FRANK OCEAN: “AN URGENCY OF FEELING”

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Frank Ocean: Thinkin’ ‘Bout You
Super Rich Kids
Pyramids
From Channel Orange (Def Jam, 2012)

(Editor’s note: This comes from Elias Leight, a new, aspiring music writer out on the East Coast. He wrote asking for advice on forging a path into the world of music criticism. I wanted to give him a shot by testing his craft here. –O.W.

Frank Ocean went from working as a songwriter for Def Jam to singing hooks for Odd Future to anchoring tracks for Beyonce, Jay-Z and Kanye. Now he’s released his official debut, Channel Orange, which reflects his varied work, jumping quickly and working easily in different styles…and doesn’t mind a few wrong turns.

Channel Orange shares some qualities with Ocean’s previous Nostalgia Ultra mixtape/album – sonic clarity, earnestness — but it’s grounded more in keyboard-driven, 70s-tinged soul and funk. Many songs build around little keyboard riffs and flexible, prominent bass. There are sweet bursts of backing vocals, gutsier arrangements, and a slew of instruments he’s seemingly learned since the last project: strings, organs, horns, etc.

His songwriting has changed too; there’s more power and urgency of feeling. “Thinkin’ Bout You” begins with a string of nonsense — “A tornado flew around my room before you came/ Excuse the mess it made/ It usually doesn’t rain in southern California/ Much like Arizona” – before Ocean suddenly wiggles into the core of the song, “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they pour when I’m thinkin’ bout you.” When he switches from a stream of light-hearted free association to simple sentimentality, it’s unexpected but secure, giving you something easy to hold on to. The giddy, tangential opening complements the seriousness of the chorus, making Ocean endearingly bashful and appealingly in love.

The album can be split into three. The opening chunk — just a few songs — conveys a rich longing with smooth backing vocals, soft swathes of instrumentation, and aching falsetto. The second part of the album contains the album’s biggest beats and hooks; it jumps around, evoking the wild highs and lows created by the heady mix of romance, booze, and wealth described in the songs. The first few songs made it all seem easy, but here the real world intrudes. Things are complicated, warped, and intensified by drugs, alcohol, unemployment and apathy. The ups and downs are mimicked by the music, which moves between a full-throated soul chorus and a flat monologue, a rigidly monotonic beat and lithe, expressive vocals, powerful synth-funk and snapping slink.

For Channel Orange’s third section, Ocean favors slow arrangements with organ and strings, and he engages in a more abstract analysis of love. This can be risky. On “Thinkin’ Bout You,” Ocean used nonsense as cover and it heightened the effect of the chorus, but on “Pink Matter,” Ocean tries to make the nonsense important: “What do you think my brain is made for/ Is it just a container for the mind/ . . . Sensei replied what is your woman/ Is she just a container for the child?” You’re listening to a stoner’s monologue which doesn’t work as well if you’re not high yourself (and if you are, you might be falling asleep, because it’s paired with a plodding beat). Ocean does better when he sings a love song for Forrest Gump. After two serious songs, this one represents a nice change of pace – the chorus plays on Forrest’s temporary obsession with running. It also gains gravity from the songs that came before it, and, combined with Ocean’s sincerity, manages to be both funny and affecting.

Channel Orange reflects its maker’s career to this point — disjointed, ambitious, and versatile. Ocean is consistently surprising, though this means that he sometimes makes a distracting turn into a strange tale about corrupt drug-dealing cops. More often than not, his quick pivots illustrate the urgency, pain, and hilarity of love.

–Written by Elias Leight

EVERYDAY I’M SHUFFLING: RON FORELLA…MOVES!

Thom Janusz: Memories of Georgia
Crystals
From Ronn Forella…Moves! (Hoctor/Luv N’ Haight, 1970s/2012)

One of the best reasons for seeking out original vinyl copies of old dance-instruction records has to be that they almost always have some kind of handwritten annotation on them, and when you’re far enough down the record-nerd rabbit hole to be buying old dance-instruction records, the realization that the heaviest track on the album—the facemelting breakbeat apocalypse with the acid-pitted wah-wah and the bass and the whatnot and the so on and the so forth—has been labeled in meticulous, teacherly ballpoint “CONNIE’S WALK-ON MUSIC” or “JAZZ ROUTINE—MS. KRAMER’S CLASS” is a realization that provides some necessary perspective, I think.

