Frank Ocean – ‘Channel Orange’: Round 43 – Rob’s choice

Channel Orange - Frank OceanFrank Ocean’s debut album proper was the most critically lauded of 2012. It shifted a few copies too reaching number 2 in both the UK and US album charts and, crucially, hitting the top spot in Norway. Not, perhaps, the most obvious choice for DRC but it seemed important to play it for two reasons. Firstly, we had a great ‘End Of Year’ before Christmas meeting where this thing never even came up, other than for my fellow members to confirm that they hadn’t heard it. It seemed unfair or at least remiss for us to let the year close without paying proper attention to its most talked about record. Secondly, I love it. At least as much as any record this year, it has glued itself to the inside of my head and proved unshiftable. If Jo has to hear me woozily declaring “Got on my buttercream/silk shirt and it’s Versace” just once more, I fear for my safety. And yet I can’t help myself, even though i’m actually wearing a green wooly jumper.

So what’s left to say? How about we assume you’ve heard everything and move on. Now i’ll tell you what I think. It’s a great album. Sweet songs, produced and delivered exquisitely, combining an almost brazen restraint, so poised and almost infuriatingly fabulous as to be illegal, with unadorned, unshowy and, largely because of this, beautiful vocal melodies. That’ll do for starters, in fact it’s sufficient to make this a classic album, but there’s more. It’s also a seriously impressive artistic statement.

There has been some discussion and debate, at best unresolvable hairshirted posturing, at worst bullheaded stupidity, about whether Frank Ocean and some contemporaries are ‘hipster/indie R&B’. I have no idea. I don’t know enough about R&B. Which is precisely the sort of fly-by-night attitude that has apparently caused offence to those who think great music is best left unappreciated by as many people as possible. I do know that when I’ve attempted to engage with artists like Usher and R Kelly i’ve quickly grown tired of what seem to me to be their paper thin concerns: having money, having girls, er… that’s it. Lyrically, Frank Ocean takes a rapier to the vacant rich. ‘Channel Orange’ is as keen a dissection of entitlement and the spiritual bankruptcy which it precipitates as i’ve heard. Both ‘Sweet Life’ and ‘Super Rich Kids’ could have been lifted wholesale from late-period JG Ballard if he’d used Hollywood as his milieu rather than the French Riviera.

Like many, I started to really pay attention to Frank Ocean when I read his now famous open letter which dealt with a prior relationship with a man. It goes without saying (which is partly the problem) that it’s a disgrace that this should be such a transgressive act in R&B, hip-hop, music, culture, life. Whatever, the letter is beautifully written and bravely published.  I have no interest in how many women/girls R Kelly has slept with and how cataclysmically happy they were with the whole experience and, no matter how technically astonishing, how texturally breathtaking his music is, i’m really never going to be interested. But Frank Ocean seems like different sort of artist, an enquiring, dissatisfied artist and, to boot, a sensitive, astute and real human being. Those seem like good things to me. This might make me a lily-livered hipster (the former: maybe, the latter: I wish) and indeed, 90% of contemporary R&B might consist of fascinating political and philosophical enquiry set to astonishing machine-tooled beats, in which case i’m missing out.

But that’s okay for now, because ‘Channel Orange’ is pretty damned good.

Tom Listened: For me, this meeting more or less created its own theme – confounding expectations. Both Radiohead and modern day R&B have managed to convince me in the past that I have no interest in them. 90s Radiohead I really tried to like but they were too whiny and maudlin and they seemed to take themselves VERY seriously. R&B was a turn off for all the reasons Rob has stated, plus…I just didn’t like the songs – let’s face it, I Believe I Can Fly is not a million miles away from some of The Lighthouse Family’s worst atrocities (and there are plenty of those to choose from).

Curiously for me, however, many of Rob’s stated misgivings with regard to R&B I find are echoed by much of the Hip-Hop I have heard. Misogyny? Check. Avarice? Check. Hell, you often get a dose of gangland aggression and intimidation thrown in for good measure! That’s why, when we were listening to Niggamortis way back in Round 6, Nick and Rob’s reactions to my own (no doubt poorly articulated) misgivings left me somewhat confused. Maybe I have misunderstood what the bulk of Hip Hop is trying to do. Maybe Rob is prepared to overlook the subject matter because he likes the music. Maybe Nick doesn’t have a problem with the subject matter at all; he is quite ganglandy after all!

