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Tag: r&b

Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#10-1]


This is it! The final post of 2014 also marks the conclusion of Listmas and specifically this Top 50 Albums of 2014 countdown. It’s been a long road with plenty of bumps and delays along the way, but we’ve finally reached the peak of this imaginary mountain. At this point I’d like to give a special thank you to everyone who read something, clicked on something or downloaded something here at Faronheit over 2014. All of the content that’s posted here is for you to discover and enjoy, and I’m grateful for anyone who visits with that intention. It hasn’t been the best year for the site content-wise, but the hope is to generate more and return to form in 2015. Typically I’d tease a bunch of new features and exciting things in development for next year, but honestly most of that stuff either gains no traction or simply falls off never to be heard from again, so let’s just stick to the mantra of more everything and go from there.

So what can I say about these Top 10 Albums of 2014? Well, like the other entries in this list, there’s plenty of variety in terms of genre and style. It goes from weird to fun to noisy to sexy to relaxing to adventurous and back again. If you’ve been following me on Instagram these last few weeks, you’ve been given access to an early preview of the eclectic Top 5, though I can assure you that #6-10 are as equally exciting and wonderful. And hey, while I wasn’t able to write a lot of album and show reviews this year, some of the ones I did write about make an appearance here. Also worth mentioning: a particular pair of artists who are members of my Class of 2014 had an exceptionally great year, helping to continue to support that program. So I’m not going to spend any extra time talking this up. Please join me past the jump for the big reveal of my absolute favorite albums of the year.

Previously: [#50-41] [#40-31] [#30-21] [#20-11]

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Song of the Week: Movement – Like Lust


If you could create a musical baby between James Blake and Massive Attack, it would probably come out sounding pretty close to what Movement is doing right now. They’re the sort of band that likes to blur the lines between genres and refuse to be easily pinned down, though you can suss out a few major themes in both this song “Like Lust” and the track “Us,” which they released last fall. Both are intensely beat driven, dark grooves that contain multitudes of subtext beyond what you might otherwise pick up on with just a single listen. Similar things can be said about the vocals, which are soft but hint at an intensity and passion, particularly as the line, “When it feels like lust,” fades in and out, symbolically rising to the occasion. The buildup for the synths is noteworthy as well for how it changes the direction of the song ever so slightly to keep you invested for about a minute longer than what might seem reasonable. With tour dates supporting sonic cousins Darkside and their debut EP out in April, Movement have rightly earned themselves a position as a band to watch. Let’s hope they keep cranking out tracks as good as the ones we’ve heard so far.

Album Review: Haim – Days Are Gone [Columbia/Polydor]



They were bred for this. Well, maybe they were. Somebody ask their parents about that. One thing is for sure though – the three sisters that make up the band Haim have been making music from the very first moment they were able to. It’s certainly no coincidence that each of them plays a different instrument too: Danielle is lead guitar, Este is on bass, and Alana does keyboards/synths. Danielle and Este spent their late teens as part of a cut-and-paste major label band called Valli Girls, where they performed a bunch of songs written by a team of professionals intent on marketing to tweens and teens. Generally disappointed with playing a bunch of songs they didn’t write or necessarily like, the two Haim sisters left the band and went Partridge, complete with mom on lead vocals and dad behind the drum kit. Covers were their specialty, diving into the songbooks of everyone from Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac to Shania Twain and R&B legend Wilson Pickett. Of course it’s tough to make a living as a cover band, let alone a family cover band, and there comes a time in every parent’s life when they need to shove their babies out of the nest and let them try to fly on their own. And so we have Haim in their current incarnation, complete with long-time session drummer Dash Hutton to add percussion into the mix.

The buzz began in early 2012 when the single “Forever” was released as part of a three song EP, which along with some heavily hyped performances at SXSW got them a record deal. Their sound is best classified as a mixture of their influences, largely stemming from their upbringing and cover songs played with their parents. Fleetwood Mac is the name that gets referenced most often, however it’s most apt to say that they’ve got the late 80’s/early 90’s soft pop sound on lock, with dashes of R&B thrown in for good measure. Think Phil Collins and Richard Marx mixed with En Vogue and Kate Bush, and that should give you a decent impression of where they’re coming from. Those names might raise a lot of red flags or conjure bad memories, and there’s the inclination to suspect that they’re really just exploring those genres out of complete irony, however there’s extreme sincerity in every single thing they do. That’s really what sells the listener on the idea and earns the band the right sort of attention and respect in spite of all other factors. The new twists on old familiar sounds are also what make their songs seem very “of the moment.” For example, you could easily say that their latest single “The Wire” is a natural blend of the most classic periods of Shania Twain and The Eagles. Beyond that sonic comparison, the addition of each sister taking their own verse plus those dynamic harmonies really helps to elevate it to a “song of the year”-type status. Make previously strong singles “Falling” and “Forever” your lead-ins, and the start of their debut album Days Are Gone turns into a 1-2-3 knockout punch combo.

