Monday, July 16, 2012

Oceanic Exploration: Frank Ocean's "channel ORANGE"

Ocean in the depths
Who isn't talking about this New Orleans originated upstart? With one confession of his bisexuality, Ocean's (born Christopher Breaux) major label debut channel ORANGE (Island/Def Jam) is making waves. For a moment, if you remove the hype around his sexual orientation, it is clear that his debut is a product of several paradigm shifts in black music.

channel ORANGE isn't completely indebted to classic soul, nor is it so modern that it'd alienate an older audience. Its lineage can be traced back up and through the works of Prince and Stevie Wonder, who in turn influenced the likes of Erykah Badu and Maxwell; a sect of neo-soul members that defined the black music era roughly a decade ago. Their re-channeling and funnelling of older influences with their own set the stage for others to follow or break away from. channel ORANGE's main appeal is that it isn't trying to position itself to be regarded as "classic," "serious," or even "album of the year." The music itself happens to be strong enough to bring these ideas out in the audiences receiving the project. ORANGE puts the ideas of mainstream and underground R&B/hip-hop on its heads, and sends it spinning.

channel ORANGE is a difficult beast to tame with the ear. Deep, swirling, and subliminal, it requires returns to reach and search its murky depths. There are cascades of synths, discordant guitar feedback notes, smart samples (listen for the Playstation One start up chimes on "Start"). Once the listener embarks on the second to third listen, what comes to the surface is that Ocean has a voyeuristic and self-examining pen.

Ocean arcade style
Songs like ORANGE'S nexus, "Pyramids," place Ocean as an observer to the fall of an ancient romance, which soon becomes an allegory for prostitution and love for said prostitute through the eyes of her pimp. The finger wagging soul-piano vamp of "Super Rich Kids" (w/Earl Sweatshirt) is brought across as a chastisement of The L.A. Complex culture, something he clearly has lived and speaks on eloquently.

When Ocean is straightforward, the announcement of his same-sex attraction is poignant, beautiful, and (of course) tragic. Through "Thinkin Bout You," "Bad Religion," and "Forrest Gump" you can chart the reverse chronological flow of his journey. "Thinkin..." wields an odd blend of Kanye West flavored vocal cadence, but the mournful swells of the track keep it grounded in the lyrical narrative. "Bad Religion" is the requisite acknowledgement of sexual identity struggle strangling a fledgling romance. Lastly, "Forrest Gump," clutching to a bluesy, slow dance rhythm, is a tear inducing song that finds Sylvester and Keith Barrow smiling down from heaven at their follower. Elsewhere, quirks hopscotch around, check the altered voice that cuts through at the end of the pseudo-tropical punch of "End/Golden Girl" or the pink-filled violin center that drops in from nowhere on "Sierra Leone."

With his handsome, unassuming vocal presence the record vibes at a frequency that's approachable to the Top 40 crowd, but will win discerning music fans. channel ORANGE has got everyone talking, from what generated it, to the music it contains. Importantly, and what is being missed, is that it's something wholly different to what came before it, or what will come after it. It's a product rendered out of the uncountable style switches of popular black music culture and one that will mark another twist in its story. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: "End/Golden Girl" is only available on the physical copy of Ocean's new LP. For current information on Frank Ocean, visit him here.]

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pop Noir: ABBA's "The Visitors" Revisited

The Visitors LP cover, shot at Julius Kronberg's studio in Stockholm, Sweden
The Swedish quartet ABBA opened the 1980's with a sublime start in Super Trouper. Their seventh album continued their ongoing trend toward marked maturation without sacrificing their sublime poppiness.

ABBA's mentioned sound growth evolved from the innocence that personified their initial post-Eurovision win. They accomplished this with ABBA-The Album (1977), a catalyst for their change and how ABBA continued to propel Euro-pop to new heights. As ABBA attained more success it took a toll on the interpersonal workings of the relationships that were core to ABBA's (marketable) appeal.

