SOUTH KOREA: Now - Kim Jung Mi
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
A wonderful album concept, laden with pastoral sounds and themes, made all the more enticing by her alluring vocals
I must admit that on first listen, the album as a whole failed to reveal itself to me. I was absolutely blown away by one track, as I still am, and aside from that, I felt fairly ambivalent to what I thought was merely pleasant passive listening, entirely modelled on Western folk-rock. However, this album has since grown on me more on each occasion that I have listened to it. The first time I grew to appreciate it was soon after writing the review of Zambian rockers Amanaz’s Africa. I decided to listen to Now again, but that time around got a greater sense of how, much in the same as the zamrock record, the music was influenced by the West but managed to keep the soul of the place it was produced. It felt less like a knock off as I first hypothesised, and instead my belief in the fact that its merits are on its own terms grew with time.
“It sounds like the instruments are drunk, it is like listening to a track by The Doors in reverse where instead of Jim Morrisson’s slightly slurring vocals enhancing the melody, Shin Jung-hyeon’s slurring guitar sound enhances the vocals.”
It would be impossible to suggest that there are not Western artists whose music cannot be heard on Kim Jung Mi’s album, however, this does not in any way dampen the efficacy of its success in being immense introspective music. Furthermore, whilst Kim Jung Mi herself deserves plaudits, the concept album was the brainchild of legendary pioneer of Korean rock Shin Jung-hyeon, whose music is a far cry from the manufactured K-pop that rules today in the Korean music industry. Amidst a backdrop of Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship, this album is perhaps notorious for Shin Jung-hyeon’s decision to include a version of Beautiful Rivers and Mountains, a protest song that got him arrested and tortured.
Adjectives that come to mind to describe the album itself, such as ‘floaty’, ‘breezy’ and ‘earthy’ are all apt, but might seem rather obvious considering the references to nature that are littered throughout the album. The song which had me hooked from my first listen, Haenim, is in fact about sitting in the sun. Its lyrics, which I was of course unable to understand, are not the reason why I fell in love with it and believe it is head and shoulders above the rest of what is a very accomplished set of tracks. The acoustic guitar alongside the string orchestration, make for a perfect melody. Add onto that Jung Mi’s gloriously mellow vocals and the beauty of the track cannot be ignored.
The album itself is often labelled as psych-folk, and whilst I think that is as fair a description as any, it should be noted that there are a myriad of genres and styles comprised of within the record. Examples of this wide range include the obvious bossa nova influence that features in Spring (not for the first time from the Far East – check out our review of Cambodian legend Sinn Sisamouth to read more) to the bluesy-soul melody of Blow Spring Breeze. This track contains echoes of The Spencer Davis Group version of Keep On Running, which are perhaps most apparent at the start of the song, however just like Steve Winwood, Jung Mi has the rest of the band joining her for fun harmonies at the chorus. What’s more, sounds of other Western artists’ work that followed the album in subsequent years can be heard throughout. For example, the intro to Wind has a great similarity to Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot, whilst the sensual mysticism of Jung Mi’s voice, particularly in It’s Raining and Beautiful Rivers and Mountains, leaves an obvious parallel with Stevie Nicks.
Alongside Ganadaramabasa, Beautiful Rivers and Mountains is the fastest tempo track on the album. As mentioned before this track was highly controversial as it came after Shin Jung-hyeon’s decision to turn the government’s request to write the national anthem praising their dictator, and instead wrote this long ode to the country and its people. Whilst Jung Mi’s voice is a constant source of ‘wow’ on the album, Shin Jung-hyeon’s legacy reverberates throughout. Even his guitar work is notable, perhaps most so on Your Dream. The track features out of tune guitars, but it somehow works. It sounds like the instruments are drunk, it is like listening to a track by The Doors in reverse where instead of Jim Morrisson’s slightly slurring vocals enhancing the melody, Shin Jung-hyeon’s slurring guitar sound enhances the vocals. Overall this is a brilliant piece. Whilst it works beautifully as background music, if you engage with it deeply, you will find much to appreciate.