Of course it definitely doesn’t end there, in spite of the record’s apparent front-loading. Time and time again, Haim prove that they know their way around a chorus, and that they are happy to exploit or break away from genre conventions whenever it suits their needs. The album’s title track, kicking off the second half of the record, appears to mine a bit from the more urban pop era of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and works out better than you might expect. It’s no wonder the song was co-written by Jessie Ware, who has largely taken over where Jackson and Abdul once reigned. While press materials will tell you that there’s a bit of an R&B influence in Haim’s sound, it doesn’t really show up too often. When it does though, as on “Let Me Go” and “My Song 5,” it adds a deeper layer to what the band is capable of, and makes for some of the most impressive moments on the album. Both songs could be considered an homage to En Vogue, though only “My Song 5” and it’s heavy bass drum/tuba blare truly sets itself apart from the rest of the album. And that’s perfectly fine – most records could use such a great standout. Yet one of the most fascinating things about Days Are Gone is how it manages to unite all of the disparate elements and influences into one cohesive whole of an album. Credit goes to producer du jour Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Usher) for finding a way to make it work, and to Haim for never sounding anything less than original in spite of obvious nods to the past.

If Days Are Gone has a real weakness, it’s found in the lyrics, which often attempt to turn a breezy melody into something dark and “important.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to write about serious issues against a lighthearted pop melody – artists do that all the time. Plus, it’s not like half of their songs are about depression, even though a few are about breakups and the fallout afterwards. Then again, “The Wire” is just about the most upbeat and kind song about the ending of a relationship that you’ll find these days. Where the issues emerge are in the words themselves, and not the topics. While the record has its fair share of creative wordplay, a close look at the lyrical content of most songs unveils a pattern of generalizations and bland phrasing that doesn’t hold up so well under scrutiny. All things considered, calling attention to such an issue given what Haim is out to accomplish can be viewed as petty and nitpicky, which is why it might be best to simply sit back, relax and let the melodies and hooks take you away. That is, essentially, what the sisters are doing on their album cover anyways.

Those in search of something different or innovative in a band probably won’t find Haim and Days Are Gone to their liking. What you do get from this record is a collection of strongly composed and confident songs that grab your attention and refuse to let go. Coming straight out of the gate with such excellence and precision is rather impressive, even if these sisters have been playing music since they became old enough to hold instruments in their hands. This is definitely something they’ve been building towards, and for all practical purposes they knock it out of the park.

Haim – The Wire

Haim – Falling

Buy Days Are Gone from Amazon

Album Review: AlunaGeorge – Body Music [Vagrant/Island]



Some artists just really like to make you wait. You’ll hear an incredible single from them one week, a second single six months later, and then the debut full length finally arrives after about two long years of being patient. One of the more recent examples of this can be seen in Purity Ring, who released a couple of songs at the start of 2011 but didn’t get around to an album until a record deal was firmly in place more than a year and a half later. The most recent victims of this extended period of limbo are London duo AlunaGeorge. Aluna Francis and George Reed first got together and unleashed the single “You Know You Like It” in August of 2011, yet after a long period of label negotiations and stopgap singles it took until July 2013 to get their debut Body Music out into the world. There’s that initial wave of relief if you’ve had your patience tested from the beginning, followed by the inevitable question, “Was it really worth the wait?” It’s one thing to be a band like My Bloody Valentine with an established career and heightened expectations that allow you to delay your next album for 20+ years, but when you’re a brand new act without much more than a couple songs attached to your name, time is never on your side no matter how long you want to take perfecting that first big statement.

At their core, AlunaGeorge are essentially a nostalgia act with a modern-day twist. Both Francis and Reed grew up in the ’90s, and are now taking the pop and R&B stylings from their formative years and warping them ever so slightly for a modern audience. But that’s been a cycle for a long time now, and the popularity of these acts is often dependent on what the cultural zeitgeist happens to be at the time. Perhaps AlunaGeorge were right to wait a couple years before releasing Body Music, since their sound is much more in vogue now than it was when they first started. Still, you’ve also got to think that any group that displays the sort of talent that they do on their debut would attract attention no matter when it was released.

One of the odder things about Body Music is it’s opening track “Outlines.” The song itself isn’t odd or even bad by any means, but its placement is what’s striking about it. It’s a slow and rather emotional ballad in a spot typically reserved for an energetic hook-filled track that engages with the listener and provides incentive to keep going. After all, in R&B the blues always gets second billing next to rhythm. In this case though, rhythm arrives on track two thanks to the bouncy beats and memorable chorus of their very first single, “You Know You Like It.” The album quickly shifts into overdrive by backing that up with two more insanely good singles in “Attracting Flies” and “Your Drums, Your Love.” In fact, one of the biggest problems this record has is an overabundance of bouncy, fun and catchy tracks. With so many hooks and dynamic moments, it becomes difficult to let anything sink in because the next thing hits just as hard. But while it can feel like one whitewashed groove after another, particularly towards the end of the record, perhaps that lends it some great replay value. In that sense, you can learn to better appreciate the racing “Lost and Found” or the helium-synth on “Just A Touch.”

