By Kendall Russ, Online Arts Editor
Published February 26, 2013
It’s hard not to notice R&B’s profound expansion in recent years. Instead of the deep soul of D’Angelo or Erykah Badu, radios routinely blare Miguel’s silky “Adorn” or Usher’s intensely personal, subdued but compelling “Climax.” But the phenomenon runs deeper, permeating the underground scenes of more electronic music. Artists like How To Dress Well, Purity Ring, Jessie Ware and even the xx released albums last year that combined the smoothness and sensuality of R&B with the nostalgic longing for intimacy that pervades indie songwriting. This unlikely marriage worked primarily because of its tendency toward a distinctly pop sound.
Autre Ne Veut
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Arthur Ashin — the man behind Brooklyn-based Autre Ne Veut — follows this example on his second album, Anxiety. Raised on American R&B and West African music, Ashin toys with both the traditional forms of soul and the angular, avant-garde impressionism of more alternative music, creating a sound as reminiscent of R. Kelly as Panda Bear. But while Anxiety seems to follow from the bedroom vibes of its contemporaries — mainly due to Ashin’s delicate croon and the seductive rhythm throughout — the darker meanings at work abandon the album’s sexual connotations and strive instead for clarity and comfort in the face of psychological disarray.
From the futuristic cadence on opener “Play By Play” to the unsettling ambiance of closer “World War,” Ashin creates an atmosphere of discomfort throughout, artfully exploring the various forms of anxiety. “Play By Play” intoxicates with Ashin’s soaring falsetto tirelessly working toward the arresting finale. When it arrives, Ashin somehow sustains its high-strung intensity for nearly three minutes, hypnotically repeating the chorus over and over. In fact, Anxiety’s only fault is its inability to replicate this energy across the full 40 minutes. The bare and restrained “A Lie,” though a welcome respite from the intensity of the first few songs, sucks the energy out of the album, and Ashin never again reaches the lofty heights of “Play By Play” or “Counting.” The remaining songs still impress but ultimately lack the same maximizing urgency.
Thematically, “Play By Play” lays the ground for the rest of Anxiety, exploring the crippling uncertainty and the competing physical and emotional states of relationships. The harrowing backing vocals — a crucial component of the album — serve as both an unnerving force and an internal voice, the psyche that Ashin tries to harness, examine and understand throughout.
Ashin battles this existential uncertainty throughout Anxiety, issuing a stirring case study of anguish and despair. The impressive “Ego Free Sex Free” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” further illustrate the relationship anxiety developed in “Play By Play.” As on the opener, Ashin layers upbeat and grand production with depressing themes, obfuscating significantly an underlying aura of helplessness. The exhilarating synth and production in the chorus of “Ego Free Sex Free” masks the lyrical plea as Ashin cries, “Ego free, sex free / I can’t feel my body moving.” For all the airs of sexuality, Anxiety occupies a more cerebral realm. It endeavors foremost to understand the emotional motivations behind physical relationships and the fear of loss. It investigates not what happens in the bedroom, but the people occupying it.
That the album’s aggrandized production belies its deeper thematic concerns is no accident. “I like the idea of being able to fuck with expectations,” Ashin told Pitchfork, “and for the music to be a Rorschach test, in a way.” No song embodies this pursuit better than “Counting,” the exceptional, cacophonous second track. Ashin’s fragile falsetto grows in urgency and blaring horns mar the innocuous synth, while the massive instrumentation and haunting vocals make for an intoxicating hook.