Before recording for their eighth album The Visitors started, Benny and Frida's separation landed a double blow to their '70's persona. Agnetha and Björn had preceded their groupmates in divorce around the Voulez-Vous (1979) period and commercially it hadn't shaken ABBA. Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad all felt that ABBA could still push onward, despite their changing attitudes toward one another and the transforming musical climate.

Musically, their spirits were emboldened by the success of Super Trouper which had parlayed a portion of their stated personal ills into creative gold. The Visitors sought to achieve a similar balance, with Björn and Benny constructing the words and music for their former flames Agnetha and Frida to bring to life. Only a month after Benny and Frida's separation, the sessions began on March 16th, 1981 and concluded on November 14th, 1981. The wrap came just a few weeks shy of the album manifesting on November 30th, 1981. It would be ABBA's last record.

ABBA had been one of the few acts that transitioned seamlessly into the electronic ebb of the 1980's from the previous decade. Benny and Björn had never shied away from new technology and found ways to use it mutually with other organic sonics. That principal guided the overall vision of where ABBA's new album traveled. Super Trouper owned a mood swashed with occasional uptempo shifts, The Visitors however maintained a gloomy atmosphere. No strangers to story songs, ABBA sandwiched those along with telling songs that revealed the fragility of the group.

Political themes, specifically "Cold War" flavored, wove through the icy title track and the catchy cadence of "Soldiers." On the former, "The Visitors" featured an alarmingly claustrophobic vocal dressing the scene of a Soviet dissident under soon-to-be duress:

I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me. The sound, so ominously tearing through the silence. I cannot move, I'm standing numb and frozen among the things I love so dearly, the books, the paintings, and the furniture. Help me...

The "Heads Over Heels" single cover
Adult narratives pulsed in other areas of the LP. The loss of childlike innocence ("Slipping Through My Fingers"), serenity in solemnity ("Like an Angel Passing Through My Room"), and boredom leading to sexual adventure ("Two For the Price of One") played out. Even the lightest fare of the record, "Head Over Heels," was undercut with a knowing, dark humor.

The music, lush and varied, utilized the synth style of the day tastefully as heard on the dark companion to "Thank You For the Music" in "I Let the Music Speak." "When All Is Said and Done," "The Winner Takes It All" of The Visitors, featured Frida in the lead vocal seat. The song allowed her to express her own ache over her dissolved union with former husband Benny:  "I know that we (Björn) talked it over, and Björn asked me if it was sometimes...too emotional to sing those lyrics. But I mean, that was also in a way a challenge." Frida confided this in 1999 when asked about the track. Over the rushing music, Frida confidently handled the cut with care and candor that made for fascinating, if sad listening.

ABBA, circa 1982 for The Singles-The First Ten Years
Four singles were pulled from The Visitors, each released in a variety of global territories**: "One of Us" (U.K. #3, Sweden #13, (West) Germany #1, Ireland #1), "When All Is Said and Done" (U.S. #27, U.S. Dance #7, U.S. A/C #10), "Head Over Heels" (U.K. #25, Ireland #10, France #10), "The Visitors" (U.S. #63, U.S. Dance #8).

The album itself placed respectfully on a plethora of charts around the world**: U.K. #1, U.S. #29, Japan #12, Sweden #1, France #12, AU #22, (West) Germany #1. The showings indicated ABBA held a decent grip on the general international market, barring America where they'd always come and gone. Critically, The Visitors was a complete triumph. Bruce Eder of AllMusic Guide pinpointed the personal changes of the ABBA as an inspiration. Despite this, synth-pop, among a legion of other emerging trends, were galloping onto the musical landscapes. In fact, New Romantic darlings The Human League's third, and seminal, Dare (1982) LP uprooted The Visitors from its British chart perch. Soon, the "ABBA's old fashioned" spiel began. It didn't help that the group themselves were slowly tiring of working with one another, but somehow they still felt the sparks of creativity between them. Work began on a tentative follow-up to The Visitors. It produced three amazing songs: "The Day Before You Came," "Under Attack," and "I Am the City." The first two tracks were tacked onto the end of a best of collection entitled The Singles-The First Ten Years (1982). They became ABBA's last two commercial singles.

