Frank Ocean – Changing the ‘Channel’

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean‘s debut album, “Channel Orange” uses its title to reference the neurological phenomenon grapheme–color synesthesia and the color he perceived during the summer he first fell in love.  When Ocean was 19 years old, he first fell in love with a man, and the record details the fall, longing, rejection, heartache and other characters and imagery to create the color perception of that summer.  Not much has been made of Ocean’s sexuality, which is outstanding since it should be essentially a non-issue as art is about the universal human experience.

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Ignoring caution about his sexuality, his past, and his bankability for his label, Def Jam, Ocean dove in to unconventional urban musical waters.  Sounds slip and slide around his songs, standard song structure only occasionally being employed in his compositions. The tracks flow more free-form than your average Hip Hop/R&B artist.  This sounds more like Soul music via Animal Collective.  His songs are carefully crafted compositions, the sounds surrounding the lyrics, the smooth shiny cover to the words within.  In an interview with the magazine, Rap-Up, Ocean said of his record, “It succinctly defines me as an artist for where I am right now and that was the aim. It’s about the stories. If I write 14 stories that I love, then the next step is to get the environment of music around it to best envelop the story and all kinds of sonic goodness.”

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Thinkin Bout You” is his biggest hit, and for a popular song is surprisingly minimalist.  Soft synths, a bass drum and digital rimshot are about the only backing to Ocean’s singing.  It’s the song that made people sit up and listen, as Ocean sang about that first love, the tornado of emotions and the joy/pain that comes with every moment.  In his “Bad Religion,” the lyrics are Ocean’s emotional confession to a taxi driver about a love affair on the down-low. With sweeping strings, bigger percussion and a blowout chorus by the end, it shows the similarity between religious devotion and romantic emotion.  The Motown-throwback, “Forrest Gump” uses the titular literary and film character to allude to a teenage crush, and is a clever tongue-in-cheek take in both music and words.  The centerpiece of the record, and the true gem of this album is the track, “Pyramids.”  The track is essentially two songs in one, the first half being a dancy funk song using the Egyptian/Biblical story of the fall of Cleopatra VII as a love song. But then the synths slow down, the harmonic elements shifting into a different take on the tune, the Cleopatra character now being a present-day working girl, who dances at a strip club called ‘The Pyramid’ to support her superficial, meretricious man.  The song is so catchy, so moving, and the instrumentation so polished, that it becomes one of those tracks that you never want to end.  The Pyramids fade out slowly, and becomes the pillar of the emotional record.

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Channel Orange appeared on numerous critics’ year-end top albums lists. It was named the best album of 2012 by The A.V. Club, Billboard, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Consequence of Sound, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, musicOMH, The Sydney Morning Herald, Now, Paste, PopMatters, Slant Magazine, Spin, The Washington Post, and Jon Pareles of The New York Times. The album was also ranked number two by Allmusic, Ann Powers, BBC, Complex, Exclaim!, Filter, Mojo, Pitchfork Media, and Rolling Stone, number three by Clash, Jim DeRogatis, NME, State, and Time, and number five by Uncut.  In his top-10 list for the Los Angeles Times, Lawrence K. Ho called it “the most magnetic record of the year” and wrote that it “feels like a work that as the years pass will only grow in stature.”  It was definitely one of my favorite records of 2012, it won the Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” and deserves some serious attention as an art piece.

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Daft Punk – ‘Access’ Another Level

Daft Punk

How can music that sounds so dated feel so fresh? That is the astonishing thing about Daft Punk’s new masterpiece, Random Access Memories.  It drops the cut-up French-house disco snippets from their previous records, and instead embrace the whole disco aesthetic.  Live instruments marry synth symphonies and electronic beats.  Grooves laid down by Nile Rodgers himself litter the record, and the vocoder voices of Punk pop in between the instrumental disco tracks.

RAM isn’t just a dance record, but includes some real musicality, much like the under-appreciated songwriting ability of disco deities like the Gibb brothers.  “Within” is a slow-burn midtempo scorcher.  “Touch” is a sweeping, cinematic cry for love.  Michael McDonald could sue for the groove of “Beyond.”  “Doing It Right” featuring Panda Bear is the real highlight, a mix of vintage “Harder, FasterDaft Punk hooks mixed with this slower soul simmering under the LP.  And “Contact” closes the record with a grand finale approach, mixing digital arpeggios, organic instruments, building chords and grabbing their past sound mixed with the vibe of RAM, and it comes to an explosive ending, leaving us gasping for more… only to make us wait for the next record.  Well played, Daft Punk. Well played.

Slow Magic – ‘Triangle’ Takes The Square

Somewhere buried in label-land, a new subgenre of Electronic music is invented with each slight shift of subtle variation and divergence. These labels don’t offend me, but they also have become so minute and marginalized that a movement like “post-rock”, “chillwave” or even “dubstep” is deemed dead, practically stillborn. A style that is seen as new and inventive is often quickly rejected and then reviled, as if a listener should be embarrassed that they ever enjoyed something so… square. So welcome the new subgenre to be hip to be square and soon to be listed in the obituaries (probably by the time I finish this sentence) – Glow-fi.

Like Chillwave, Dream-pop, Nu gaze or any other myriad of names you give this electronic music, Slow Magic is another digital band which embraces elements from the ‘80s and ‘90s electronic music scene and adds distinctly millennial flavors. The production is really polished and crisp, and unlike a lot of other acts right now, keeps the fuzz and distortion down. It is essentially an instrumental album, with vocals and samples so deep in the mix, lyrics are not the focus here, the sounds, rhythms and melodies are the heart of ‘▲’.

‘Triangle’ or ‘▲’ is a short album, which is actually a re-release of Slow Magic’s EP, fleshed out with five additional tracks. The tracks do not feel tacked-on, though, it flows from piece to piece like a wholly-conceived concept. Like all great instrumental music, the pieces use sonics to place images in the mind of a listener, and while every image plays differently in the mind’s eye, some sounds conjure shared planes. ‘▲’ feels like its front cover, summer washed out in warm sunshine. Its protagonists, celestial versions of you and me. A feel-good album that never feels forced, ‘▲’ is a sunshine record that ignores the fact that it may be square, keeps its atmosphere light, and spins around my turntable and hard drive like an endless circle.

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