How one approaches representation is music is a measure of one’s tolerance for literalism, a willingness to suspend disbelief and to openly accept metaphor. What the albums below share is a warped relationship to their ostensible themes, whether those themes be sex, politics, or the weather. Taken together, they illustrate weird phenomena about how content relates to form.
Rhye: Blood (Loma Vista/Hostess)
On Rhye’s 2013 debut, the evocatively titled Woman, torch singer and heartfelt romantic Mike Milosh bravely captured the essence of true intimacy, and it sounded a lot like inertia. The follow-up, five years in the making after the departure of musical partner Robin Hannibal, is quieter and blurrier still.
The current fashion among electro-R&B outfits is to simulate a mild blandness as a stand-in for emotional ache. Rhye’s mild blandness aims additionally to replicate dizzy, awestruck, spellbound erotic bliss. The music’s dazed elation indeed recalls a long, languorous day spent in bed melting into your lover; the band’s preferred mode is total rapture, hushed because love is a sacramental ritual. Torn between the need for softness and the need for physicality, they settle for the former exclusively — a sex album deserves louder and juicier beats than the plucked staccato strings on “Taste” or the watery rhythm guitar on “Feel Your Weight.”
When I praise R&B albums for their sensually immersive qualities, I worry that readers will imagine treacle like this: swooping violins, muted keyboards, arpeggiated guitars plucking out wispy webs of echo, everything dissolving into a faint but also pungent gush, gleaming with moistness. A cannier, more alert singer might have discerned variety between songs, highlighted discrete moments, added sharpness. Milosh moans abjectly, belaboring the pulsating whimper at the back of the throat, as if convinced a man overwhelmed with voluptuous sensory delight swallows morphemes. Thus congeals a torpid sentimentality.
Milosh has accused contemporary pop music of being “perversely sexualized”–“People aren’t actually like that,” he insists, correctly — but he should look in the mirror: people aren’t actually like this either. Rhye’s falsely reverential idealization of intimacy is antithetical to pleasure. True romantics know intimacy is too messy to idealize.
Physically Sick 2 (Bandcamp)
A year ago, techno labels Allergy Season and Discwoman released Physically Sick, in which a panoply of techno producers came together to craft the frothiest, scariest, bounciest and sharpest charity compilation in recent memory. The sequel, with all proceeds going to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, is, if anything, a harsher, more rigorous listen.
As with the first installment, behold a gargantuan, several-hour minimalist techno sprawl, packed with pounding beats across a wide range of musical modes: aggressive, calming, polymorphous, but mostly aggressive. The unifying factors are a constantly shifting, fluttering, hissing bed of mechanical rhythm that’s always pulling the rug out from under you, forcing your ears to readjust, and occasional spoken-word samples that make the music’s political mission explicit in so many words, as in the fraught personal collections played under the synth shimmer in Tygapaw’s “Black Womxn Experience,” or the entirety of Laurel Halo’s “Excerpt From An Open Letter to John Paul II,” which juxtaposes a reading of former Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur’s eponymous letter resisting her extradition to the US from Cuba against starkly dramatic keyboard chords. Such spoken bits are intermittent, though; they contextualize the rest of the largely instrumental album, as if to prove that explicitness can only go so far, that crackling beats and startling sonic contraptions are their own form of political work.
On volume one, the anomalous exercises in pop accessibility stood out above all: the songs with sung lyrics; the occasional hummable hooks; the nuggets designed to seduce listeners initially before presenting the denser, crunchier stuff. Here the highlights are the abrasive thorns stuck in the album’s side: Elysia Crampton’s “Oscollo (drums only info version),” in which waves of static adorn a rumbling polyrhythmic drum pattern; or Paul’s “Preservo,” an electronically altered woodwind blowing joyful, defiant, dissonant harmonies in reverse over percussive clicks. Lady Blacktronika’s “Crazy Bantu Boy” is both: a pitched, metallic percussive spiral rotates round and round as melodic elements are gradually introduced before blossoming into an ebullient dance-funk track. Demented genre-bending rarely sounds so bubbly.
