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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: Jack White – Blunderbuss [Columbia/Third Man]

The ever-evolving career of Jack White remains a fascinating one. After his meteoric rise to fame as one half of The White Stripes, he suddenly became unsettled when his bandmate and ex-wife Meg decided to shut the project down. The reason given was that Meg began to suffer from “acute anxiety,” known to many as stage fright, and for health reasons no longer wanted to perform. How true that was we’ll likely never know, but she has been true to the idea of never performing again. But that destruction of The White Stripes sent Jack spiralling into some new and different projects. He had already been dabbling in side projects with his friend Brendan Benson as they formed The Raconteurs. As he turned his focus in that direction, in 2009 he was also sucked into the atmosphere of The Kills’ Alison Mosshart and became one of the co-founders of The Dead Weather. Right around that time White also began building his own record label, Third Man, into a much bigger presence by establishing a store and production offices in Nashville. He signed and worked with a number of artists on one-off records, including country legend Loretta Lynn, The Black Belles, Conan O’Brien and even Insane Clown Posse. He’s established himself as a workaholic, and given the way he moves from one project to another, probably something of an ADD musician.

One afternoon last summer while waiting for RZA to show up at his home studio for another one-off collaboration, White decided to make the most of his time and play around with some song ideas. As with so many other things he’s done recently, it slowly developed into a full length solo effort, which he’s called Blunderbuss. Does it sound like what you’d expect from a Jack White solo project? Well, yes and no. One look at the guy’s entire catalogue and you’ll notice a distinct variety that pushes back against being confined to a certain type or genre. The earliest White Stripes recordings were electric guitar-intense blues dirges. Their last couple albums played around with pianos and a host of other instruments quite a bit more, and were decidedly pop-inspired. Great as all that was, White’s work with other musicians and other bands hasn’t been nearly as fruitful. Being in bands with other superstar musicians yanks away some of his responsibility (and some might say burden), which is why his records with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather sometimes missed the mark or came off as mainstream pandering. That’s not to say his friends and the democratic group dynamic were dragging him down. White tends to work with very talented musicians, but as with any group with the word “super” in front of it can tell you, that doesn’t necessarily make things better. It’s not like many will argue that when Neil Young teams up with Crosby, Stills and Nash he’s better than when he’s alone or with Crazy Horse. Some artists are best when left to their own devices. White seems to be one of those people.

So in this blustery post-White Stripes landscape, Blunderbuss steadily ushers in the next phase of Jack White’s music career. Considering how much he was responsible for in The White Stripes, making the transition to an official solo artist should be no problem whatsoever. He tackles it with all the grace and aplomb you might expect; well thought-out rock songs that are slightly different from his more bluesy past, but with plenty of variety to try and prove he’s more than a one trick pony. Opener “Missing Pieces” has a mellotron base and some guitar for added spice, yet it feels eerily reminiscent of a White-fronted track in The Raconteurs. “Sixteen Saltines”, by contrast, is a catchy guitar-heavy rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on a record like Icky Thump. Having dabbled in a few other genres thanks to his collaborations, songs like “Love Interruption” and the title track come across as Loretta Lynn-inspired alt-country, complete with slide and acoustic guitars. He gives a big nod to soul and R&B pioneer Little Willie John by covering his bouncy number “I’m Shakin'”, then plays off those sonic influences on songs like “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” and the rousing finale of “Take Me With You When You Go.” There’s such a great mixture of instruments used across the album, especially piano and slide guitar, that the hope of some crazy, blistering electric guitar solos becomes less and less with each passing minute. The ending of “Freedom at 21” is about the closest White comes to his old, old self, and even those fleeting moments peter out in disappointment. He’s a much deeper and nuanced person these days, and is out to prove he’s more than just a very talented guitar player and songwriter.

