20150318_seoulbeats_red_velvetAfter seven months, two digital singles, and the addition of a new member, Red Velvet have finally released their first mini album, Ice Cream Cake. Since the girl group’s seemingly rushed debut last August, fans have speculated if SM Entertainment knows what exactly it plans to do with Red Velvet.

Ice Cream Cake follows two starkly different digital releases from the original quintet of Red Velvet and attempts to reconcile both moods into a single EP. Their debut track “Happiness” was overflowing with cheer, joy and some questionably confusing lyrics. Two months later the ladies returned with a remake of the S.E.S. classic, “Be Natural.” Although the tracks were quite different, the ladies of Red Velvet rocked each track respectively. However, the issue with both releases what that neither gave off what could be understood as a clear ‘Red Velvet’ flare.  Ice Cream Cake attempts to define the young girl group, with sickeningly sweet dance tracks, mid-tempo ballads and whimsical metaphors of candy and the discovery of love.

SM has a special gift when it comes to choosing lead singles: they generally manage to always choose the catchiest track on the album, but in turn they also always choose the song that is nearly impossible to sing along to. “Ice Cream Cake” is no exception.

“Ice Cream Cake” transitions rapidly between cheerleader chants, creepily delicate vocals, and intense rap (Who knew Irene could rap like that?). These vocal elements are placed over what sounds like synth music box notes, a heavy beat and some weird techno sounds that become prominent in the chorus. It’s definitely an ear worm, but in the best way possible. With “Ice Cream Cake,” SM producers seem to have finally mastered that disjointed, heavy pop sound that they previously attempted — less successfully — with “I Got a Boy” and “Red Light.”

What strikes me more than the alarmingly catchy track itself, are the lyrics. While it sounds sugary sweet melodically, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a metaphor that’s anything but sweet and innocent going on here:

Please give me that sweet taste, ice cream cake
With a flavor that fits this special day
The ice cream that’s on my mouth
Makes your heart pound and you’ll come to me
It’s so tasty come and chase me,
I can’t hold it in I scream, You scream
Gimme that, Gimme that Ice Cream

This is only built on in the rap break:

Pops, it’s melting in my mouth, Putting so much in
That it’ll feel like my mouth is melting down

What can’t they hold in anymore? Why is it on her mouth? What’s tasty? Is this song really about cake? Either way, I’m appreciating the assertiveness that the ladies are putting forth.

“Automatic” is the second title track for the debut EP and also the shining grace of the mini album. “Automatic” stands out not only for its soulfully mature sound and accompanying dark video, but also because it is a track that lets us hear something new from both SM Entertainment and Red Velvet.

Automatic is the closest Red Velvet gets to defining their own individual sound. Although the girls are some of the youngest within the company, both Wendy and Suelgi possess soulfully mature vocal abilities that are reflected in the eerie chorus.

I love the way you wrap around my heart, filling me up
I didn’t know before, it just comes automatic
My senses move at the smallest body movements
It just comes so natural It just comes Automatic

If “Ice Cream Cake” followed the mood of “Happiness” then there is no question that “Automatic” is a logical progression from “Be Natural.” Its mature and distinctive and definitely served its purpose in drumming up some pre-release buzz for the rookie group’s return. However, I can’t help but feel that SM could have made a stronger name for Red Velvet had they released “Automatic” back in October 2014 as opposed to an S.E.S. cover.

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The third track “Somethin Kind of Crazy” changes the pace a bit as Red Velvet begins to look back in wonder at their successful love story. They compare their lover to a fallen star that has somehow wound up in their arms. A love that they once thought only possible in movies has become “reality” and the vocalists think they may be losing their mind in happiness.

It’s so funny, we could’ve been so far apart
But we’re the closest in today’s world

Musically, there’s nothing crazy about “Somethin Kind of Crazy.” But, I have to admit the song really does grow on you. Perhaps it’s the up and down intonation of the chorus as the ladies sing “Somethin kind of crazy,” or perhaps it’s the baseline that could easily fit into a Wham song. Either way, “Somethin Kind of Crazy” is an excellent B side for the ladies of Red Velvet to demonstrate their vocal colors. The bridge stands out as it is practically moaned, while simultaneously being accompanied by cute little giggles and whispers. “Somethin Kind of Crazy”  balances very well between the lyrical sweetness of “Ice Cream Cake” and the sensuous mood of “Automatic.”