While the idea of giving fans the most for their money (and long wait) might make sense to a degree, Body Music actually suffers due to a little bit of overindulgence and bloating. At 14 tracks and just over 50 minutes, you wind up worn down and have to drag yourself through those last 10 minutes. There is nothing particularly worthwhile or great about the ballad “Friends to Lovers,” and the “bonus track” cover of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” serves mainly as a reminder of how well done the original version is. Both could have been chopped off the album like a diseased limb, and we would have been better off for it. Yet other than that relatively minor issue of excess, there’s not a whole lot else wrong with the album. Francis and Reed both prove their worth and have rendered a slick (occasionally to a fault) debut that’s almost exactly what you’d want from them. The problem with giving people what they want though is that an increased set of expectations goes along with it. They stick to the formula and prove to be especially adept with it, but next time had better include some innovation, experimentation and a general evolution beyond where they’re currently at. It’s only through that approach that they’ll be able to prove themselves to be more than just a momentary flash in the pan.

Buy Body Music from Amazon

Stream 90 second clips of the entire album after the jump!

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Album Review: Rhye – Woman [Republic / Innovative Leisure / Loma Vista]



Rhye is a group born out of mystery. The duo purposely tries to fall deep into the crevice of the unknown, choosing to let their music speak for itself rather than tossing out names and faces and back stories. Leave everything as simple and clear-cut as possible, and create your own bond with these songs. Of course, in today’s technology-heavy era, remaining anonymous isn’t something you can do for long, which is probably why a couple months before the March release of their album Woman, things started to come into focus. Rhye is Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, two guys that met in Denmark when working with the Copenhagen-based group Quadron. They became fast friends, but didn’t actually pursue a project together until they both found themselves living in Los Angeles for varying reasons. The primary cause of Hannibal’s relocation from Denmark was a woman, while Milosh is a Toronto native who went to L.A. to try and help his solo music career take flight. For two musicians who had some previous pedigree working as solo artists or in other groups, it’s fascinating that Rhye was suddenly the thing that earned them both quite a bit more attention than they were otherwise used to. It only took a couple singles (“Open” and “The Fall”) released in 2012 to get people talking and naturally curious about who was behind them. The very sensual music videos for both singles and an EP released last fall continued to build anticipation for their debut full length as well.

Perhaps the main reason Rhye has gotten so much attention since they first emerged is due to the right combination of Milosh’s vocals and ’90s R&B-style minimalist instrumentals that are very “of the moment” thanks to artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel. This is sexy music for a large collection of people who are really starting to experience their own sexual awakening. The xx have played a major role in bringing such sensuality in music to the forefront, and Rhye’s record Woman plays to that crowd perfectly with unabashed intimacy and pure, love-spiked intention. It wouldn’t work nearly as well if Milosh didn’t have the voice of an angel that’s so syrupy and smooth you might mistake it for female if you knew nothing about the duo. Comparisons to Sade have been rampant, and they’d be a lot more difficult to accept if they weren’t so spot-on. That basic androgyny has probably helped with the band’s success more than anyone realizes, because it makes the songs that much more malleable to the human ear – you’re free to interpret how these songs apply to you and your own life without gender bias getting in the way. If a guy wants to imagine a girl is singing a song like “Verse” to him or vice versa, nothing is too much of a stretch and the less you know going in the easier such things become. The lyrics are never gender specific either, nor are they sexually explicit, which only serves to fuel your own imagination to help fill in the blanks as you see best. In a case such as this, the vagaries are commendable. All you really need to enjoy this record is the capacity to love another human being, and that accounts for about 99.9% of the population.

Not that 99.9% of the population is going to engage with and get sucked into Woman. It’s not a perfect record, and there are a couple small misfires amid the excellence. “One of Those Summer Days” pretty much comes as advertised, however its beautiful and hazy drift feels out of place on an album that often has a slight groove going for it. Somehow for those 4.5 minutes everything just stops and you can envision yourself laying out by the pool on a warm, clear day as the sunlight shimmers brightly off the water. There’s no structure or hook to the track, and the saxophone solo that pops up feels just a touch softcore porn soundtrack in nature. In other words, it’s all surface beauty with no depth or substance behind it. The title track, which is saved for last, has a similar aesthetic to it. Milosh repeats the title over and over again in different tonal fluctuations and syllabic stretches while a slow and simplistic synth melody holds steadfast. Horns and strings attempt to resuscitate the staid concept, but ultimately don’t do enough to make it worth the time and effort put in.