Namely, it’s a good reminder that these records were tools. They were records for people to dance to. And not in the way we usually mean when we say that; not “commercial records put together in particular ways with the intention of encouraging people to dance.” No, these were dance records in the most literal sense imaginable: records for people who were getting paid to teach other people how to dance and who needed music that—before it was anything like interesting, or creative, or personable—was conducive to them doing their job.

And I guess these records are mostly still considered tools, esteemed both by producer-type dudes who see the sampleability in their strong and anonymous rhythms and by non-producer-type dudes who listen to them and think, man, some producer-type dude could totally sample that.

Within this sensibility, the fact that these records almost never actually get sampled for anything is secondary to the fact that they totally could be. This obsession with potential is the faith of the sample nerd (broadly defined, anyone whose entrée into collecting old records was driven to some significant extent by newer records that had sampled them [c’est moi]), and it has spiraled outward to become surprisingly influential; the listening habits and buying habits of people who came up chasing records that were in any way akin to those sampled in the rap records of the late eighties and early nineties have been the secret mover behind at least one whole generation of the record-dude ecosystem.

It makes sense that out of this matrix would emerge the reissue of Ronn Forella…Moves!: a modern subculture rooted in the theoretically sampleable indirectly midwifing an old dance-instruction record that is only theoretically danceable.

As you’d expect from a dance-class record—especially one called Moves!—every cut has a lot of movement. But listening to it, the music here doesn’t seem to move the way a body moves, or would move; rather, it moves the way thoughts move. It’s progressive, moving endlessly, incrementally, in ways that only make sense intuitively. Throughout its restless shifting, it becomes less and less possible to imagine what a human, physical expression of this music could even look like. Granted, these limitations of conception might be ones that I’m projecting onto the work as one who is much more of a listener than a dancer, but considering the mindset that both gave rise to this reissue and by which it is most likely to be received, I think that’s all right. That this record ultimately seems too subtle, too interior to drive the kind of action it was originally meant for might sound like a big deal, but in our little corner of the world, it ends up being not all that problematic.

Because if Moves!’s interior quality complicates any convincing evocation of outward physicality, it’s the same thing that makes it a more compelling listen. There’s a couple of clunkers on here (“Hippo Mancy” and “Wild & Wonderful,” both of which I might have tried to sell myself on as “hectic chase-theme funk!” back when I was younger and more charitable, but which today I can only hear as proggy jogs to nowhere but some of this stuff goes far.1

The current beneath “Memories of Georgia” is of lyrical guitar and Fender Rhodes, pushing each other through constant and subtle variations. They buoy and corral a wet, effected second guitar that forever rides the thin edge of turning into something mean, keeps threatening to razor out of its tenuous Ernie Isley-esque sense of control and just beast out into the void. This guitar seems to occupy a different sonic plane than its governors, and the two parties’ tense transactions across this space highlight one more thing that keeps Moves! off the marley floor: It’s really kind of a headphone record. Up close, there’s a distance in the sound, a dimension of the recording that flattens when you play this thing out loud.

After a frankly banging drum and bass intro that comes with much of what you undoubtedly came to get, “Mithra Plane 2” edges into slow tremolo soak, waterlogging its high palisades of dark guitar and leaving the sound haunted and leaning. The guitar toughens up a minute in, but never shakes that mournfulness. The break roars back in towards the end, angrier than before, piked and prodded out of the way and into the red by overheated keyboard distortion. There’s a brief return to the theme, then all vanishes in flange.

“Sculptures” begins inside a glass globe, brittle and wintry. Guitar, triangle, electric piano, and martial tambourine twinkle hermetically, their wary glow the very view of a snowstorm seen through a slit window next to a carrel in a dark corner of a distant floor of some blocky, dolmen-like university library. Not unpleasantly, you are sealed within and the squalling world is sealed without. But after about a minute and a half, something cracks and all the peace gets sucked out through the fissure. Faster than you can believe, the music recedes into the whitening distance on a scramble of worried guitar. You cannot follow, but nor can you stay.