One of the points I made in April 2011 (!) was to do with the uniformity of the artwork and packaging of Hip-Hop and how this implies a homogeneity of ethos and values. This is much the same in R&B. I have never understood why a recording artist wouldn’t want to stand outside the crowd, to let their work speak for itself without having to buy into the genre, to be in the club. It is fascinating that Frank Ocean (and Death Grips and (to a lesser extent) Madvilliany) have all been selected by Rob for record club, all are trying to push the boundaries or alter expectations and, tellingly, you would never know by looking at the album covers (or from the names of the artists themselves for that matter) that these works fit into their assigned genres (although all, it seems to me, are not THAT easy to pigeonhole in the first place). Personally, I feel this is a very healthy thing, it suggests to me that the artists are confident enough to exist without the safety net of the club/gang and, in the process, bend the rules and produce something interesting, fresh and ground-breaking. After all, the truly influential records are usually the ones that have only been able to be categorized by the genre they have spawned precisely because there hasn’t been one for them to inhabit when the record was released.

So, I loved Channel Orange, I was thrilled by lack of cliche, the songs sounded great and I am very glad it exists. About bloody time I say. Why did it take so long?

Nick listened: I’ve dipped my toe into contemporary R&B on several occasions, via Kelis, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Aaliya, plus R&B-leaning popstars like Justin Timberlake and hip-hoppers like Missy Elliot. I’ve been particularly obsessed by Timbaland and The Neptunes, ravenously hoovering up individual tracks they’d produced for other people (from Björk to Bubba Sparxxx to Britney Spears).

But I’ve never really fallen for R&B’s charms when it comes to album-length expositions of the genre, which is part of the reason why I’d avoided Channel Orange until the other night when Rob stuck it in the CD player. The “indie R&B” talk wafting around the internet hasn’t helped either; if you’re going to engage with a genre it ought to be on its own terms, not because it’s suddenly perceived as pandering to you as an audience (especially when the “indie” audience is essentially middle-class white boys, who don’t really need pandering to. Do they?). (R&B also needs approximately zero help being ‘experimental’, either – Timbaland routinely churned out the most radical-sounding music I heard at the start of the naughties.)

Channel Orange still suffered from several of the symptoms that have blighted enjoyment of other R&B albums for me – it’s longer than I’d like, doesn’t vary pace much, injects short skits into the running order, etcetera. None of the tunes jumped out at me on first listen like the best Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield songs do, either. (Granted, expecting this is like expecting indie bands to churn out “We Can Work It Out” every other song.)

But it was, as Rob and Tom pointed out, refreshingly sensitive and lacking in braggadocio, without swan-diving into the kind of mystical sex bullshit Maxwell made his own, either. There’s not the thrill of weird spirituality and musicianship that underpins D’Angelo’s Voodoo, but the lyrical and musical palettes on show both reach beyond slow jams and avarice, which, even though I’m obviously as gangland as heck, yo, I do find off-putting.

The raging sceptic in me suspects that some of the acclaim hoisted upon Channel Orange by critics is due to the sudden rush of affirmation experienced when the thing previously fetishised as ‘other’ suddenly makes tokenistic nods towards the aesthetic of your critical comfort zone. But that’s insanely cynical of me. And, you know, the listener in me did enjoy Channel Orange enough, on first listen, to want to hear it again.

Rob responded: Just wanted to add that ‘Channel Orange’ isn’t packed with hooks. Its restraint is one of it’s most delicious features, something I tried but failed to express after too much coffee the day I wrote my piece. It’s definitely a grower and worth sticking with. Secondly, let’s separate what happened to the album when it got into the wild from what it actually contains. I don’t hear any leanings towards ‘indie’ in it at all. It’s a straight urban record. If the hipster crowd decided it was leaning towards their territory (as they clearly did) then that’s about what happened between their ears and their brains and how that got filtered by whichever tumblr they were getting their direction from that week.

Graham listened but is so not able to offer anything further to the debate above: R&B is not my thing at all. Rob caught my attention with his introduction and I’m glad I listened to the whole thing. Without DRC as a conduit I would normally turn over the radio if something like this came on. It sounded like straightforward R&B to me but the back story kept me interested for once. I quite liked the few hooky bits and skits throughout. That’s it really.