Single cover for "Under Attack"
"The Day Before You Came," a tale of romantic release from everyday mundane prisons, worked in reverse. Delivered by Agnetha in a dim and lovely fashion, it came off melancholy versus joyful. "Under Attack" was a lean gem that placed ABBA directly in the contemporary climate, but (again) without losing their melodic sensibility.

"The Day Before You Came" and "Under Attack," along with a set of prime quality b-sides "Should I Laugh or Cry?" (flipside of "One of Us") and "Cassandra" (flipside of "The Day Before You Came") appeared on the reissue of The Visitors in 2001. They fit perfectly into the bruising mood of the album. Subsequent b-side of "Under Attack" ("You Owe Me One") and the misplaced "I Am the City" appeared on the Thank You For the Music (1994) boxset and the More ABBA Gold: More Hits (1993) collection. ABBA's hiatus, never formally announced  spread into the '80's as each member ventured into various endeavors.  All four members had careers prior to ABBA, Frida and Agnetha sporadically carried on solo work in Sweden during the peak period of the group. The ladies had moderate success post-ABBA. Specifically, Frida finally cracked the U.S. market with her album Something's Going On (1982), produced by Genesis icon Phil Collins. The song "I Know There's Something Going On" penetrated the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 (#13). Its parent album boasted songwriting from Per Gessle (soon-to-be one half of the fellow Swede pop duo Roxette in the mid '80's) and a cover from the late, Donna Summer's lost album I'm a Rainbow (1981/1996) cut "To Turn the Stone".

Agnetha released two albums in the immediate wake of ABBA's dissolution, Wrap Your Arms Around Me (1983) and Eyes of a Woman (1985). Woman was notably produced by 10cc member, Eric Stewart.  Björn and Benny continued to work together, leading up to a relationship with theatre wiz Tim Rice which produced their musical Chess.

"The Day Before You Came"
Directed By: Kjell Sundvall & Kjell-Ake Andersson

Nine years separated The Visitors and ABBA Gold, the hit best-of package that kick started the ABBA revival. Underneath all of the praise (ABBA were inducted into the notoriously fickle U.S. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010), ABBA's music continues to be the heart of their relevance. Every fan, and critic, has their period they love most in ABBA's history. However, there was something raw and honest in ABBA's latter work, The Visitors being an excellent example. Forty years after their first single "People Need Love," ABBA continually proves pop has a reach that other genres can only dream of. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: **: Because of ABBA's literal global presence, not every chart statistic for their singles and this album could be represented in its entirety. A simple online search will reveal credible sources that detail ABBA's rich chart history through their 1972-1982 span. The Visitors, like all of ABBA's work, is in print. For any official information, past, present, & future, on ABBA, visit their official site.-QH]

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Art and Opinions Are Made to Clash: Common's "Electric Circus" Turns 10

Still from the video "Come Close"
The Chicago born MC Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.), had been on the grind for a decade when his fifth recording Electric Circus manifested in the winter of 2002. With Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Common had his first true taste of commercial acceptance.

That acceptance was sweetened by the fact that he didn't have to compromise his artistic muse to achieve it. The stage for Electric Circus was arranged for Common to continue to push the boundaries of hip-hop and what it could accomplish. The question Electric Circus ended up posing was if hip-hop evolution was as fashionable as it had been made out to be, and if Common (one of its many ambassadors) could survive being the scapegoat for its supposed excesses?

The History
Rising to prominence in 1999, a group of contemporary urban musicians formed a collective responsible for creating undeniable classics of that period. The Soulquarians, whose name derived from astrology, boasted the cream of neo-soul and hip-hop artists, producers, and session players. Members included Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, James Poyser,
?uestlove (of The Roots), Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest), Bilal, D'Angelo, Common, and the late, prolific J Dilla.

