Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (Def Jam)
No, not as audacious as Nostalgia, ULTRA, at least not if you framed this young soulman’s audaciousness strictly through the lens of his pilfered beats and reconfigured tunes. With a major label’s muscle finally behind this follow up / debut, sampling The Eagles again was never in the cards anyway (although Hendrix and Elton make appearances if you’re paying attention). Besides, what’s most startling about the wisest member of a rapidly maturing Odd Future crew has never been his backing tracks or even his assured, sweet, wounded vocals. It’s his character-driven sketches of flesh-and-bone individuals, living lives both remarkable and mundane, caught via brief snapshots illuminating the epiphanies of lives on the upswing or the plummet. Such clear-eyed narratives are rare enough inside the realm of fiction, forget pop. So, like a short story cycle backed up by The Soulquarians, these 17 songs-plus-linking-audio-verite only partially fill in details even as the scenes skip thematically from Ladera Heights to Arkansas and Sierra Leone. The sexual side benefits of a female acquaintence’s battle with controlled substances is immediately juxtaposed with the isolation of the crack addict squatting in abandoned homes, while two back-to-back rich kid fantasies reference “the help” in a manner uncommon to most chronicles of the beautiful people. Yet even then, Ocean can’t help but allude to market woes and suicidal gestures amid the feel-good vibes, and it’s a credit to his depth as a writer that when somebody murmurs “why see the world/when you’ve got the beach,” my first thought wasn’t SoCal know-nothing hedonism but Matthew Arnold at Dover. So if the Afro-centrist prog of “Pyramids” seems excessive as both music and narrative (supposing Ancient Egyptian society operated within a higher moral plane than contemporary Vegas seems romantic and then some), it’s of a piece with the various strands of non-Western thought celebrated throughout (“sensei,” abhayamudra) and his concerns with keeping it surreal. You don’t expect a cliched sympathetic taxi driver conceit to morph into a non-preachy set piece illustrating the ways organized faith backs up personal prejudice. Just like you don’t expect the most affecting love song on an r&b album to be entitled “Forrest Gump”.
Billy Martin / Wil Blades, Shimmy (Royal Potato Family)
In which the drummer for Medeski Martin & Wood teams up with a Chicago keyboardist who claims John Lee Hooker as an old boss and Lonnie Liston Smith as mentor, resulting in the kind of soul organ one-off that couldn’t be more removed from the avant-gardist funk of Martin’s full time gig. The defiantly non-perfectionist mood on display might have something to do with these sessions being cut mid-tour in a mere seven hours, both parties being far more concerned with getting down than fussing over compositional niceties. And while their rhythmic abilities are more impressive than their quote unquote jazz chops, dues to such forefathers of groove as Eddie Harris and Les McCann are paid explicitly, from a tough cover of Harris’ “Mean Greens” to the swinging and name-dropping original “Les and Eddie,” which more than once hints broadly at the McCann/Harris collaborative number “Cold Duck Eddie”. Elsewhere, Blades switches to clavinet for the hot grease of “Tom Thumb” and “Pick Pocket,” whole Martin adroitly handles the New Orleans lope of “Down By The Riverside”. When it comes time to cool down with a ballad, you feel they’ve earned the right to pace themselves.
Beachwood Sparks, The Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop)
When they first surfaced over a decade ago, these spaced cowboys parlayed weak voices and mild twang into a Laurel Canyon pastiche not without a certain rustic charm. Having effectively been on hiatus since 2002’s treacly Make The Cowboy Robots Cry, this reunion suggests they’ve spent the intervening years brushing up on their Bob Weir solo albums. The mimesis is fairly startling, but so is the all-encompassing banality. They lay their body down. They dabble a bit in the Spanish tongue, helpfully translating mid-song to avoid any alienation. They squirt out some bluegrass. They opine “funny how when you find what you’re looking for / it was already there” as if they’re coining a phrase. They quote that little riff from Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. No, not Harvest, Harvest Moon.