Still, eight out of the album’s ten tracks are top notch, and a few like “The Fall,” “Open,” “Last Dance” and “Major Minor Love” get even better the more you listen to them. There’s something truly special about this record, and it’s an indefinable quality that only really grabs hold of you in the quieter or more intimate moments of your life. Put on some headphones and really focus on how these songs are being created with such spare arrangements, and you’ll quickly find yourself wrapped inside Woman‘s tender embrace. Better yet, make it the soundtrack to your next make out session and witness how effective it can be at setting the right mood. Rhye is a truly talented band with two truly talented auteurs inspired by the love permeating their own lives. It’d make you jealous of such intense passion if the songs themselves weren’t excellent companions even on a lonely night without someone to hold you close. We don’t need to know who the people are behind them, just that they’ll be there for us no matter what our desires might be. It’d be nice if more records had that quality within them.

Rhye – Open

Buy Woman from Amazon

Show Review: Rhye [Schubas; Chicago; 4/11/13]


“To make tonight’s show a more intimate experience, the artist has asked that you refrain from taking photos, talking or opening and closing the venue doors during the performance. We will also be closing the bar at the back of the venue in the next few minutes for the same reason, so please purchase any drinks you might want during the show now. Thank you.” That was the announcement made shortly before Rhye took the stage on a rainy Thursday night in April at Schubas. In case you hadn’t heard the message, there were also signs posted all over the venue that said “The artist requests no photos during tonight’s performance.” As such, there is/are no photo(s) accompanying this show review. Ironically, there are very few photos of the duo known as Rhye in existence, live or otherwise. They’re a band somewhat built on mystery, at least in the sense that they’d rather let the music speak for itself rather than bombard you with other associations to attach to it. For their live performance, the last thing you should have been doing was staring at the stage through the screen of your smartphone. That creates an invisible wall between the artist and the audience member. The goal is to devote your full attention to what’s coming out of the speakers, and it’s similarly distracting if you run to the restroom, chat with a friend or go order more drinks. Rhye make intimate, bedroom music that’s earned plenty of comparisons to Sade and The xx, and it’s difficult to achieve the intended effect if your head is somehwhere else.

So from my vantage point towards the front of the venue, everyone complied with the band’s instructions (except that one guy standing next to me, who snapped a very quick photo during the final song). Was the show better as a result? I’d say absolutely. As much as I try to respect and give all my attention to the stage, most shows I snap a few photos and might grab a drink mid-set if I’m close to the bar. With a hushed room and nobody standing in front of me with their phone or digital camera in the air, I didn’t get annoyed a single time during the full 50 minute set, which is an accomplishment. Much more accomplished however was what happened on stage. The lights were set to a minimum level, to the point where an exit sign next to the stage was the brightest thing in the room, and there were lit candles everywhere from atop amps to the stage floor. It was a wonder nobody kicked one over. Rhye is the duo of Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, but in a live setting it’s only Milosh with five backing musicians because Hannibal doesn’t tour. It made for a fascinating set up, primarily because the songs on the band’s debut album Woman are so minimalist in their construction. To have six people on stage for that ultimately meant expanding what was already there. That wound up applying to not only the overall sound, but the length of the compositions as well. “Last Dance” got a fun little trombone solo thrown in during the bridge that not only got the crowd riled up, but the rest of the band too. Milosh signaled his keyboard player to keep playing at the end of “Major Minor Love,” which he did for a bit while the rest of the band looked on amused. The strings and drums each got their own times to shine during the bridge of “Open” as well, really hammering home the point Milosh made between songs mid-set: that hearing extended or different takes on songs you’re familiar with brings them to life in new and interesting ways. It keeps the audience and the band on their toes, which is really what you want out of every live show.

Not everything about Rhye’s set worked. It felt like there was a key misstep relatively early in the set during “The Fall,” one of the band’s key singles and most upbeat tracks. What could have turned into a small dance party instead stumbled when the tempo of the song purposely slowed to a crawl for its midsection. Basically, one minute there was a good groove going, the next it was a stoic ballad, and the next the crowd was hit with smelling salts as the pace returned to normal. Why such a choice was made is a mystery, though it’s likely for the same reasons the extended jam sessions on other tracks happened. Everything else, including “3 Days,” “Shed Some Blood” and “Hunger,” were perfectly situated in the set and sounded fantastic. Because they’ve only got one album, things started to get a bit dicey towards the end. There was no opening band, which also helped give everyone the feeling like there should be so much more to go. Alas, after about 40 minutes Milosh candidly apologized to the crowd as they cheered for more, explaining that they were out of songs and were going to have to wrap things up without an encore. Technically speaking he was wrong, because the band never played “One of Those Summer Days” or the title track “Woman,” but to be fair those are also the slowest and weakest tracks on the debut album. They closed things out with the song “It’s Over,” which is actually a song off of Milosh’s 2006 solo record Meme, which I’m sure most if not all of the crowd hadn’t heard before. It was a perfectly lovely ballad, but also felt a little out of place and lacking the pure beauty and charm that the Rhye tracks have going for them.