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Perfume Genius – ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’: Round 42 – Rob’s choice

perfume genius - put your back n 2 itFor me 2012 has been dominated and, to some extent book-ended, by two albums, ‘Mr M’ by Lambchop and ‘The Seer’ by Swans. Both are favourite artists of long-standing who have, after many, many years, produced career-defining records. Both albums manage to distill the essence of what has made their creators so important, to me at least, and still move their music on to yet another level of beauty, brutality, virtuosity and wonder (delete as appropriate). I saw both bands play devastatingly brilliant live shows this year. Kurt Wagner and Lambchop were exquisite, care-worn and heartbreakingly beautiful at the Bristol Fleece. Michael Gira and Swans were jaw-dropping, almost jaw-breaking, in their symphonic violence, a pulverising yet ultimately sublime experience which took days to recover from. I’m hopeless at remembering past gigs, but both these shows felt like they would fit comfortably within my top ten all-time list, if only I could recall the other 8.

I’ve already presented ‘Mr M’ to the Record Club and ‘The Seer’ is pretty much twice as long as the upper limit that DRC can tolerate. Which brings me for my record of the year choice, happily, to the second album by Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, which has also been on almost constant rotation this year. Superficially, there is little to bind this record to the other two. It’s a short album, just a little over half an hour, populated by 12 concise songs, most of which are simple sketches for piano and voice. However, Kurt Wagner would surely recognise the timeless delicacy of the songs and M. Gira would certainly appreciate the existential bleakness of the lyrics.

Hadreas has an incredible touch when it comes to melody. These are such simple, delicate, still songs but somehow he manages to breath a warm and fragile life into each. They are, in essence, torch songs, as memorable and beautiful as any, but meticulously drained of melodrama and sentimentality to leave brittle bones and reverberating husks. Within these he lays bare his passion, his self-loathing, his wounds and his desolate desires.

If this year has produced a lyric as bleakly poetic as ’17’ then i’ve yet to hear it. Almost laughable set down on the inner sleeve, in the context of the record it is horrifyingly direct and distressing. If this year has produced a song as heart-stopping as the 2 minutes of ‘Hood’, a moment more vertiginous than that when the drums swell in the middle of this track, then I don’t want to hear it for fear I may swoon clean away.

Hadreas is a rare, if tortured, talent. I have no idea where he may go from here, but ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’ is an album which approaches perfection. If Lambchop and Swans built the two major musical monuments of 2012, then Perfume Genius connected the two with a frozen river of votive songs.

Graham listened: I’ve left many a DRC meeting thinking about buying what someone else has brought along and gone on to do so. After listening to this I just knew I had to have  it, and with Christmas coming it went straight on my list. Simply astonishing.

Nick listened: Two for two. Emma and I saw Perfume Genius live (albeit very briefly) at ATP earlier this month, and also saw Owen Pallett follow him onstage and enthuse sincerely about how much Hadreas’ music means to him. On first exposure, in a Pontins discotheque, his piano-lead eulogies to youth, emotion, sensation, and regret didn’t come across that well (partly down to the very drunk girl puking on the carpet in front of us), but on record, Perfume Genius’ intimate talents were much more understandable. ‘Hood’, as Rob suggests, was worth the admission price alone. Suspecting that Emma would love the record’s bleak intimacy and simplicity, I bought her a copy last week in The Drift for Christmas. I’m looking forward to listening to it again myself.

Tom Listened: I was really glad that Rob brought Put Your Back In 2 It’ as his album of the year not least because I gave it to him for his birthday! I bought it with next to no knowledge of the band – I had read a few positive reviews and had a cursory listen in The Drift (how many plugs to they get from us nowadays? Surely it’s time to sort out some sort of commission…) to the first couple of tracks and, on hearing track 2 I came to the conclusion it sounded a bit like Will Oldham and would therefore nestle happily amongst the vinyl in Rob’s collection. It turned out that Rob already knew and liked Perfume Genius, that he had already played a track from the debut album at Record Club and, therefore, that I had shown supreme lack of imagination in making my choice of purchase. It also turns out that track 2 – the (ironically(?)) named Normal Song) is a red herring, being a couple of plucked strings on a guitar rather than the piano led torch songs that populate the rest of the album.

I liked the record – it sounded like a more honest, poignant and (much) less theatrical Anthony and the Johnsons (and I much preferred it to I Am A Bird Now, the one AATJ album I own) – but I wasn’t as blown away by it as I sensed Nick and Graham were…yet again I feel this is a record I would quickly grow to love if I spent some time with it, but I wish Hadreas had placed a more equal balance of guitar and piano on the record as I am a complete sucker for a parched acoustic guitar and a plaintive vocal (see the aforementioned Normal Song).