Starting with '99's Things Fall Apart (The Roots), a rush of albums came out of this collective's camp: Voodoo by D'Angelo (2000), Like Water for Chocolate by Common (2000), Mama's Gun by Erykah Badu (2000), 1st Born Second by Bilal (2001),  and Phrenology by The Roots (2002). Of the six albums, five attained gold and platinum awards in the U.S.A. The Soulquarians were a small part in the larger curiosity of black music and its recurring obsession with the notion of '70's R&B/jazz resurrection.  While socially conscious hip-hop and R&B had cropped up at various intervals throughout the 1990's, by the end of the decade it had gotten its wind..

Common himself had been one of those fresh faces to latch onto the birthing of expressive hip-hop with his Relativity Records era albums like Resurrection (1994) and One Day It'll All Make Sense (1997). Once he landed with MCA for his fourth LP, Like Water for Chocolate, Common's flows were tighter, his music grander, and his timing perfect for bridging the gap between taste makers, corner boys, and soul aficionados. Despite gaining traction on the charts, Common wasn't satisfied to rest on that. His next move on Electric Circus eyed progressive hip-hop in ways that his progenitors and followers could only imagine. Electric Circus also acted as a profound statement on Common's personal mindset, his romantic status (he was seeing Badu at the time), and the limitations he wanted to break not just as an artist, but a man.

The Record
Community plays a big factor in hip-hop music and Electric Circus, as its title implied, had a large cast of major and minor characters. Common wrote on all the cuts, but the Soulquarians crew pitched in too: ?uestlove (production, drums, hand-claps), J Dilla (drums, Moog, keyboards), James Poyser (production, guitar), Erykah Badu and Bilal (backing vocals). Excusing the Soulquarians group, Electric Circus also benefited from a host of contributing individuals featured as guests: Marie Daulne (of Zap Mama), Vinia Mojica, Sonny Sandoval (of P.O.D.), Mary J. Blige, Laetitia Sadier (of Stereolab), Pharrell, Cee-lo, Jill Scott, Prince, and Pino Pallodino to name some.

Additional stills from the "Come Close" music video
Recording commenced between 2001 through 2002, and the resulting efforts were mesmeric. Electric Circus substituted the jazzier sides of his last few records for futuristic bombast ("Soul Power"), ephemeral chill ("Star * 69 (P.S. With Love)"), and raging rock fits ("Electric Wire Hustler Flower").

"Electric Wire Hustler Flower," divided between a hammering, hollered chorus before diving into the verses where Common navigated through ghostly backing vocals with a frightening surgical air. Lines like "Enter this game with tricks and envy, I forget the game to remain an emcee! Room in this mind that's still empty only fulfilled through prophecy!" Common continued to make sure his voice was heard, but he kept his vision squarely on the psychological tip. His skills as a lyricist had not been lost in the quest for a broader sound. Elsewhere, music pooled into an indescribable whole, see the liquid shifts of "Aquarius." There were fun experiments like the '20's era Harlem big band of "I Am Music" that exposed the playful side of Common. Love blushed in the dapper duet of "Come Close," where Mary J. Blige colored the chorus with her saucy tones, or the aural sex of the previously discussed "Star * 69...".

Common also took on unthinkable challenges with "Between Me, You, and Liberation". Against a metamorphic backdrop (a repeating theme), Common spun three stories, one of sexual abuse, cancer related death, and a coming out story. Common, while not nearly as homophobic as some of his peers, allowed a smidgen of that influence to seep into his older work. Here, Common confronts and conquers his homophobia as his best friend not only comes out to him, but that friend overcomes his fear to be himself. It was a revolutionary lyric and moment in hip-hop culture, one not often identified for embracing the GLBTQ community.