Speaking of songwriting, that’s about the one thing in White’s life that hasn’t changed with time. His favorite topic has pretty much always been women, and on Blunderbuss that’s no different. Throwing around plenty of psychological theories without any real knowledge of psychology in general, it would seem that Jack has issues with the female gender. This pointed article does a great job of summing it up: “What White really seems to dislike is when women choose their own boxes. He’s a famous control freak, and in his songs, women are constantly threatening his control, forcing him into playing the role of victim. His response? Vitriol.” You can hear it on “Missing Pieces,” when he sings about a woman figuratively amputating his arms and legs. On “Freedom at 21,” she’s addicted to technology, where, “Two black gadgets in her hand are all she thinks about.” White famously doesn’t own a cell phone, and while he’s not averse to things like computers and the Internet, it’s apparent why he’d be upset with the woman in the song. Perhaps most telling of all is “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” in which he makes somewhat veiled references to ex-wife and ex-bandmate Meg. As he took on her last name when they got married and never changed it back, he sings, “You’ll be watching me, girl, taking over the world/I’ll be using your name.” Towards the end he also goes on about letting the “stripes unfurl” and how he’ll be “gettin’ rich singin’ poor boy.” For all its lighthearted ukulele playfulness, some of those words have a real potential to cut deep, especially if you’re Meg. Neither party is commenting on them, so we’re left guessing exactly how pointed they’re intended to be.

In spite of some of the issues that Blunderbuss has both lyrically and sonically, Jack White is too good and too professional a musician to turn in something with his name plastered all over it and have it be subpar. At least with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather he had other band members to share the burden and simultaneously take credit for weaker elements. Here his strength lies in his ability to come up with compelling and catchy melodies while simultaneously shifting perspectives to keep us guessing. The same could be said about his personal life and affectations. White tends to enjoy lying to the press, and we’re never entirely sure how sincere he’s being with his lyrics either. What might otherwise appear to be maniacal or misogynistic could just be the way he wants to play it. At least he’s consistent about it. This record deals with the topic of loss virtually from start to finish, with girls, romance and relationships in general all intertwined inside that web. It’s true that they are messy, challenging and often disappointing in the end. Yet we put ourselves through all that because the good outweighs the bad in the end. The same can be said about Blunderbuss. It might not be as good as your average White Stripes record, and the intense guitar solos are seriously lacking, but White goes a long way towards proving that when left to his own devices, he’s still one of the sharpest tools in any musical shed.

Buy Blunderbuss from Amazon

Album Review: Duffy – Endlessly [Mercury/A&M]

Amazing what two years and a change of management can do to a person. Back in that lonesome year of 2008, Welsh singer-songwriter Duffy emerged as part of the neo-soul movement that included other prodigies such as Amy Winehouse and Adele. And while Winehouse was the first to strike it big, she was also the first to flame out in dramatic fashion, aka a drug-addled mess. Who knows if we’ll ever hear from her again. Adele scored some points on a number of adult contemporary radio stations with her song “Chasing Pavements”, which also landed her a couple of Grammys last year. But Duffy, she made a pretty huge impact herself thanks to a hit single “Mercy” and earned a Best Pop Vocal Album Grammy for her debut “Rockferry”. She should have been able to parlay that into continued success with a brand new album and single, but before any of that could come along there was a slight change in the tides. She parted ways with her managment team at the beginning of the year, which also meant leaving her songwriting partners and backing band behind too. One might argue that resulted in a change for the better as her new record “Endlessly” was co-written and produced by legendary musician Albert Hammond (Sr.) with a backing band of none other than The Roots. A winning combination, right? With her record coming out in the UK last week and the US release this coming Tuesday, press for Duffy seems just a little difficult to find (at least in the US). Her new single “Well, Well, Well” either hasn’t impacted at many American radio stations yet, or just isn’t doing “well” period (pun clearly intended). The point being, in two years, it seems like Duffy has been forgotten. Such are the fickle tastes of music fans. It’d be one thing if the new material sucked, but if it’s an improvement, to ignore or forget almost feels criminal.

