Friday, August 31, 2012

Baroness & Frank Ocean: They Came From Beneath The Genre

Strange bedfellows? No, just great music.
After about an hour of pushing through the crowd at Comic Con last year, trying to take it all in without losing track of my kids, I found myself on the second floor of the Javits Center. As the kids browsed through the fan-made goods, I looked down on the main level at the milling crowd, bedecked in costumes, bedazzled in piercings and tattoos, or in some other way representing their niche of the scene, when it occurred to me: I am so not a geek.

Sure I love Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Battlestar Galactica and (the original) Star Trek, Miyazaki and Pixar, J.R.R. Tolkein and Jeff Somers, but I don't go all in where their respective genres are concerned. I think it comes from being culturally omnivorous - my interests are so broad that I end up cherry picking across the landscape of creativity and getting deeply attached to what bubbles up from various genres.

If i am a geek, it's for music in general. In my more self-righteous moments (we all have them), I think of the things I end up liking as being the "best" or "one of the best," although that is likely an aesthetically indefensible position. There's probably an anime freak out there who can explain how Miyazaki is watered down, or a comics guru who will tell me Miller sold out years ago, but I think there are solid reasons why they rose above their cohort. So what does this have to do with Frank Ocean and Baroness?

Each can be aligned with a genre, R&B and metal respectively, yet each has a broader reach than many of the artists associated with those genres. Maybe their own interests and tastes are wider ranging than other metal and R&B musicians and that translates to something that sounds richer to me.

Since I am a music obsessive but not a metal head, what attracted me to Baroness in the first place? I admit it was their slightly goofy and effeminate name as well as their habit of calling albums colors (Red Album, Blue Album, etc.) that made me think something different might be going on with them. Then I heard a song a couple of years ago on Lars Gotrich's annual Viking's Choice edition of All Songs Considered and it was excellent. Having absorbed the complete discography of the equally fantastic Mastodon, I was ready to have some new heavy sounds to enjoy and delved in. While they lack Mastodon's unique advantage of having three great but very different vocalists, I found their music to be very exciting - passionate, technically profound without merely being virtuosic, and with a sure sense of structure, dynamics and melody.

This year they gave us a double album, Yellow & Green, with the first disc representing the more brutal end of the sonic spectrum and the second exploring more lyrical territory. Naturally, this kind of stretching out was bound to cause some controversy in their fan base, but I think Baroness always had a higher ambition beyond ruling the sludge metal roost. Even their earlier releases showed cognizance of the dictum of "light and shade" handed down from Jimmy Page, so the development of their sound should be no surprise. What makes Yellow & Green (and Baroness) so great is that while it is their most expansive release they also sound more focused than ever. Melodies are better defined and modulated, the guitars of John Baizley and Peter Adams are layered with more complexity, not to mention astonishing assurance and swagger, and the rhythm section of drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni plays with perfect sensitivity to the nuances of each song. Blickle especially is showing a new versatility and, at times, even playfulness.

Yet Yellow & Green is in no way a compromise. The more I listen, the more it's two halves feel of a piece - there are reflective moments on Yellow and bludgeoning moments on Green - and the more it seems to be the kind of grand artistic statement that can't be contained by genre. So if Baroness finds the rune-carved gates of "metal" closed to them, they should be easily embraced by music fans everywhere. Here's wishing them a speedy recovery from their recent bus accident.

As for Frank Ocean, his purported genre, R&B, has been an even less reliable source than metal for music I like. Others have taken the time to figure out why that may be but I'm going to focus on Channel Orange, his latest record, and how I came around to it. Ocean first came on my radar last year and although his association with the ridiculous and over-hyped Odd Future collective was a turn off, his great singing on Kanye West & Jay-Z's Watch The Throne was undeniable and his mastery of social media made him seem very accessible. His first album, nostalgia/ultra, got caught up in bureaucratic delays and was finally released on his Tumblr, free of charge. As much as I wanted to like it, I found it ultimately disappointing. While it has its moments (Novocaine is a modern classic, like a sung blog post), it often succumbs to some of the kind of mush-mouthed self absorption I associate with unreasonably popular people like Drake, while also being melodically flat. Listening to most of it left me feeling blah and unsatisfied but also with the intuition that there was something to the guy.

In the months before Channel Orange came out, we were treated to a lot of talk about Ocean in the wake of his announcement that he had been in love with a man and was bisexual. This was a brave thing to do as there are fewer more homophobic cultures than that of hip hop and R&B. But while this was fascinating in a TMZ kind of way, in the end the music is all that matters. If he was going to deliver more emotionally shut-down, unengaging stuff like most of nostalgia/ultra, I was done. When Pyramids was leaked on Soundcloud, I was intrigued - a nine minute epic is definitely going against genre - but still not quite getting the hit of pleasure others were reporting.

Well, thank goodness for Spotify. It was last chance time for Ocean as I clicked play on the streaming service. Couple songs in, Sweet Life started up and I was hooked. Here was the whole package - a lighter than air groove, clever lyrics and gorgeous singing. The song proved to be the gateway to his wondrous world and an album full of delights for the ear, the heart and the mind. This is a collection of sumptuous textures, delicate funk and a window into a searching intelligence that is rare in any corner of music. The only exception is the wretched pandering of Super Rich Kids, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ocean needs to ditch the Odd Future gang and fast.

Channel Orange is solidly a post-Kanye record, especially as far as subject matter goes, with it's mixture of the high-minded ("If it brings me to my knees/It's a bad religion") and the down and dirty ("Now it's mosh pits and wet tits//I think I need a cold shower"), yet it pretty much ignores the method of a Kanye West record. There is only one sample credited and most of the sounds come from a top notch crew of studio honchos like Matt Chamberlain on drums and Charlie Hunter on bass and guitar. Guest spots are few and far between, with John Mayer thankfully unnoticeable and Andre 3000 stealing the spotlight for two spectacular moments. So Frank Ocean brings us the best of both worlds - solid craftsmanship and ultra-fresh songwriting - and I hope his talent burns for a long time.

Perhaps the genre-busting work of both Ocean and Baroness will have a salutary effect on the rest of metal and R&B and there will be more wonderful musical cherries for me to pick. What records or songs have you saying "I don't usually go for this kind of music but this sounds GOOD!"?


No comments:

Post a Comment