All autumnal thump and inner space and window-unit chill, “Crystals” is simply the perfect realization of a certain sound. It is the track that makes it hardest for me to not talk like my nineteen-year-old self: Dude, it’s so ill—it’s got huge drums, warm bass, and everything else is just wet, wet, wet, dude…it’s like “Those Shoes” crossed with “Nautilus”…plus it’s got two breaks! Dude! Because like all perfect things, it tends to thwart analysis. Whatever cogent thoughts I have about it are indistinguishable from the visceral response that I, as a mostly former but still kinda unregenerate sample-culture dude, have to the sheer sound of it, to both the actuality of that sound and the possibility of it. When you’ve spent enough years steeped in the pursuit of a certain sonic aesthetic, even if those years are now long past, to be confronted with a flawless example of it is to realize that the thought is the sound and the sound is the thought; when everything in the music lines up just right, on some level what you’re listening to is the working of your own mind. And getting any kind of critical toehold on that can be a little like trying to outrun your reflection.

So, I know what I said back at the beginning, but what something like Moves! really requires is not perspective but an abandonment of perspective. In the end it serves no purpose to try to classify or quantify where this music fits into any broader continuum or its place in culture or why this reissue exists in the marketplace or whether the new vinyl is worth fifty cents per minute. You either believe in this kind of thing or you don’t. Point: How can a faceless, ahistorical, record like this one, a record whose intended utility is mostly unsuccessful and whose potential utility is mostly inconsequential, how can a record like this even matter in 2012? Counterpoint: Dude, it’s so ill, though!

Every subculture has its shibboleths, and while mine probably don’t matter to you any more than yours matter to me, the fact is that every record that works on its intended the way that Ronn Forella…Moves! works serves as a kind of little temple, each one representing Our Thing in perfect microcosm: An energizing place, but a limited one—not a place to spend your entire life; but for as long as you’re inside, and as long as you’re of the faith, the limitations can all fall away, and it becomes possible in moments to believe that everything you need is in here with you.

To listen to the other songs mentioned here, check out Luv N’ Haight’s dedicated page to the album.

  1.  “Wild & Wonderful” also appears on the presumably more affordable Darryl Retter record from 1990{!}, but under a different name and with a thicker mix.

MY ARETHA

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(Editor’s Note: When James and I originally were batting around ideas for stuff for him to review, he told me I should just try sending him whatever, without him knowing ahead of time, and then having to find a way to review it. It was a challenge of sort, a way for a writer to tackle something they weren’t already planning on writing about. I had recently gotten in a copy of Aretha Frankin’s Knew You Were Waiting, which looks at her ’80s output1 For many fans of Aretha’s earlier, iconic ’60s material, they never seemed to gel that well with her ’80s and I was curious how James might tackle a catalog that I didn’t presume he was inherently a fan of. He did not disappoint. This is a long essay and it’s really more than just a meditation on Her Lady of Soul. I’m privileged to run it. -O.W.)
Continue reading MY ARETHA

  1. I’d call it the “most-maligned” part of her career but that’d actually be her mid/late-’70s disco-era material.

THE SOUL OF DRUM MACHINES: THE PERSONAL SPACE ANTHOLOGY

(Editor’s Note: James Cavicchia last contributed to us in ’09, writing about MJ, and I’m delighted to have him as a regular contributor now, beginning with this review of the new “Personal Space” compilation, curated by Dante Carfagna and released jointly by Chocolate Industries and the Numero Group. I have a review of this same album coming out on NPR in a week or so. –O.W.)

All selections below from Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984.

“Shouldn’t real freedom include freedom from memory?” – Geoffrey O’Brien

Shouldn’t the personal be able to exist outside of the historical? Shouldn’t the individual expression be allowed to be truly the work of the individual? Why should the actualization of a singular vision require so many others? Why should sonic mass and its legitimizing effect upon the occupation of the popular ear be denied the single musician? Why must “full-sounding” music come with the expense of strings, horns, choruses? Why must the black musician in particular be required to ensure that his work leaves at least a breadcrumb trail between it and The Blues, or The Church, or Jazz, or The Cause? Must there always be all these walls to get around, all these people to pay, all these ghosts to answer to?

At the spine of this astounding collection is the ostensibly unburdening effect of affordable studio technology—synthesizers, drum machines, high-quality recording—as manifested in private soul music from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties. The irony is that while the empowerment provided by these machines of ahistorical and unindebted process does indeed allow for the expression of a more truly individual sensibility and the creation of a more intimate atmosphere, from this reduced reliance on humans comes also a reduced invocation of them. There is the inescapable sense that without the technology we would never have been able to hear such personal work, but that this same hand of technology has created within the work an alienating distance.

Continue reading THE SOUL OF DRUM MACHINES: THE PERSONAL SPACE ANTHOLOGY