You’ve got to wonder exactly how “controlled” Duffy was as she recorded her debut “Rockferry”. It took a couple years and a shoestring budget to get done, but she still had a whole team of people working closely with her on the writing and composition of the songs. She was positioned and “just so happened” to come around at the right time with the right sort of music to make an impact. Her initial debut may have been a case of “fake it til you make it”, but one thing Duffy can’t fake is that powerful voice of hers. That’s really what makes her a distinctive artist and it’d be impressive no matter what sort of music she was singing. On “Endlessly”, Duffy does explore her newfound freedom by crafting a record that’s diverse and just a little experimental, while maintaining a strong connection to her roots. Speaking of roots, The Roots maintain their reputation as a band of all trades, providing strong support on this collection of songs and probably making them better than they would be otherwise. ?uestlove’s drumming particularly stands out as exceptional and it’s draws your attention on single “Well, Well, Well” almost as much as Duffy’s vocal does.

Starting with “My Boy”, a fake audience applauds and cheers as a strong bass line and drums set a pretty brisk pace that’s less soul and more 60s pop inspired. There’s small splattering of synth and harpsichord along with a couple quick doses of rhythmic handclaps that really turn this into a fun, upbeat potential single. The chorus is also sufficiently catchy and there’s a bridge breakdown that revives the excitement of the “crowd”. In all the track probably ranks among the 5 best things Duffy has attached her name to. For fans of her slower, more soulful side, “Too Hurt to Dance” has strong echoes of Aretha Franklin and Etta James ballads, complete with sufficiently sweeping strings. The small dose of irony is that the song is perfect for a slow dance while the lyrics argue the exact opposite idea. Though songs about break ups are a dime a dozen, Duffy’s lyrics about turning the music down and drowning her sorrows in a bottle of alcohol are only interesting thanks to some creative wordplay. The heartbreak continues on “Keeping My Baby”, though this time the vibe is much more upbeat along with the tempo. Duffy may have kicked her man to the curb, but as the title says, she’s not about to get rid of the baby on the way. Strings and horns race through the mix, which bears both a remarkable resemblance to early Madonna as well as 70s disco. And “Well, Well, Well” most definitely has all the hallmarks of a strong single thanks to some smooth saxophones and both a sassy and soaring vocal. In an ideal world, the song would be getting much more attention than it currently is. Then again, it took “Mercy” about 6 months to properly impact, so maybe time is what it needs.

The rest of “Endlessly” plays out in an almost identical fashion to the first half, moving on basically equal footing with sweeping ballads and upbeat pop numbers. The title track is a slow dance love song that pushes to earn a “retro” status by placing the hiss and pop of a needle making contact with vinyl on a turntable. Touches like that aren’t necessarily needed, but serve a subconscious function…unless you’re all too conscious of it. The biggest experiment on the album comes in the form of “Lovestruck”, a strong pop song with echoes of “I Will Survive” but without the soaring chorus. Synths boom, strings race, and things get very funky in a good sort of way. And though it continues in an interesting pop melody, “Girl” is notable for how generally cute and snarky it is. Duffy sounds like she’s having fun while telling off this girl that’s trying to steal her man. “Go find your own scene, baby”, she tells the titular character. The same could be said for Duffy herself, as she cruises through the record dabbling in one genre here and another one there and so forth. It could be identity confusion, but more likely it’s just that she’s looking to mix it up a bit and try new things.

Without a doubt, most of Duffy’s fans were earned thanks to the success of “Mercy” and the hope by many that the full album “Rockferry” would have more pop gems like that. That the record was mostly ballads might have left some upset and confused, even though there were a couple more marketable singles that never made it to radio or flopped upon impact. One of the best things about “Endlessly” is how much more fun and entertaining it is than the last album. Duffy no longer has to play the conservative neo-soul card if she doesn’t want to, and the end product is a little bit better because of it. She lets her hair down and breaks free from some of the easy labels stuck on her a couple years ago. Yes, about half the new album feels like a continuation of “Rockferry”, but you don’t want to go completely one direction or another when your fan base is so tentative in the first place. Playing the balance is a smarter move, and once she sees what works and what doesn’t, that will inform how the next record comes together. At the very least, her live shows will be much more energized as a result of this album than they ever have been before. Thanks to this pretty good set of songs her and Albert Hammond were able to put together, Duffy now has a world of possibilities at her doorstep. Hopefully enough people invest in this record to help bring that potential all the way to fruition.

Preorder “Endlessly” from Amazon

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