The songs ended with instrumental vignettes that ranged from tribal, jazz-fusion, and Minneapolis funk before leading to the next track. Excusing some nonsensical silliness ("Jimi Was a Rockstar"), Electric Circus brimmed with artistic freedom and unobtrusive guests that let Common lead as the ringmaster, in charge of his own menagerie of music fancies.

The Impact
Electric Circus released on December 10th, 2002 amid a turbulent time. MCA Records was undergoing a change, it was being dismantled and absorbed into Geffen Records. While transitioning, the label didn't see a commercial future for the project and as a result the record immediately languished. Electric Circus placed #47 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Album Chart, while receiving a warmer reception at #9 on the U.S. Top R&B/Hip-Hop Album Chart. Only one single was pulled from the LP, "Come Close" (#65 U.S. Hot 100, #21 U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles, #18 U.S. Hot Rap Singles).  The scenario was disappointing after the win scored with Like Water for Chocolate just two years before.
Single cover for "Come Close"

Critically, the album met a better fate. Village Voice writer and mega music critic Robert Christgau lauded the album, giving it a solid "B" rating:
Sometimes brave men march off into the swamp and get seriously lost, so let's hope Captain ?uestlove and his s?uad remembered the DEET. Vocal flow's not the problem, and set to the beat-smart fusion-lite of Like Water for Chocolate, the humanity of the well-meaning poetry would probably outweigh all the forced similes and sentimental lapses. Outfitted in this music, however, Common's pretensions stand up and do jumping jacks.
Mark Anthony Neal of PopMatters captured the immediate sentiment of what Electric Circus stood for:
Indeed after a casual listen to Electric Circus, one is likely to be surprised that the project got the green light, especially among folks so often caught up in how a project can be easily consumed for the M(B)T(E)V(T) crowd. Electric Circus is part of a conscious attempt by Common and his fellow travelers, like The Roots and Talib Kweli, to wrest control of the artistic vanguard within hip-hop. While Talib’s Quality and The Roots’ Phrenology break new ground for both acts, Electric Circus is clearly the most adventurous of the trio of releases.
There were the unimpressed, and they gave a mannered explanation to the resistance the general public had to the album, Nick Southall of Stylus Magazine shared:

Not sure exactly what happened in the time since 2000’s excellent Like Water For Chocolate, but it appears to have had a rather odd affect on one Lonnie Lynn. Where before there was socially-conscious jazz-inflected hip hop born of a solid foundation of Tribe Called Quest and parental discipline, now there is...psychedelic rock? 
Consensus splits down the middle today regarding the record and its long term stature in Common's work. Even those that normally wouldn't have embraced the emcee but did on Like Water for Chocolate, were put off by the edge of experimentation of Electric Circus. It's something common (forgive the pun) among a segment of the black populace. If something in the culture doesn't fit into a predetermined racial slot, throw it out. Electric Circus had become the sacrificial lamb to the larger pretensions of the now overcrowded realm of neo-soul and hip-hop. It also announced the (unofficial) end, or hiatus, of The Soulquarians clique. Common himself, of course, bounced back with Be (2005) with assistance/production from Kanye West. It became his biggest hit record to date.

"Come Close" featuring Mary J. Blige
Directed By: Sanaa Hamri

Finger pointing has occurred for who, or what, caused the genesis for Electric Circus. Many attribute it to his time spent with Badu, but to pinpoint one person or period misses the point. Common was influenced by a plethora of people, places, art, and things. He was an active participant, at that junction, in a genuine movement known for change.

Willingly or not, if you become the figurehead to that kind of a movement, it can be easy to be lumped in with a group if it seems they're all doing the same thing. Yet, the energy that dances across Electric Circus makes it something wholly unique in the Soulquarians niche, as well as hip-hop, soul, and popular music in general. Its wild energy, its need to communicate and express the journey of a young man at a crossroads helps Electric Circus continually reach new audiences today. Those are the markings of a classic. Four and a half out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Electric Circus is in print physically & digitally. For current information on Common, visit him here.-QH]