From the youthful realizations of first love, the album continues to move away from questionably mature metaphors towards more innocent sentiments. The fourth song, “Stupid Cupid” is a cute enough track, but it does fall slightly flat lyrically.

It begins with a spaghetti western/surf movie guitar sound, followed soon by harmonies. The girls go at “Stupid Cupid” with more aggressive — but still somehow sweet — vocals as they chastise cupid for being unable to bring them the love they want.

Hey Mr. Mr. that’s the wrong way, don’t you know the sign that I gave you?
I pray so desperately but your arrow goes above his head again

Stupid cupid fits the album in terms of sound, but lyrically it stands out like a sore thumb. In the other songs, the girls are encountering lust, love and everything in between. “Stupid Cupid” seems like a regression from the maturity they’ve put forth in the opening tracks — and in doing so disrupts the flow of the album. Instead of actively taking part in love, the vocalists are thrown back to the sidelines as they pine after the love they feel they deserve.

20150318_seoulbeats_red_velvetThe mini album falls back into it’s original groove as it winds down with “Take it Slow.” The track is decent by all production and vocal standards, but otherwise unremarkable. “Take it slow” offers a more interesting perspective on young love as the girls of Red Velvet begin to see a friend in a new light. Someone who was once only a “younger brother” is suddenly transforming before their eyes and, well, they don’t hate it.

I’ll think about it for a bit
When I look at you, you don’t seem that young
I think you really mean it, I’ll try opening my heart now, don’t let me down
I want to show my sweetly trembling lips only to you

“Take it Slow” is perfectly suited to play in the background of a movie ice-cream date montage. There’s something touching and earnest in the juvenile lyrics that hits on the uncertainty of feelings and the fear of vulnerability.

The final track of the mini album is “Candy” — a slow R&B track that continues to run with the sweets metaphor prominent throughout most of the album. The harmonies between the five vocalists are stellar as they reveal their own vulnerability to the object of their affection.

Don’t go away, always stay by my side
Even when I break you, make you mad and push you with my bad temper
I’m so cautious in case you disappear
The person who values you like a jewel is me

“Candy” addresses the bittersweet happiness that comes with love alongside the overwhelming fear of attachment and eventual separation. The girls are simultaneously overwhelmed with happiness and sadness in finding love, and this dichotomy is conveyed very well through the sensitive vocals of the lead and main vocalists. “Candy” is a great note for the album to end on — not because it’s the strongest track on the album, but because it serves as a culmination of the variety of sensations of love the girls have sung about throughout the album.

20150325_seoulbeats_red_velvet_joyOn the whole, Ice Cream Cake is certainly an earnestly sweet album that shows the wide range of talent the ladies of Red Velvet possess. At the same time, Ice Cream Cake in many ways doesn’t give a clear indication of SM’s musical intention for Red Velvet. This could be because the mini album is almost too balanced — it features two up-tempo, two mid-tempo and two down-tempo tracks. Unfortunately, most of these tracks — with the exception of “Automatic” — feel like they could have easily fit on an SNSD or f(x) album. Red Velvet has a unique vocal and visual line-up and it would be great to see those strengths play into something more musically distinctive for the five ladies.

Before one writes off Red Velvet as a rushed and directionless SM debut, keep in mind SM is known for their intense planning and art direction. Simply knowing that the single “Ice Cream Cake” has been in the SM vault since 2012 says that SM is anything but reckless. Perhaps SM wants us to wonder what’s happening with Red Velvet simply so we’ll pay continued attention to them. A more likely explanation, however, is  that — especially given the surprise addition of a fifth member — Red Velvet is intended to be a very dynamic group. The ladies of Red Velvet can sing sultry, they can rap, they can leap around like cheerleaders, they can morph into blonde-haired, blue eyed California girls. They can do anything with the right production behind them, and that’s what SM wants us to walk away from this album thinking.

At the end of the day, this group has everything: looks, talent, and the power of SM. The only thing they’re lacking is a truly distinctive sound, but the Ice Cream Cake mini is a sufficient first step towards something.

Overall Rating: 3.75/5

Readers, what are your thoughts on Red Velvet’s first mini album? What direction are you hoping SM goes from here with the girl group?

(YouTube, SoundCloud. Images via SM Entertainment. Translations via KpopLyrics, Pop!Gasa)