For some time now, I have been pleasantly surprised by the resurgence in both popular and indie culture of earnest and artful R&B. From the mainstream success of Frank Ocean and Miguel to the lesser known yet amazing work by the Weeknd, Jessie Ware, and How To Dress Well, there is a large crop of young artists reconnecting and reinterpreting pop R&B to great and (to this listener) pleasing results. Whether it is stripping away the countless layers of overly produced, auto-tuned, studio driven effects and turning towards more stripped down, simplified tracks focusing on the performer’s ability (as opposed to gimmicks and hooks) or pushing towards experimental mash ups, R&B as an art form is on the rise. In the past month, two releases caught my ear for their unique twist on the current revival.
On a surface listen, Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety seems anything but. Opening with a cleansing sultry sound and vocals that flow between falsetto and deep soul in the Prince vein, Anxiety has the feel of a care-free collection of dance-able grooves. By the second track “Counting”, the tone changes dramatically towards one of regret and recriminations. And, then on the ensuing number, Autre Ne Veut (Arthur Ashin) commences with a clear indication of what is underlying the album’s title: it’s the last heartbreak that will ever have to do with us. Anxiety tracks the roller-coaster of the lover’s journey, its emotional peaks and valleys mirrored in the the constant shift in the record’s tempo and sensibility. It is at times wistful, ecstatic, uncertain, remorseful, ambivalent, and turbulent; sometimes all in one number like the brilliant “Ego Free Sex Free” the track that really caught my ear from the outset with the push and pull of Arthur’s vocals and the subtle Passion Pit and Golden Panda-esque sampling. (Listen below)
A closer look at the track listing (something I don’t do until after listening) reveals a rather intense juxtaposition of warring emotions, for example the following three tracks of divergent sentiments follow each other: “Gonna Die”, “Don’t Ever Look Back”, and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, a track that begins with the feel of the Weeknd’s cover of “Dirty Diana” and transitions into the psych-dance of Yeasayer circa Odd Blood. In short, this isn’t a record short on emotion, but I wouldn’t fault you at times for thinking that it is just a pleasing listen (without all the fraught sentiments underneath).
Thoroughly perplexed? Like what you’ve read? Listen to Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety.
Amateurs Best’s No Thrills offers another equally deceiving title in theory but not in mood. Where Anxiety is aurally and lyrically in your face, No Thrills is a far more soulful, sedate, and smoky record. Amateur Best, the stage name of Londoner Joe Flory, draws more on 70s soul and downtempo disco rhythms than on the American R&B dance tradition. Flory has the sort of deep crooning style that instantly calms you down and says, “it’s gonna be cool tonight, just sit back and relax.” Yet, despite his assurance, you are not entirely sure. After all how can you trust an artist who titles his record No Thrills and then starts out with an ode to joie de vivre, see “Ready for the Good Life”? For me it’s more his vocal approach which reminds me of a cross between 70s era David Bowie and Robert Palmer (blue-eyed soul/Pressure Drop version not 80s “Simply Irresistible” incarnation). Both are performers/singers that can shift the mood of a song from sweet to disarming with the subtlest of inflections. In other words, all is not as it appears (or sounds). No Thrills follows this blueprint with tracks like “Villas” or the title track, “No Thrills”. The tempo and tonal shifts seem to come out of nowhere, making this an alluringly, arresting listen. (In contrast to traditional pop songs (of which I’m fan) where you can often predict the next beat, chord, or lyric because of patterns and conventions, which is one of the reasons we enjoy these songs.) The listener is kindly jostled from a chill wave of sound to a sudden aggressive chorus or verse. It is the constant surprise that intrigues me about this album and makes me want to repeatedly revisit (and recommend) it for a cruise around the block.
So, sit back, relax, and listen to Amateur Best’s No Thrills