I haven’t absorbed every minute of the album — 44 songs is a lot. But the sheer scale of the thing, stretching in every imposing direction, represents a formal challenge, to listeners and a political system. It suggests a vastness of will.
Toni Braxton: Sex & Cigarettes (Def Jam)
Toni Braxton’s late-career resurgence is rare enough among megaplatinum divas, who typically persist in perpetuity or pause once and disappear forever, especially once pop convention has moved on from a given performer’s particular mode of romantic melodrama. That her first solo album in eight years is as glossily excellent as her peak ‘90s ballads is astounding.
Four years ago, Braxton and fellow old-school R&B icon Babyface, who wrote and produced several of Braxton’s hits in the ‘90s, released Love, Marriage & Divorce, a deceptively tossed-off collaboration album that stands as a defining jewel in both artists’ discographies. Playing grown adults with heaps of romantic tribulation under their belts, ostensibly in the midst of a messy divorce, they make up, break up, circle round each other with the obsessiveness of duet partners.
Sex & Cigarettes plays like an addendum: Braxton’s songs here, mostly breakup ballads, are as openly miserable, inhabiting a self-consciously mature mode of romantic despair, with tropes of commitment and responsibility largely unknown to pop convention. In presentation and sound, and most strikingly in its brief 30-minute running time, including only eight songs, the album’s an explicit throwback to a bygone style of R&B and an implicit rebuke of what the genre has evolved into on the pop charts. Its mixture of upbeat tracks and piano ballads, its kitsch strings and touch of disco, its sleek studio (as opposed to electronic) surface all insist on treating R&B as the locus genre for depicting adult pain. But it’s also a tightly cohesive pop statement itself, stringing its heartsongs together in a sequence that simulates ebbing cycles of anguish and acceptance, and the ballads easily coexist next to the faster, more streamlined hook machines. Braxton’s husky, sumptuous voice teases from the material a wealth of emotional nuance: velvety, heartsick, utterly in control.
Intensely felt throughout, the album peaks with the two full-on disco exercises, as is only appropriate: “Sorry,” a torrential spout of synthesized strings and polished venom, and “Long As I Live,” in which her vocals and the rest of the track are subsumed by a melody, appearing in both keyboard hook and chorus, that typifies her sense of poised pain.
Johnny Jewel: Digital Rain (Italians Do It Better)
Mastermind of several hooky, surreal metapop bands on his own Italians Do It Better label, Johnny Jewel’s solo music has tended toward atmospheric electronica: the same ominous background ambience behind bands like Chromatics and Glass Candy, minus the lead vocalist providing focus and coherence. Here, he attempts to find album-length correlatives for rain, hail, sleet, snow, thunderclouds, and light drizzle.
Jewel conceived the album while working in LA, when he realized he missed rain, and the album sounds like it: massive sheets of plummeting synthesizer whoosh, keyboards heard through a smokescreen with delayed reverb, tingly waves of shimmer and squeal, glistening sonic ice sculptures, howling wind, chilled melancholy, little percussive electronic droplets bouncing off the surface. Seamless transitions and sweeping dynamics mark what’s less a collection of discrete tracks than a single, extended composition, zooming ominously across the sky.
However closely the representation succeeds — however unmistakably this music showers and clatters and descends in a calm misty haze — it can’t be a concept album “about” precipitation because “about” is an inappropriate preposition for instrumental electronic music, whose charm as a medium lies in being open-ended; it needn’t conjure specific referents. Given its form, the album strains perhaps too monolithically toward sounding exactly like rain, too singularly focused on sonic pitterpatter. Although the intermittent percussion effects crunch nicely, Jewel foregrounds the highest and most linear synthesizers above all, which convincingly recalls rain while also pointing the album’s textural palette toward thin, bleepy attenuation. The resulting soundscape feels arid.
Having achieved properly immersive ethereality, he often settles for a static trickle. He’s distilled the sound of morose wetness into 40 unearthly minutes.