For a show that was so restrictive/demanding in its requests for audience behavior, it’d be easy to think that you weren’t allowed to have any fun or that it might be difficult to have fun given the circumstances. It really was the band’s candor and Milosh’s moderately comedic banter between songs that put everyone more at ease and helped turn the show from stoic intimacy to playful intimacy. If you ask me, that’s the best kind of intimacy. And that voice! There were audible gasps from the crowd the moment Milosh first started to sing, because it seemed so unlikely that the voice you hear on the record could be replicated with such ease. He made it all look and sound pretty effortless, and beyond that the rest of the band would occasionally add five-part harmonies that made perfect use of the venue, the atmosphere and the quiet, attentive crowd. It’s hard to believe that this band can sound so great and so professional when they’ve only played a handful of live shows in their existence. With any luck, there will be hundreds more to come, complete with fans who understand that even music’s most intimate moments can be charming and great when performed live so long as you’re respectful and attentive of the material.

Buy Rhye’s debut album Woman from Amazon

Set List
Verse
3 Days
The Fall
Shed Some Blood
Last Dance
Major Minor Love
Open
Hunger
It’s Over (Milosh cover)

Snapshot Review: How to Dress Well – Total Loss [Acephale/Weird World]



How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, doesn’t make music that’s easy to listen to or enjoy by any stretch of the imagination. That can also be considered part of his charm though, that he doesn’t bow to anyone’s standards. There are influences, that’s to be sure, and you could hear flashes of Bobby Brown or Michael Jackson in some of the tracks on HTDW’s 2010 debut album Love Remains. Those influences were filtered through Krell’s unique lens, and there was such a lo-fi, effect-laden treatment to everything that it often felt like you were listening to an R&B record underwater. Krell’s falsetto vocals also tended to sound like they were recorded from the opposite side of a room, the distance providing a chasm of disconnection against the intimacy of the lyrics. It was a symbolic gesture more than anything else, as we’d later come to find out that his struggles with depression have often kept his family and friends at arm’s length. That more or less informs how the new HTDW record Total Loss functions, although this time the production work has become more polished and easier to listen to. Krell is also much more up-front and personal this time too, and it makes for an open wound of a record that’s an emotional wrecking ball with a heavy dose of beautiful composition. The R&B flavor is still present on this album, but it’s a little more scaled back and minimalist in terms of composition. There are plenty more icy textures that glide and drift past instead of big beats and vocal posturing. If you’re expecting a bunch of “Ready for the World” clones to create clear highlights across this album, you will probably end up sorely disappointed. There are tracks like “Cold Nites” and “& It Was You” that are some of the most fascinating and complex pieces Krell has ever put together, and while their melodies affixed with accoutrements like finger snaps and intense vocal harmonies may have a lighthearted air to them, the lyrics are anything but. Where this record truly excels though are in the moments when atmosphere truly takes over and beauty shines through. There are post rock symphonic bits like “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)” and “Talking to You” that cut so deeply while saying so little that you halfway expect Krell to turn into Sigur Ros at times. That’s a very good thing, and it shows plenty of promise for his future records. Then again, those same sorts of elements were all over last year’s Just Once EP, and they’re only minimally represented on Total Loss. In a sense, the mixture of different styles on this record can make it seem less than cohesive at times, and the lack of important benchmarks across the whole thing can leave it feeling a little front-loaded. This isn’t a perfect album, nor does it quite accomplish the great things Love Remains was able to do. What truly holds this record together in spite of everything are the lyrics, which tend to devastate at every turn. But while this record weaves its way through darkness, the end starts to shine some light through in a powerful and meaningful way. “Set It Right,” in which Krell names the many friends and family members both living and dead that he’s loved and cared for in spite of everything, is probably the most important track on the entire record. “As far as love goes, it’s one step at a time,” he sings like somebody hoping to rebuild a long dead or dormant connection. With any luck, this album marks yet another step in the right direction for How to Dress Well.

How to Dress Well – Ocean Floor for Everything
How to Dress Well – Cold Nites (Pete Swanson Remix)

How to Dress Well – & It Was U

Buy Total Loss from Amazon

Album Review: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange [Def Jam]



Frank Ocean’s sexuality shouldn’t matter. Why his revelation that he’s bisexual has made so many waves (pun intended) is because people working in the hip hop and R&B genres are often considered intolerant of anyone who’s not 100% straight. There’s a fair amount of anti-gay rhetoric and hurtful slang used in tracks without even blinking an eye or somebody speaking out against it, and so for Ocean to come out in that sort of environment takes an incredible amount of courage. He’s weathered the storm quite well so far, though the realities of his situation might be a bit different than what we’re seeing through the eyes of the media. Now let’s just hope he doesn’t get stereotyped because of it, or made an unofficial spokesperson for all things bisexual or homosexual in the music community. The ultimate hope is that if you make great art that people will see past any labels and appreciate it solely for what it is. The great news for Ocean is that his newest album Channel Orange does exactly that, transcending topical, musical and many other boundaries to help make it one of the most fascinating and exciting full lengths of 2012 so far.

