Thursday, March 7, 2013

Album Review: Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety

Album Grade: A-
The new wave of R&B has shown us many faces of the genre in the past few years. Frank Ocean and The Weeknd both rely on minimalism and strong vocal performances to deliver their studies in self-examination and partying, respectively. Meanwhile, Miguel and Usher have both used their music as a template to make comically oversexualized odes to the women who please them. In the mainstream conscious, there seems to be no middle ground between these opposing factions.

Enter Autre Ne Veut, born Arthur Ashin, a faux-French Brooklynite who is the kind of chameleon nu-R&B is lacking. His music is a strange marriage of high-tempo synths, bass-boosting and *intense* vocals, but it’s a match made in heaven. The elasticity of Ashin’s voice is the first thing most people will note. Opener “Play by Play” has him stretching in-and-out of three octaves and his falsetto on “A Lie,” only reinforces the message: Ashin can flat out sing.

Interestingly enough, he often doesn’t. Prior to Anxiety, Ashin’s music was heavily focused on ambient production, and he often seems to want a return to his roots. The frenetic synthesizers of “Careful” and “Promises” often overwhelm the vocals, which are done in the style of Abel Tesfaye. Similarly, the painful orchestration of “Gonna Die,” complete with a funeral march organ motif, lends itself away from singing. Ashin recognizes this by almost groaning his lines before reaching Prince-level pitches with his voice.

Everything about Anxiety points back to Ashin’s acute knowledge of how to produce a song, and this is the biggest critique to make about the album. There is very little spontaneity to be found on Anxiety; all the notes, kicks and hi-hat taps seem to be coolly calculated by the maestro, pushed into place by necessity. The songs bold enough to venture outside of the established comfort zone, which is especially limiting on the album’s back half, are the same ones that sacrifice the golden pipes that may as well be Ashin’s trademark.

The juxtaposition between the styles of vocals belies a common thread of bipolarity on Anxiety. Album closer “World War” begins as a completely barren track that eventually builds from static into a full-blown anthem, a construction that is experimented with frequently. The lyrics alternate between longing for a companion on “Play by Play” and desiring time alone on “World War.” Ashin’s bipolar tendencies are further apparent on “Ego Free Sex Free,” a song that has him alternating between comically sexual and crushingly self-aware.

This album is proof that the middle ground in R&B is attainable and a very comfortable domain to occupy. Ashin’s persona may not be as easy to identify as his contemporaries, but his flawed character who can’t seem to reconcile his two sides is a very intriguing one. Even more interesting though is his execution: his voice is near flawless, his production is excellent and, despite getting repetitious toward the end, Anxiety is fresh throughout.  
1. Play by Play
2. Counting
3. Promises
4. Ego Free Sex Free
5. A Lie
6. Warning
7. Gonna Die
8. Don't Ever Look Back
9. I Wanna Dance With Somebody
10. World War

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