20141122_seoulbeats_yooheeyeol2Yoo Hee-yeol‘s one man band Toy has released its first full-length album in seven years: Da Capo. In many respects, the album stays true to Toy’s principle of musical fusion and collaboration. But Da Capo is also the most upbeat and least Toy-ish album the band has released over the years. This is Toy looking back with nostalgia and looking forwards with eagerness.

Da Capo opens with an instrumental track titled “No One Knows” with some of Toy’s trademark sweet jazzy piano. It is a nice overture and paves the way for the first collaboration song, “Reset” featuring Lee Juck. “Reset” is a song that struck me as a faster-paced version of Loveholic‘s famous track “Butterfly.” The melody nudges along the pop-rock genre with a nice combination of piercing guitar and smooth organ. The best element of “Reset,” though, is definitely Lee Juck’s powerful yet gentle vocals. His ability to hit high notes effortlessly is simply amazing.

Next up is Toy’s Christmas party piece “Goodbye Sun, Goodbye Moon” with Akdong Musician‘s Lee Soo-hyun at its vocals. The song is an homage tribute to old school disco music with a hint of Japanese pop to it.  This song really is a worthy successor for Toy’s award-winning disco song “A Passionate Goodbye” from its sixth album Thank You. It showcases one of the reasons that Toy has stood out over the years; its ability to mix different genres of music and incorporate them into Toy’s signature nostalgic vibe.

That nostalgic vibe carries onto the album’s title track “Three People” featuring Sung Si-kyung. “Three People” was deliberately written as a continuation from Toy’s fifth album title track “Good People.” It’s a story about the pain one young man has to go through while seeing his two best friends married to each other. This ballad is certainly crisp and easily connects with those who love ’90s pop music sound. I could imagine that if “Three People” were made a year earlier, it would have fit perfectly into the Reply 1994 original soundtrack. It is befitting then that the man in pain for “Three People” MV is none other than our tragically beloved Chilbongie (Yoo Yeon-seok).

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Pax5vCQbMA]

This is not the first collaboration between Yoo Hee-yeol and Sung Si-kyung together. As a matter of fact, Sung Si-kyung also helped Toy on fifth album Fermata song “We Were Happy” as well as sixth album Thank You song “Christmas Card.” But none of the tracks before “Three People” could match the quality of both music and vocal as this song. I might even say that “Three People” is one of the best ballad songs released this year.

“Three People” is followed immediately by one of the song that showcases Yoo Hee-yeol ability as a songwriter the most. His mastery of the strings and piano combination in “I’ll be at Your Sea” is just sublime. The piano in “I’ll be at Your Sea” sets our mood for the song while the strings take us into a dreamy adventure in a vast blue sea just as the song title suggests. Kim Dong-ryul‘s deep husky voice also carries through the song with exceptional melancholy and control.

Now, while the first five songs, have a distinctive Toy nostalgic sounds, the rest of the songs in the album are very much influenced by today’s Korean music trend. It is an effort for Yoo Hee-yeol to reinvigorate his image as a musician in the eyes of younger music listeners.

Take, for example, the sixth track “U&I” featuring Crush and Beenzino. This song starts off with a pop-folk melody that is very familiar to us today, akin to the likes of Akdong Musician, but a very new concept to Toy. In “U&I” though, the song starts of with pop-folk and then drifts towards another familiar territory in the end: that of R&B and jazz. I have to say that the transition between folk to R&B jazz unfortunately isn’t particularly smooth in this instance. Despite that, “U&I” is a very good song that represents the balance between the past and future of Toy. I especially like the electronica piano sounds hidden in the background.

Da Capo‘s seventh track “Life is Beautiful” has some issues, too. But this time the main problem isn’t about transition but rather about the song’s confusing identity. Yoo Hee-yeol really tries to incorporate hip hop elements from Dynamic Duo and Zion.T with his own piano and strings melody, but it just doesn’t feel Toy-ish anymore. Actually it’s more of a Dynamic Duo song altogether. I just get this suspicious feeling that Yoo Hee-yeol had to compromise the melody and add a more prominent beat than necessary just so that Gaeko‘s rap could fit in well. I’m not saying that it’s a bad song. But, compared with “U&I” that has the same hip hop elements in it, “Life is Beautiful” lacks the smoothness that has defined Toy’s style of music.

20141122_seoulbeats_yooheeyeolThankfully, Toy makes up the lost ground in the subsequent tracks. “Pianissimo” featuring Lim Kim is a sweet folk song with a lullaby vibe that is easy to listen. The word pianissimo in musical terms means a very soft sound or note. That description actually fits the song itself perfectly. The combination between moody guitar melody, brush drum, and Lim Kim’s soft voice makes for a perfect cooling down song after the brash and hip hop sound of “Life is Beautiful.”

After “Pianissimo”, we have “She Said” featuring Kwon Jin-ah. The song is a mix of piano and string melody that will soothe your soul. It is like a cup of coffee in a wet and windy day. I think the chorus is the highlight of this song as it showcases the best of Kwon Jin-ah’s voice. She’s clearly more comfortable singing in those higher notes. I really love how she has really improved a lot under Yoo and Antenna Music‘s guidance. Now I can’t wait for her big debut album.

If “Pianissimo” and “She Said” are more of a mainstream pop ballad song, Toy’s last collaboration song in this album with singer Sunwoo Jung-ah feels very indie. “Always Being Strangers” is a song that is quite unique as it features emotional gothic strings and piano that match up well with Sunwoo Jung-ah’s carefree voice. The song does have an almost creepy vibe that is hard to forget.

For the finale of Da Capo, Yoo Hee-yeol himself takes control of the vocals in the last two songs. “Us” and “A Drunken Night” sum up the album very well. On the one hand, “Us” is a good song that matches up well with the nostalgic upbeat theme for this album. The song has sensitivity and softness with a nice techno touch as well. On the other hand, Da Capo‘s last song “A Drunken Night” has a more modern ballad feel to it. One thing that bothers me, though, is that “A Drunken Night” uses exactly the same beat as “No One Knows” but not the same piano melody. I just couldn’t figure out any reasons for it. To be honest, it was slightly off-putting.

Overall, Da Capo is a good album. All the songs sound great, and I’d love to play it over and over again. But for me, Da Capo hasn’t really able to top off his sixth album Thank You in terms of musicality. That aside, this is Toy who is looking forward very much to the future and trying to reach out to his fans of all ages, from those who knew him as a musician in the ’90s to those who know him as Yoo Hee-yeol the TV personality recently. That’s not an easy job to do, and you have to give him credit for trying.

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Rating: 3.8/5

(Antenna Music, YouTube, SoundCloud)