BUSAN, South Korea — Yeah yeah yeah, so Radiohead and the Stones Roses are gonna be at the Jisan Valley Rock Festival this weekend, and that’s probably why you bought the ticket at all, since anybody who had any taste in music circa 1997 knows that OK Computer was, if determined purely by democratic consensus, one of the best albums of the decade; and that said album wouldn’t exist in the first place if not for the Roses, whose combination of Joy Division post-punk noise and British alt-pop rhythms helped define music as we know it.
That’s obvious, though. Who else is gonna be there? It’s a long weekend, folks, filled mostly with Korean ballad artists and a few mid-sized names from the Western world. If you’re looking for how to pass the time between Thom Yorke on Friday night and Ian Brown on Sunday, here are some acts to look for.
The brainchild of singer/songwriter Holiday Cho, the Black Skirts are a clash of Western liberal art and homegrown Korean roots: Cho finds songwriting easier in English, yet most of his songs are in Korean; his career began in NYC, where live acts can more easily flourish, but he now chooses to live in Korea despite its relatively few indie rock opportunities; and he is arguably Korea's most famous independent musician, yet remains deliberately outside of the country’s heavily manufactured K-Pop circle. He’s been heralded as someone leading a newfound “Korean indie wave” and his songs are half in simple, almost poetic English, making him an act you won’t want to miss.
It’s hard to say whether Busker Busker are truly “indie”. Their sound is synonymous with acoustic-based acts like John Mayer or Bedouin Soundclash, but their cartoonishly ridiculous popularity (read: literally every song off their first album is a hit single playing in some cafe somewhere in Korea) is due to the fact that they came in second place on a show called Superstar K3, attaining a kind of sympathetic and genuine infamy heretofore reserved for Susan Boyle. They’re especially fun to watch live for their bilingual banter: their drummer is an American, formerly the guitarist and bassist’s university English teacher. A good call to catch them because of their Korean cred (girls will be impressed) and also because, y’know, their shows look pretty fun.
I confess to know extremely little about this group, but this video makes them look pretty awesome. The native Korean electro duo, in addition to sporting a dead-ringer for Korean Weird Al, seems to combine heavy electro beats (more Justice than Skrillex) with high-pitched vocal samples and a dizzying light show featuring what sometimes appear to be subliminal messages. It is yet unclear to me whether their name is supposed to be a broken-English version of “Astro Boys” or “Astro Voice”.
This guy’s basically the Korean ballad star (you may be familiar with his hit “I’m So Fortunate” which has been bastardized in noraebangs since 2008), and for good reason. The stylish former Panic lead singer is a published poet and author, giving him a lyrical quality that Westerners not fluent in Korean can’t fully appreciate. Lee’s got a spectacular voice, though, regardless of what language you speak, and the show will be especially worthwhile to witness half the crowd inevitably singing along to some of the country’s most famous songs.
Known as Zooey Deschanel’s opposite in She & Him and the Monsters of Folk dude not from Bright Eyes or My Morning Jacket, Matthew Ward has a knack for catchy folk with an indie-pop twist, which is why his past two albums, Post-War and Hold Time, were such critical and commercial successes. His latest, A Wasteland Companion, released in April, debuted stronger on the charts than anything else he’s done. But really the reason I like M. Ward is because this song has been in my head ever since Wasteland came out. And my friend saw him at Coachella a few months ago and said it was awesome. So there.
This massive big-band jazz group kicks off the Big Top Stage on Friday afternoon, and if you make it in time they’re definitely worth a visit. Synchronized dance steps? Check. Full brass section? Yep. Soulful Korean lyricist? The best. What I like most about this kind of band is how unique within Korea it is; jazz isn’t huge here, nor is big-band jazz big in the world, really, yet it’s too damn much fun to listen to. There’s a danger of it attracting a bit of an older crowd (if much of a crowd at all given what the heat might be like), but who cares? Dance that sweat away.
This one’s a little contestable. I’m not gonna say I like the guy necessarily; to be honest, his late 70s-80s popular pop never did much for me. But dude did have a pretty funny cameo in 30 Rock so you gotta give him credit where it’s due. And besides, he’s got terrific stage presence and the Imposters are an impeccably tight backing band. There’s something to be said about a man who’s retained a certain sound, voice and fanbase for over 40 years with very little wavering. It’s the kind of show you’ll want to catch, if only to make your friend’s mom jealous.
Combining a 90s grunge attitude with spunky pop-punk riffs, as well as the occasional violin-led post-rock instrumental, it’s hard to tell what genre this Korean four-piece band would classify themselves as. There’s a lot to like in each song, including lead singer Lee Jung-hoon’s piercing vocals and the sheer variety of style. They’ve yet to really breach the English-speaking market, so it’ll be a gamble, but I doubt there’ll be much better things to do on a hungover Sunday afternoon.
9. Glen Check (????) – Friday, 12:30 a.m., Red Stage
Like a Korean version of Phoenix, Glen Check is a three-piece that switches off between English and Korean lyrics, though I guarantee nobody will be recognizing any languages after midnight (and after Radiohead). The skinny dudes’ heavier-than-most electro pop dance beats are guaranteed to keep audiences awake long into the night with an international flavor reminiscent of something between Britpop and K-Pop. Their debut EP came out just last year and their first full-length album, Haute Couture, this February, making them one of the hotter buzz bands at the festival.
What could possibly be the busiest late-night show of the weekend is the Korean electro trio Idiotape, who can be seen here grooving out to what looks like a totally funky 6-minute long jam session. The combination of guitar, drums and synth, excluding vocals, gives their sound a sort of thrashing raw quality that could very well inspire a midnight Korean moshpit. The four-year-old group has recently toured across North America, including a SXSW performance in Austin, and earned the award for Best Dance & Electronic Album at the 2012 Korea Pop Awards, so expect it to be a popular show.
Michael Fraiman's views do not necessarily reflect those of Haps. Particularly his unwillingness to admit that Elvis Costello is a God. ~Bmc