To my regret, I have not known about Sister’s Barbershop for long enough to have eagerly waited for the release of each album for the past 23 years. But when I did discover their music, it felt like the band saw right through me. That’s why their 6th and final album People Who Stay Alone feels like sending off an old friend.
Sister’s Barbershop is known for its perfectionism, postponing releases three times or mixing and mastering the same track more than ten times in the case of its 5th album The Most Ordinary Existence. On top of that, the band has continuously announced that this album will be its last creative effort as far back as in 2009. In light of these factors People Who Stay Alone, published last June, is the ultimate studio album, carefully constructed and polished to every last second. Leader Lee Seok Won explicitly states how much he worked on each track in his liner notes.
Danceable sadness pervades this highly-engineered album. The first track “Shake Your Body Move Your Mind” is in this sense a representative introduction of what this band does best, and “Dancing Alone” likewise closes out the album.
The title track “People Who Stay Alone” adds a synth pop touch to the album, which is something the band has not done before but pulls off gracefully. Other efforts at originality in this album are perhaps less pronounced than a change of genres, but songs like “Sun Shines Over the Window” or “Everybody Knows the Secret” featuring IU have complex structures with no set boundaries between the chorus and verses, taking on a narrative quality.
Looking for different instruments weaving in and out of tracks is also fun. In “What’s Heart,” the organs sneak in in the second verse and are gone by the time you notice them, while the brass in the outro also slides in unnoticed and lasts throughout the end. It almost seems to embody the song’s lyrical theme – the transience of heart.
Sister’s Barbershop is an iconic band. It started with a teenaged Lee Seok Won pretending to be the leader of a nonexistent band in the early 90s, writing songs out of spite for an indie band scene bent on covering other bands instead of making original tracks. It was arguably the first Korean indie band, and at the same time brought alternative rock into the scene. Its music has captivated generation after generation of Korean youth, the latest being that of IU (she covered The Most Ordinary Existence on TV, introducing herself as a fan). No band can continue to make music forever, but given its thematic fixation on yearning, Sister’s Barbershop’s hiatus almost feels like a self-referential statement to fans.