15& Show Major Promise, Talent on 'Sugar' Album

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The teenage K-pop duo's extraordinary vocals shine brighest when tracks are kept more simple

Last month, female K-pop duo 15& revealed new song "Can't Help It" via a slew of live TV performances. Despite no music video, the slick, '90s R&B-inspired single hit No. 3 on the K-Pop Hot 100 giving members Jimin and Yerin their first Top 10 K-Pop hit.

While these 16-year-olds' have an undeniable talent – Jimin won a season of Korea's "Idol"-esque singing competition "K-pop Star" while Yerin is nicknamed a "contemporary R&B genius" – their talents never appeared more obvious and evident than on this straight-forward, soulful single.

On similarly focused tracks, 15&'s strengths shine and there are loads of these on their debut full-length album "Sugar." But at times, the girls' talents are at risk for being overshadowed thanks to overly ambitious songs.

The LP's title track kicks off strong enough: A throwback, big-band theme is established from the start as the girls let out a few growls and belts as their backing band warms up with bass licks and horn blasts. Soon, energetic percussion and piano chords accompany the girls' verses, all delivered in a quick staccato-style. The track continues in this fast-paced, lively dynamic until it hits the chorus and changes up the melody to try to incorporate awkward, unmemorable hooks (i.e. the "Sugahhh" line) in what feels a misguided attempt to up the songs' catchines.

Not to mention, the girls pad the chorus with doo-wop-y harmonies and end it with a diva-rific high notes. Later, "Sugar" incorporates a guitar-doodling breakdown and a section for Jimin to show off her rap skills. It's ambitious and is probably meant to spotlight all of the girls' abilities, but, overall, it's a lot for the listener to take in.

The same disjointedness plagues LP opener "Star," which begins with an '80s rock-pop feel with twinkling synths and light guitar backing. But by the chorus, the song has transformed to a by-the-numbers, electro-pop track with a tired-sounding production that would have sounded fresh a decade ago.

But when the tracks are kept more straight-forward – a la "Can't Help It" – the girls' talents really shine. The harmony-heavy "Oh My God" utilizes a fun, male voiced-"oh my god!" sample, twangy guitar and just a dash of accordion while "Rain & Cry" also expertly layers the girls' voices over piano scales and a beat.

 

Simple drums and finger snaps initially back the duo in "Shy Ma Boy" before the track naturally evolves to incorporate jangling piano, trumpet blasts, bass licks and hand claps. The girls' light vocals dance around the simple instrumentation.

Other album tracks, like the saxophone-heavy "Not Today Not Tomorrow," show the girls getting more bold with instrumentation. But the song's melody is kept relatively simple, a style kept intact throughout the track.

Typically, 15&'s vocal talents and inclination for syrupy harmonies speak louder than most of their productions, letting the instrumentations and samples mostly work as simple accompanyment to their gifts. These teenagers can do a lot and it makes sense to push them artistically. But when a track gets so convoluted in its ambition, it ultimately keeps their abilities from shining as bright as possible. Luckily, that only really happens in a minority of the songs on "Sugar."