Whether you’ve been paying close attention to the R&B and urban styles of music the last few years or not, chances are you’ve become aware that the increased popularity of AutoTune has been both a help and a hindrance to music in general. At its best, AutoTune is another creative tool that can be used to take vocals or accent tracks in ways many never thought possible until now. At its worst, it’s an annoyance, detracts from the humanity in a song, and allows singers to cheat by taking their vocals to places they couldn’t otherwise go on their own. Ocean doesn’t use AutoTune on Channel Orange, nor is it apparent that he needs to. His vocals are smooth as silk, and his range is far more vast than you might expect. Listening to opening track “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean holds a pretty even keel together until the chorus hits. Reacting to being wounded by a love interest, he flips into a soaring falsetto that makes for an impressive emotional outpouring of his pain. Sad though it may be, it’s also one of several very catchy songs on this record.

The lightly bouncing and effortless “Sweet Life” celebrates the excess associated with being rich, ultimately settling on the very addictive creed of, “Why see the world/when you’ve got the beach?” But that sort of reaction isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead it’s more about the search for meaning beyond what money and the song’s title describe. Similarly, “Super Rich Kids” uses a plodding piano chord that sounds like it was ripped from Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” to both mock a life of massive weath and relate to the consistently greedy emptiness it causes. “A million one, a million two/a hundred more will never do,” he sings like a man trapped in a prison of money from which there is no escape. As a 24-year-old still in the earliest stages of his career, Ocean isn’t nearly at the point yet where he could be considered a financial heavyweight. These songs aren’t so much personal stories or feelings he’s describing, but rather character morality tales that are always human and surprisingly relatable. “Crack Rock” turns a drug addict into somebody we can sympathize with, while “Lost” is about the personal relationship between a drug dealer and a drug mule, how they may love each other but can’t stop using one another either. Love and religion intertwine on “Monks,” where the passion a crowd has for a musician parallels that of a deity, the Dalai Lama and Buddhism being the example used. Thematically similar but all the more devastating is “Bad Religion,” where he likens unrequited love to a cult because of its exclusivity, obsession and inability to give anything back to you. The line in the chorus, “I can never make him love me,” is thought by many to be related to the letter he wrote about his attraction to a man that didn’t feel the same way. Whether or not that’s actually the case, the frustration and sadness in his voice is very, very affecting.

Lyrical content and stories aside, Channel Orange also has plenty to offer in terms of composition. This is not your standard R&B slow jam style record. Ocean is offering up so much more than contemporary leaders of the genre like R. Kelly and Usher are trying these days. The risks he’s taking have more in common with Kanye West’s last album, the near perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, than almost anything else around. If that record set a new bar for hip hop, Ocean’s seeks to set a new bar for R&B. He’s taking many of the greats such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Prince, and applying some of their best qualities in mind to tracks that are extremely modern in body. The organ and spoken word opening of “Bad Religion” is eerily reminiscent of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” but moves in a polar opposite direction with the entrance of mournful piano chords and dramatic orchestration. Southern style rhythm guitar and church organ blend quite effortlessly with drum machine beats on closing track “Forrest Gump,” and together they give the song a tenderness that betrays a line like, “I wanna see your pom-poms from the stands.” If you really want to understand what this record is all about and see how Ocean has turned R&B on its head, look no further than “Pyramids.” The sprawling, nearly 10 minute track moves from ambient electronica to dancefloor synth-pop to a soulful slow jam to a psychedelic guitar solo without ever sounding out of place or clumsy. Altogether it’s unlike anything else in music today, and it’s that much more brilliant because of it.

If Channel Orange has one problem, it’s sticking with the time honored tradition of adding interludes between a few songs to expand its overall length and track listing. Some of them, like “Fertilizer” and “White,” serve more like brief sketches of songs and glimpses of potential wasted. The bookend tracks titled “Start” and “End” feel even more pointless, the former using the sound of a Playstation powering on while the latter has the sound of somebody getting out of their car and walking into their house. Only “Not Just Money,” featuring a woman talking about how there’s more to life than dollars and cents as she struggles to feed her family, actually feels appropriately used. It’s sandwiched in between “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” emphasizing the moral lessons they’re looking to teach. Outside of those shrug-worthy and mostly pointless moments, everything else about this album is ironclad and near perfect. While it lacks the same theatricality and reinvention, Channel Orange can be favorably compared to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust record. Following on the heels of his controversial 1972 interview in which he confessed to being gay (which later turned out to be…not so much), Bowie was on the verge of calling it quits. Coupled with the legendary Ziggy Stardust however, Bowie’s profile rose significantly and he became the powerful force in music that many look up to today. Ocean is only getting his career started, but with the revelations about his sexuality and the excellence of this new album, you can almost see the same sort of career trajectory emerging. Time will tell for sure if that holds true, but for the moment this looks like the true birth of the next music superstar.

