After four years of training and five years of promoting, Laboum have finally released their first full-length album, “Two of Us.” The bubbly girls-next-door group debuted in 2014 as the charming younger sisters to both NH Media’s U-Kiss and Nega Network’s Brown Eyed Girls. Laboum debuted around the same time as fellow girl groups Red Velvet and Mamamoo, who have found resounding success, while Laboum have struggled to find a strong fan base and stand-out sound.
For years, the late-blooming group have hustled for exposure and slowly earned fans on variety shows, music shows, web dramas, and the survival show The Unit, with member ZN making the final girl group. In 2016, Laboum turned to crowdfunding to raise money for their comebacks. Their hard work finally seemed to pay off when “Hwi Hwi” finally nabbed them their first music show win in 2017.
Unfortunately, this modest career-high was soon tarnished by two scandals. First, the group was accused by netizens of sajaegi, a process of chart manipulation, because they unexpectedly won Music Bank over popular veteran soloist IU.
This was followed by an even more devastating blow: a dating scandal and the departure of a member. News first broke in late 2017 that then-19-year-old Yulhee and FT Island’s Minhwan were dating. Not long after, Yulhee left the group before the couple revealed they were engaged and expecting a child together.
Despite their setbacks, Laboum have continued on as a quintet, pivoting from bubblegum pop to a slower, more mature sound with their 2018 single “Between Us,” which was produced by member Soyeon. Solbin also took a swing at contributing, co-writing and co-composing a B-side on their next EP, “I’m Yours.” This venture into self-producing seems to have been well-received as the members have greatly expanded their creative input for their long-awaited first album.
The lyrics for the title track, “Firework,” were written by Soyeon, who also helped compose and write lyrics for the songs “Satellite” and her solo track, “Two Of Us.” Leader Yujeong worked on composing and writing lyrics for “You’re The Light” and her individual song, “Stay There…” Haein co-wrote her solo track “Hush,” ZN is the co-composer and co-writer of her solo “Actually, This Is a Secret,” and Solbin co-composed and penned lyrics for her solo song, “Diary.”
“Two of Us” starts off with a 30-second intro track that sonically sets the scene for the album to come. Incase fans still had visions of the Laboum of the past, the EDM beat, mysterious chimes, and breathy vocal effects dispel any thoughts of cutesy sing-song vocals and aegyo.
This segues into “Firework,” a mid-tempo, Latin-inspired song in the same vein as their previous comeback, “Between Us.” To the rhythms of a sultry Spanish guitar and handclaps, the members sing about an explosive desire for their lover. The instrumentation retreats during the verses and pre-chorus, allowing the members to perform with a breathy, mature sensuality punctuated with come-hither whistles and sigh sound effects. It then amps back up without overwhelming the track just as the powerful vocals of the chorus hit.
“Firework” would sound right at home on the same album as Mamamoo’s “Egotistic” or “Starry Night” or fellow underrated group Favorite’s “Loca.” Yet all of those songs have more explosive choruses than Laboum’s song, despite it actually being named after explosive pyrotechnics. Laboum have never been about swagger, hard-hitting choreography or power belting, but the song still does not make a strong or unique enough statement about who Laboum are for fans to latch onto.
That lovely balance of “Firework” is not struck at all on “You’re the Light.” An initially intriguing, dreamy synth sound is immediately drowned out by a high-pitched, zippy electronic hook and drum beats that fight against the vocals. Once the repetitive inspirational chorus begins, however, the hook, which becomes less prominent in the mix, actually becomes the song’s only saving grace. Instead of continuing to let that unique hook be the song’s distinctive feature, the instrumentation devolves into a muddle of electronic effects that sound like pre-set sounds on a Casio keyboard, especially in the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink breakdown and final chorus.
As the second full track, “You’re the Light” derails the momentum of the album. Thankfully “Satellite” swoops in as a crisp, refreshing breeze. It makes sense that this song is the secondary track the group is promoting on music shows. The song is about a couple drawn together and shining for each other like a moon and a satellite glistening in space. Bright, twinkling piano and driving electronic drum beats provide a simple backdrop that swells into instrumentation worthy of a grand, romantic celestial theme once the strings triumphantly kick in at the chorus. Yujeong can sometimes sound like she’s straining, but here, her higher-toned voice sounds supported and wonderfully angelic. And ZN’s line “Why don’t you love me to the moon and back?” is a memorable killing part.
Next comes Yujeong’s “Stay There…,” the first of the members’ solo songs on the album. This track has many sonic similarities to the previous track but with deeper, R&B-toned drum beats, more melancholy piano and jazzy electric guitar that juxtapose nicely with her sweet voice. The track gets a bit lost in the middle of the album, especially once lead vocalist Soyeon’s dance track “Two of Us” kicks in. The faster tempo and guttural, rumbling horn help propel the attitude Soyeon infuses into her vocal performance.
ZN slows it back down for her solo “Actually, This Is a Secret,” which seems to fit in best with the mood Laboum established with the album’s intro. The jazzy horns, groovy bassline and plinking droplet noises create a sexy, ’70s late-night vibe that brings out the huskier qualities in ZN’s voice. The song is an easy-listening interlude that is pleasantly predictable. The instrumentation dropping out before the very last line wakes up listeners from their daydream in time for the most impactful solo track of the album, Haien’s “Hush.”
“Hush” carries through the jazz piano and plunky guitar chords of previous tracks but creates a surreal fantasy using echoes, distortions, and percussion. Haein’s airy head voice contrasts the sharp, driving drum beats and pulsating hi-hats that are reminiscent of the warning sound of a snake’s rattle.
Solbin’s solo “Diary” fits for the formula of being a throwaway ballad to close out a K-pop album. As the maknae and visual of the group, she does not typically get to vocally shine in the group’s songs, so it is nice she was given the chance to show her chops, though the track is forgettable.
The accomplishment of releasing a full album as well as the members all contributing their own songs is a proud milestone for fans who have been rooting for the group’s success through their many ups and downs through the years. “Hush” and “Actually, This Is a Secret” are the standouts of the bunch. These tracks, along with “Firework,” could have easily flowed on an album with their last EP title tracks “Turn It On” and “Between Us.” Perhaps having either of those previous tracks as one of the album’s first two songs would have helped Laboum make a more powerful, cohesive, and concise statement about their identity as a honey-voiced, sultry group.
The quintet have the raw ingredients to make something great. Hopefully, with more creative input in their songs, they can find the recipe that really lets them shine.