Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t get Frank Ocean?
I’ll admit up front that my usual allergy to hype applies here. I’m struggling to think of an artist who deserves that hype less than Ocean, though. Channel Orange was passable, even if long sections of it felt like an aimless meander, and yet it was hailed as some kind of new-soul masterpiece, and Ocean declared the savior of modern music. All that for a record that I would describe as, you know, fine. Now four years later we have his follow-up, Blonde (or Blond, depending on if you believe the iTunes listing or the album cover), and the hype machine is in overdrive again.
And this one really, truly sucks. Save for a few tracks, it’s devoid of even Channel Orange’s charms. Ocean built this album out of formless acoustic guitar moods and directionless singing, and the result sounds like he worked it up in four days rather than four years. It’s honestly a mess, so I can’t quite understand the four-star reviews and nine-out-of-ten scores it’s been racking up. I’ve even seen people praise Ocean’s “innovative” technique of using pitch-shifters on his voice to sound like different characters, as if Prince hadn’t been doing that for 30 years. Blond(e) might be a particularly personal statement from its author, as some have said. But it’s a chore to get through.
If this were the future of soulful pop music, I would despair. But I know it isn’t. There are much stronger examples all the time of musicians who take the soul template and send it new places. Hell, I’m not the world’s biggest Blood Orange fan – Dev Hynes tries a little too hard to sound like Prince without writing songs like Prince did – but he’s leagues better than Ocean. I have a pair of other examples this week, both British singers who have taken their basic cues from old-school soul-folk music but have put their own distinct stamp on them. And as further proof that this column lives and dies on recommendations, I wouldn’t have heard either of these records without the kind assistance of friends.
It was guitar player extraordinaire Noah Gabriel who turned me on to Michael Kiwanuka. At the tender age of 29, Kiwanuka has landed on a sound that is heavily indebted to Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, yet thoroughly lush and modern. His second album, Love and Hate, is a massive leap in ambition over his first, yet it still centers on that phenomenal voice, deep and rich and conveying decades more experience than he has. Considering Noah’s recommendation, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Kiwanuka is a very good guitar player, but it’s his ability to transform the old Motown framework into new shapes that truly impresses here.
There is no better example than the opening song, “Cold Little Heart,” which stretches past 10 minutes. It opens with an extended orchestral introduction, building and building, adding in choirs and Kiwanuka’s searing lead guitar, until you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s an instrumental. But it isn’t – about three minutes in, the music crashes down, the acoustic guitar strums and Kiwanuka sings. And when he sings, he’s a commanding presence, taking charge of the intricate tower of sound he’s built as if it’s no big deal. Some singers might be too intimidated by the expanse of orchestral grandeur to take the reins, but Kiwanuka makes it sound effortless.
If you’re worried that there won’t be anything to dance to on this album, fear not. The first single, “Black Man in a White World,” is next, and it’s a relentless stomper. Over funky chords and a handclap beat, Kiwanuka spins a misfit tale with a socially relevant edge, the title phrase repeating like a mantra while disco strings glide in and out. Most of this album, though, is mid-tempo, allowing Kiwanuka to let loose vocally. “Place I Belong” is a Marvin Gaye-style stunner with big strings and unconventional percussion, but the core is Kiwanuka himself on piano and voice. When the high-voiced choir comes in, it’s surprising and beautiful.
Kiwanuka worked with Danger Mouse on much of this album, but you’d never know it. None of the producer’s usual tricks are here, and the album remains gloriously organic from start to finish. Danger Mouse (whose momma calls him Brian Burton) co-wrote several of the best songs here, including the lush title track. Oddly, he had nothing to do with the most Danger Mouse track here, the driving “One More Night,” with its tripping beat and tasty horns. The back third of the album is particularly impressive, beginning with the powerful “Rule the World,” sliding through the simple yet compelling “Father’s Child” and concluding with the sweet, bluesy “The Final Frame.” All of these songs pile on the arrangements, but Kiwanuka’s strong voice rises above them and elevates them, and he gets a chance to solo with abandon in the album’s final minutes.
Love and Hate is a powerfully confident piece of work, a second album that shoots for the stars. Michael Kiwanuka has remained true to his roots, but has used those roots to feed a towering tree, one that expands on and opens up his old-school sound, taking it new places. It’s impressive, and it will stay with you.
Also making her second album is Laura Mvula, who is only one year older than Kiwanuka. I owe Kevin Munday for tipping me off to Mvula’s awesome first album, Sing to the Moon, three years ago. Mvula’s unique style took soulful boomers like “Green Garden” and “That’s Alright” and brought a new worldview to them. Her style is fussy and intricate, yet still full of feeling. I will admit, though, to being initially underwhelmed by her sophomore effort, The Dreaming Room. I found it more fussy and less emotional than I wanted. It came out in June, and it’s taken me this long to review it, which is rarely a good sign.
It is in this case, though. The Dreaming Room is certainly a weirder and less immediate work than its predecessor, and it took time to sink in. The key, for me, was Nina Simone. Specifically, finding out that Mvula had hosted a BBC show about Simone, detailing her favorite songs. Once I knew what an influence Simone had been, everything fell into place. Mvula’s sound is nothing like Simone’s – the jazz great used pianos and organic instruments, while Mvula prefers electronic sounds and thick production – but her songs bear Simone’s fingerprints.
Mvula’s vocal melodies are all over the map, rising when you expect them to fall, jumping intervals, never doing what you think they will. That makes them less accessible, especially on this album, which Mvula co-produced herself. But listen to a song like “Lucky Man” and imagine Simone singing it at the piano, and it clicks. Ignore the waves of synth and the off-kilter percussion and listen for the song. It’s Nina Simone. This time Mvula has even taken to heart Simone’s tendency to be unsettling, to deliver songs that leave you unbalanced. Some of the tunes on The Dreaming Room, like “Let Me Fall” and the first single “Overcome,” are more straightforward. But songs like “Bread” and “Angel” don’t follow those rules, and it takes time to understand why they made sense in Mvula’s head.
Once this album takes hold, though, it stands up with her debut nicely, and even outdoes it in places. She opens things with a brief intro in which she declares her intention to be herself and do what she wants, and she certainly sticks with that throughout. Very few of these songs do what you think they will, but once you have the map of them in your mind, even stranger ones like “Kiss My Feet” (which starts in near-silence and explodes into a percussive flight through mid-air) come alive. “Show Me Love” plays like a hymn for most of its six-minute running time, its chorus shooting for that high falsetto at the strangest moments, and then it slides into an extended playout, Mvula scat-singing over glittering strings. That originally felt to me like unnecessarily extending what could have been one of the songs people gravitated to, but in context, that decision makes perfect sense.
Given all this, perhaps her strangest choice is to place the album’s one straight-arrow pop song, “Phenomenal Woman,” at the very end. On first listen, it felt like a reward for making it through 35 minutes of off-axis, off-kilter music, but now it feels like a planned release. Mvula sequences it after a brief phone conversation with her grandmother, who is clearly the inspiration for the song, and it sends the album off on a positive, danceable note. On an album with very few of those, “Phenomenal Woman” is a treat.
But I don’t want to downplay the rest of the album, which does a lot to define just who Laura Mvula is and will be as an artist. Like Kiwanuka, she’s taken her template – the one laid down by the great Nina Simone – and reinvented it. Now I realize what a beautiful record The Dreaming Room is, and I’d encourage anyone who recoils from it at first to give it a few spins and let it work its magic. You can keep Frank Ocean. This is the future.
Next time, De La Soul. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.