20140720_seoulbeats_j-minWe often joke about the many artists chained up in SM Entertainment‘s basement, wishing that their talents were actually put to use rather than left to rot. J-Min is one such talent that might have seemed lost, and she has been, at least in her home country, since she has promoted almost exclusively in Japan after making her debut there in 2007.

Things changed back in 2011 when SM decided to include her in the winter album The Warmest Gift to cover “Happy X-Mas (The War Is Over).” Since then, she has had several opportunities to participate in OSTs, notably in that of To the Beautiful You.

Nevertheless, she hasn’t been doing soundtracks only as she has been quite busy in Japan, releasing four full-length and mini-albums in her seven year career. And her Japanese releases have been fantastic — “Change” is one of my favorites — but with a decidedly Japanese-influenced sound, as they should be, but I can’t help but wonder what she would sound like when releasing material geared toward a Korean audience. And finally I get my answer since SM has thankfully realized that her talents are greater than just soundtracks and has given her the opportunity to make an actual Korean debut with Shine.

The album starts off with a bang with promotional single “Shine.” The pop-rock extravaganza shows her experience in the Japanese music scene clearly. The rock trifecta of bass, electric guitar and drums figures noticeably as the driving force of the track. And yet, this is definitely not a rock song despite what the bold electric guitar solo might indicate. The staples of radio-friendly, rock-influenced pop music, keyboard and acoustic guitar, make this more friendly for an audience that favors electro-pop and ballads. Her voice perfectly melds with the style as she goes back and forth between a clear, soulful pop sound and rougher rock vocalization. It’s that balance that makes track such an earworm, instantly catchy and addicting.

The corresponding music video plays off the lyrics of the chorus (“When I get tired and fall asleep, even in my dreams/I become a bridge of stars in the dark sky/To go to you”). Inspired by the film Gravity, it is admittedly a rather lame homage to the critically-acclaimed space film. With overly stylish spacesuits, unrealistic situations, cheesy special effects and even a typo, it isn’t the best, but it’s great to see SM actually putting an effort for this music video.

J-Min performing with Titan more than makes up for that anyway (sorry, Hansol). The singer-songwriter plays guitar while singing, performing charismatically for the camera, and the band in the background Titan actually has their instruments hooked up and plays with such energy. Throw in all of their great outfits, and I’m satisfied because the song itself is just that good.

Released originally as “Hero” from the Miss Korea OST, the next song “Hoo” changed titles when it was rearranged and released as J-Min’s first digital single. With its sweet lyrics and lovely piano melody, the song is perfect soundtrack material. It has that wistful sound we’ve come to expect from dramas, but with bolder drums and the rhythm of the acoustic guitar throughout the track, it moves away from that typical sound into more of what one realizes while listening to this album is a distinctly J-Min sound: one part rock and one part infectious pop with her versatile voice holding it together.

Another previous release, this time off her latest Japanese album Cross the Border, “If You Want” from the start has that nostalgic ’00s American positive pop-rock sound, evident even in the way J-Min vocalizes — think Michelle Branch. The guitar combined with the repeated electronic sound are familiar and warm. With matching sunny lyrics about dreams and the future (check out the cute Japanese PV), the track becomes rather season-appropriate. It’s the kind of song to blast in the car while driving with friends on a roadtrip, sunglasses required.

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The album takes a dip with “My Every Day” into what constitutes a more traditional ballad, especially with its bittersweet lyrics. While there are hints of J-Min’s pop-rock sound coming through, particularly with the prominent drums, the vocals stick to the typical pop ballad style. Not the most memorable, the track benefits from a faster tempo than most ballads, which keeps the momentum even when it makes an unexpected halt with a piano break that seems to be the end but actually isn’t. The song is perhaps the weakest on the album but only comparatively because the other songs are just so strong.

The follow-up track “Finally” is another ballad but much more interesting. Using simple, rather formulaic pop-rock as her backdrop, J-Min starts off straightforward and simple, her voice delicate as she hits the high notes. By the second verse, as more instruments begin to enter the picture, she uses the moment to belt, putting the first bits of power behind her voice and hinting at her potential. After the second time the chorus passes, J-Min is in full swing with her jumping between low and high but completely soulful.

By the end of the song, J-Min proves that she’s not some thin-voiced pop singer nor is she a raspy rocker but rather a truly skilled vocalist, and it’s that showcase of her talent and versatility that makes “My Every Day” seem so weak. With lyrics that seem to show in a not-so-subtle way how ready she was for her Korean debut (as much as I was apparently) too boot, this might even be my favorite track on the album.

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The aptly titled “Secret Letter” is a lovely ending. With lines such as “Who are you to shake my heart up like this?/The moment I saw you, everything stopped” and “If only my hand was in your hand/If only I could send my heart along with the flying birds,” the song is a sweet secret ode to a crush. More so than the lyrics though, the sound is what makes this a solid track. Going back to the bright lilt of “If You Want,” it has a breezy piano-driven melody that’s compelling and memorable. And with the vocal echoes, it’s the kind of song you want to sing along to, even if you don’t know the words to it, a great finishing note.

In her first album, J-Min has made her sound clear: irresistibly catchy pop-rock. Pair that with her incredible talent as a vocalist, and it’s hard to dislike Shine. Actually, it’s really easy to like because this is what pop is meant to be: catchy, clean, unpretentious and fun. The only thing that could have made this album better is a collaboration with TRAX, but I’ll wait for it on her next release.

Rating: 4.75/5

(YouTube, Images via SM Entertainment)