I don’t usually know very much about what’s going on in the R&B corner of things. It’s, um, it’s a neighborhood I don’t go to very often, so to speak. But sometimes there’s an artist who has the potential to blow up beyond the boundaries of what genre they’re booked into. I recommend keeping an eye on the progress of Tinashe. She’s nominally an R&B artist, but it’s like alternative R&B. Alternative R&B is an umbrella genre that covers a pretty far-flung range of artists from The Weeknd to Rhye to Solange to Banks, all of whom share an interest in sexy grooves and moody atmospheres but also draw from just about everywhere else as well. Tinashe draws from contemporary R&B and soul, from hip hop and from pop, from dance music. She’s a well rounded artist in that way. What matters is she’s got a great voice, a sexy smoky voice that puts her in the school of Sade, and her records (two albums and counting) are commercial without being generic. (She’s been described as a more pop oriented FKA Twigs.) The trend right now is female pop singers who are always trying to hit the top of their range; there’s not much room for quiet. But we could use a quiet pop star who prefers to whisper rather than to shout. Tinashe could be, with the right hit, a huge, huge star. Or she could go on to build an edgier career, if she follows her more eccentric side.
The new Portugal. The Man album is pretty outstanding. Possibly one of the year’s best, though I’m not ready to call that race yet. One thing’s for sure; they made one of the year’s best videos. I thought that Rich Friends was the best song on the album upon hearing it, and this just pushes it straight into classic territory. It’s a clever band at their most clever. Put the thing on fullscreen for maximum impact and enjoy an on-point send-up of the internet advertising paradise, starring Dennis Reynolds himself. Maybe watch it a few times just to get all the nuance.
And here we have some of that guitar rock that 2006 was sorely lacking. It was sorely lacking so much that the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album shot them straight to instant fame and breathless accolades of the sort that almost inevitably lead to sore disappointment. There’s hardly a cursed accolade worse than ‘instant classic’ to sink a promising ship, especially if it’s plastered on a debut. As an audience, if you’re not one of those fans who were in on the ground floor and get to say “I told you so!”, your first impulse is to find something to hate. “This so-called instant classic is sooo overrated” you parry “You lot can’t impress me, for what even is guitar rock than just the same Stooges album regurgitated ad nauseum?” That’s actually a pretty fun position to take for the aspiring armchair critic. It’s even worse if you’re the band, and you’ve got nothing to do for the rest of your life except try to live up to a load of hype that got thrown at you when you were barely old enough to sign your own checks. I’m going to hold my initial position here and say that the first Arctic Monkeys album was not actually as monumentally great an achievement as the hype would have it, though apparently a garage rock concept album about the spoils of partying is just what the world was hungering for. However, it was a good start, with or without hyperbole, and more importantly, these guys really beat the odds. They didn’t flame out under pressure, they kept working and got tighter and developed a more interesting image and made increasingly better albums and actually grew into being one of the best guitar bands.
Electropop groups are not good candidates for the unplugged treatment. It’s tough test, stripping away the heavy production and electronic atmospheres defines the genre. There’s not always a lot of strong writing or good musicianship underneath. So you can’t blame any group who leans heavily on bleep-bloops for not wanting to go all acoustic. Here, however, is an acoustic performance by noted bleep-bloop duo Broods, and guess what, it’s good. They’ve pulled the plaintive ballad out of a song that was originally halfway to being a club track. Georgia Nott doesn’t have the most outstanding voice, but she sings with feeling. It’s nice to see that there’s a genuine person behind the usually very glossy music, and there’s an emotional center to the song that may get lost in the production.
The pop scene moves at blazing speeds nowadays, what with the instant gratification culture of the internet, the social media news cycle, etc. So timespans of only a few years begin to feel like decades stretching forwards and back toward infinity. 2013 feels like a life cycle ago, but it was practically yesterday. Time is a flat pancake, is it not? I discovered a lot of new things in 2013, because that was the year I listened to the radio a lot. So when you discovered the same things two years later, I can confidently say that I’ve known about those things for ages, just ages and ages, like eons of geological time. Ahem.. I was listening to Chvrches before they became well known. Four years ago. Do you know how many fruit flies have lived and died in that timespan?
I wish to introduce an artist who I discovered in a most circuitous, thoroughly modern way. Please check out Lissie, a singer-songwriter based in Iowa, of all places. I first heard Lissie as an anonymous voice on an EDM record, which I had to Shazam, because I loved her performance so much. Her vocals sounded organic in a way that most EDM vocals don’t. That song turned out to be The Longest Road by Morgan Page. I decided to follow up, with not much expectation. EDM vocalists, when followed up, usually turn out to be D-list never-were pop divas. I couldn’t be more pleasantly surprised to discover Lissie. Her aesthetic is anything but club kid or pop diva. Her music is not-quite-country not-quite-pop-rock of a type there isn’t a whole lot of anymore; unpretentious, heartfelt but not overly earnest, catchy but not grabby. It’s what used to be called middle of the road, I guess, though that term was generally thrown around as an insult. Well, now that the music industry is a global superhighway bristling with niche-market exit ramps, don’t you kind of miss the middle of the road? Frankly, right now, a smart singer-songwriter who doesn’t care about being on-trend is just about the most refreshing thing to come across.
First off, Suck It and See is a dumb album title, to American ears at least, though the Arctic Monkeys assure us that in the UK it’s not a rude phrase at all. Two nations divided by one language, as they say. Title aside, though, it’s apparently become one of the essential rock albums of the 2010’s, an era that’s been short on good solid rock and roll. Somebody has to tide rock music through one of its periodic dead spells, and these guys nominate themselves. Hence the greaser hair. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been on the fence about Arctic Monkeys for a while, with the suspicion that if the competition were stiffer, they’d be less acclaimed. But they’ve been riding an upwards arc, with increasingly stronger music, and I’ve come around and had to admit they’re a good rock band who don’t really need a caveat. Yes, the world needs a good rock band right now but… Hey, hey, my, my, as the poet said.