Frank Ocean – Pyramids
Frank Ocean – Sweet Life

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Album Review: Grimes – Visions [4AD/Arbutus]



Claire Boucher is nothing if not productive. As the singular force behind the musical pseudonym Grimes, she has released four full length records in the last 2 years. That started with 2010’s Geidi Primes, blossomed into Halfaxa later that year, and then continued building with Darkbloom last year. If you’ve heard approximately zero of those first three records, don’t beat yourself up too much; they sit and taunt from the deepest of deep levels in Canada’s underground electro scene. That is to say they were impressive and influential enough to earn Grimes some attention, but difficult and unfocused enough to keep her out of the spotlight for all practical purposes. Each of those first three albums was intended to play up a different side of her influences, and none of them were really all-encompassing efforts. Boucher herself has basically called them practice records for the real thing, which has finally resulted in her brand new album Visions complete with a brand new home on indie stalwart label 4AD. The end product is a remarkable and rather breathtaking skew on traditional pop music and electronica, complete with a supremely psychedelic edge that slices deep into your emotional reservoir even as it prods the pleasure centers of your brain with seductive beats and hooks.

The first thing you should know about Grimes is that she’s a producer before she’s a musician. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, but the whole point of mentioning it is because it affects the way she puts together songs. In fact, Boucher is doing what so many other forward-thinking artists are doing these days, which is attempting to break the rules of traditional songwriting and composing through the use of technology. At its core, Visions is a record created by a voice and a keyboard. Listening to it, there’s almost no way you’d realize that given all that’s going on. Virtually everything is run through some sort of filter or effect, and portions of songs are dubbed and overdubbed and smashed atop one another like some sort of sonic sandwich. Credit goes to Boucher for knowing when to stop adding more, because in more than a few cases it feels like the depths of some of the songs could be infinite. Her restraint is admirable and a great sign that she knows what she wants and tweaks it ever so slightly until she gets there. The ultimate result is a record that’s equal parts pop music and ambiance, pleasure and pain, not to mention human and computer.

The first track on Visions is “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment”, and it immediately lays out what to expect for the rest of the record. Lasting a mere 96 seconds, it confounds traditional song structure while maintaining a very danceable rhythm and sugar-sweet vocals. Boucher’s voice takes on 3 distinct personalities on the track, and they intermingle with one another with no regard for decency or clarity, to the point where it becomes like trying to listen to a single conversation in a room full of talking people. In spite of the perceived vocal confusion and the challenge of distinguishing lyrics, there’s a symbiosis and elegance to how all the moving pieces of the song work together. Indeed for most of Visions you’ll struggle to understand what Boucher is singing about, and that’s not always because of overdubbing. On the song “Genesis” for example, her singular voice is so drenched in echo it becomes the auditory effect of trying to see the car in front of you while driving through a dense fog. “Eight” turns one of her vocals into a deep-voiced robot and another into a woman that’s clearly been breathing in way too much helium. Despite all the different ways Boucher throws her vocals around, there are a few moments of genuine clarity, and those brief snapshots tend to be about relationships going through some sort of turmoil. “Oh baby I can’t say/that everything will be okay,” Boucher sings on “Circumambient”, signaling right from the start that there’s problems. Towards the end of “Skin”, she’s also in a sad place, espousing, “You touch me again and somehow it stings/because I know it is the end.”

Lyrical content is really the last thing you should be looking for on Visions though, because it’s far more about how these songs come together than it is any message they’re trying to get across. Boucher herself has said in interviews that she often feels the need to cover up her lyrics out of self-criticism over her skills as a writer but also because the melodies themselves should be telling you how to feel and not the words. With so much emphasis placed on what’s being said and not the way it’s being said, that’s a very refreshing take on pop music. Think of this record like a synth-pop inspired version of Sigur Ros, where the vocals are first and foremost another instrument in the mix rather than something intended to sit front and center as a path to deeper understanding. Or, even better, there are portions of the album that are very K-pop and J-pop influenced, and whether you’re a fan of Dance Dance Revolution or simply like those sorts of songs without speaking the language, there’s plenty of moments such as “Nightmusic” that you’ll be able to wholly enjoy. In fact, there’s a whole host of influences on Visions that may tickle your fancy depending on your tastes. Obviously if you’re into electronica and its many subgenres like IDM and Balearic you’ll be impressed with the strong beats that populate much of the record. The same goes for devotees of 80s pop, wherein the strains of a track like “Vowels = space and time” calls to mind Stacy Q or “Oblivion” has something distinctly Cyndi Lauper about it. And while 2011 was the year of the R&B revival, songs like “Be A Body” and “Skin” break out those influences as well, the former even impressing with some sky-high Mariah Carey falsettos. In spite of the various swaths of genres across the album, it all holds together quite nicely thanks to Boucher’s dynamic production style and ability to put together a very strong melody.

