “Cupid” (Kara/Oh My Girl, or just the actual classical myth) themed lyrics. Doubtless Laboum and company decided to capitalize on the opening made by the Solbin/ZN/Yulhee Samsung advert and its techno-futurism, but even without that precedent this is a perfectly logical development for the group’s aesthetic.
Any K-pop group typically revolves a bit in the prominence it bestows upon given members as the group establishes itself and feels its way toward finding its “Face”. There’s nothing wrong with this, but as an early Yulhee devotee I’d begun to feel she was sinking into the background (given the song that “Journey to Atlantis” is, this was inevitable, since a makeshift rap section would’ve sunk its flawless artistry). But I’m very glad to see Yulhee front and center again, acting all aegyo. She and Solbin, as the youngest, have always seemed to share a sisterly bond of mischief, so it’s great this video sets them up as the “antagonists” as their two spy teams face off. Solbin’s “global chic” makes her look wonderfully whimsical in the lit-up Lolita glasses, and of course it’s fitting she gets to play the auteur at the end. Given the video’s presumable visual debt to Luc Besson and the fashionable directors of the 80s new-New Wave, the au francais stylings are of course comically apt. Haein herself, paradoxically, has become more of a chic grown-up since the Petit Macaroon days, so her garbage bomb-disposal plays like a witty act of aloofness from the colorful chaos swirling around her.
From “Pit-a-Pat” through the sensational “Journey to Atlantis”/”Fresh Adventure”, Laboum has mined a musical vein that sounds curiously timeless. “Sugar Sugar” prominently samples “Sugar Pie Honey Bun” but has reminded some listeners of “Like a Virgin”. Given their circumscribed budget you might say Laboum has had to make virtues of necessity (and surely that explains why only now they have their first true mini-album to release instead of padding out the EP with instrumentals of all the regular tracks), but the result has been a discography which, while sometimes overtly referencing disparate sources like disco or 50s rock, reflects a coherent aesthetic that isn’t quit like the sound of any of their contemporaries. The arrangements are lowkey, without a lot of bells and whistles, but they have an uncanny correctness to them. “What About You?” achieves a dazzling melancholy through beautifully simple means: it could almost have come from the 80s, but not quite— it’s beautifully melodic, and has none of the adventurous trendiness in the arrangement as, say, Rainbow’s “Black Swan” or Lovelyz’ “Destiny”, yet the programming has its own kind of chilly abstractness, girding the sweetness of the vocals with just the right ambience of robotic detachment. The epic “Journey to Atlantis” illustrates this even more profoundly: even with the Eurosynth fanfares, the song is so staunchly melody-driven, practically painting a tone poem as the vocal colors splash and spray (consider the transitions in the verses from Soyeon to Haein) that, running the gamut of pop eras, I’m confounded to find anything better to call the song than simply Classical.
With “Love Sign” we are hearing Laboum do something they haven’t quit got around to before– deliver a “trendy” dance-pop song that hits just the sort of configurations listeners “in the Current Year” consider au courrant. Given everything I’ve said above, that might sound like cause for concern. But– going back to E-tribe– this is Laboum embracing another classic-status vein of pop treasure and giving it their own fresh take. It’ll be awesome to see Laboum’s stage choreography– terrific on stage, where they’ve been given scant recognition before, they still have the chance to finish the K-pop work Crayon Pop were deprived of or else never got around to. This exceptionally quirky and cute and highly-talented ensemble has labored in the nugu shadows for a long time, but with each awesome comeback the hope mounts that they will explode into visibility and acclaim. With Solbin now hosting Music Bank I think we can say that K-pop’s adult movers and shakers have seen the writing on the wall: Laboum is destined to go places. It’s unfortunate “Journey to Atlantis” (a song so great, it is the only true rival to “Rough” as Song of the Year) didn’t explode into GFriend heights of popularity, but surely if slowly, Laboum begins to shine in the eyes of the masses as they long have in mine. Laboum hwaiting!