It goes without saying that Grimes is one of the most exciting new talents to emerge out of an ever-evolving music scene. Her previous records all hinted at what Visions would be in one way or another, and it’s extremely pleasing to hear her finally fulfill much of that early potential. For all of its oddities, this record is extremely listenable from start to finish, and cuts like “Genesis”, “Oblivion”, “Circumambient” and “Nightmusic” make it supremely catchy as well. In many ways these songs feel like the next step towards a genuine breakthrough in music, one in which a multitude of styles gives birth to a beautiful new hybrid that’s more aesthetically pleasing than any single one of them on their own. The best part is there’s continued room for improvement and growth, even as this record hovers near the precipice of perfection. Grimes has been an artist to watch from the day she first started releasing music 2 years ago, but only now, thanks to Visions will she begin to earn the attention she truly deserves.

Grimes – Genesis
Grimes – Oblivion

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Album Review: Little Dragon – Ritual Union [Peacefrog]


If you want to get technical, Swedish band Little Dragon has existed for 15 years now. That their recorded output has not matched that lengthy period of time is likely no fault of theirs. Call it a product of wasting away in the void of the millions of unsigned bands out there, they were signed to Peacefrog in 2007. After a self-titled record from that year and a sophmore effort “Machine Dreams” in 2009, interest in the band began to rise steadily. Still, they were viewed as almost a secret (at least in the U.S.) until they did a few high profile guest spots on a few different albums in the past couple years. Most notable among them is likely the two tracks featuring the band on the last Gorillaz album “Plastic Beach”. In fact, their work on the song “Empire Ants” impressed me so much that I named it my 22nd Favorite Song of 2010. It was primarily Yukimi Nagano’s smooth-as-silk voice that drew me in, and additional appearances on records by Dave Sitek (as Maximum Balloon) and SBTRKT only provided further evidence of Little Dragon’s worth. Suddenly the band has not only my attention, but the attention of millions more people than were aware of their last record. Striking while the iron is hot is important for any artist, which is why we’re now getting “Ritual Union”, Little Dragon’s third long player.

Having only heard Little Dragon from their guest work on other artists’ records, it’s interesting to hear what the band sounds like when the burden is fully on them. There is a reason why SBTRKT and Gorillaz were attracted to the band, and the way they handle beats and synths and other electronic elements provides that reason. They’re remarkably economical when it comes to putting together their compositions, ensuring that every instrument is utilized to its full potential without sounding overblown or understated. The sound is also remarkably smooth, and “Ritual Union” glides along on an almost futuristic track, which goes a long way towards helping to make the band’s sound relatively unique. All the elements are very familiar, it’s the way they’re put together that defies easy description. Anchored down by Nagano’s achingly beautiful vocals, there’s also an innate warmth that permeates these songs in spite of the rigidity a standardized beat structure can bring. All this without even mentioning that there are some pretty solid hooks via tracks like the title track, “Shuffle A Dream” and “Nightlight”. In fact, that opening title cut is very much the definition of what it means to start strong. One of the record’s biggest issues though is what happens after that.

There’s a certain high achieved at the very beginning of “Ritual Union”, both the album and the song, where right out the gate you’re left energized and impressed. The drop off is a steep one though, and when “Little Man” steps out next, it comes up, to turn a phrase, a little short. The song itself is likable, but it fails to fully grab you, as if there’s something slightly off about it. That pattern continues and bleeds into a handful of the album’s tracks, such as “Please Turn” and “Crystalfilm”, where you get the sense the band had the right idea and the right elements, they just were unsure precisely how to put it all together. Add to that some issues with the lyrics, in that they can tend to be on the bland or cliched side, and this record’s shiny exterior begins to lose much of its gloss. Throw in some darker and more depressing elements, and even the warmth contained in many of the songs also are pushing a stiff breeze behind them. Speaking in terms of progression, while I can’t speak for the band’s previous two records, I will say that much of this new material bears a lot of the same markings as their guest appearances with Gorillaz, Maximum Balloon and SBTRKT. At the very least they seem to know what works for them and are attempting to make this a continuation of those “featuring” roles that earned them so much acclaim and attention in the first place. It’s just a shame that when left solely to their own devices, they can never quite reach that high watermark. Perhaps if they’d brought in some guest stars of their own “Ritual Union” would have wound up with more peaks than it does valleys.

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