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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Blood Orange: Coastal Grooves


1) Forget It; 2) Sutphin Boulevard; 3) I'm Sorry We Lied; 4) Can We Go Inside Now?; 5) S'cooled; 6) Complete Failure; 7) Instantly Blank (The Goodness); 8) The Complete Knock; 9) Are You Sure You're Really Busy?; 10) Champagne Coast.

British whiz kid Devonté Hynes is a man of many faces — well, two or three at least — but since he prefers to thoroughly separate these faces into individual personae, we will respect his decision and treat Coastal Grooves as the fresh debut album by Blood Orange, an artistic entity whose unstated purpose is to combine love for Eighties' pop with a passion for R&B and prove that the results might be of interest to people in the 2010s. Well, actually, the second part of the purpose is not that difficult, given how many people there are in the 2010s and how just about anything is of interest to at least some of them in the 2010s. The first part is where it gets trickier.

Before he was Blood Orange, Dev Hynes was Lightspeed Champion for a couple of years, during which he explored alt-folk, alt-rock, and various other alt-alt directions — maybe not with the speed of light, but with enough ambition to build up a bit of reputation. With this rebirth, and an album whose title has the word ʽgrooveʼ in it, he is looking for answers to a completely different type of question: namely, what would it sound like if Prince and Ric Ocasek formed their own band and pooled their talents fifty-fifty? Except, that is, that all their songs would be written and recorded by a guy from Ilford, East London who had not even been born yet when Purple Rain and Heartbeat City were rockin' the suburbs.

This is precisely the catch: the idea itself sounds intriguing on paper, but Dev Hynes, at least in the ever so humble opinion of this particular reviewer, does not have the talent to convert that theoretical bit of intrigue into awesome practical realization. He diligently applies Prince's one-man band principle, playing most of the instruments himself (although there are additional bass players and percussionists on some of the tracks), and his technical mastery of funky grooves and scratchy New Wave rhythms, as well as the ability to combine both within a single track, is undeniable, but Coastal Grooves is basically a one-trick exercise. Its entire point is being done on the very first track, ʽForget Itʼ — fast, punchy rhythm track; melodic lead guitar; repetitive and catchy chorus hook; half-carnal, half-spiritual atmosphere; and a certain polite shyness, due to which the line "I am not your saviour, baby girl" comes across not in a sneery "it ain't me babe" kind of way, and definitely not in a cocky, Prince-like style, but rather well adjusted for the age in which intelligent British kids do not want to alienate their intelligent female fans with unnecessary crudeness. It is a nice, polite, tastefully performed, and not tremendously exciting song that also showcases his talents as a lead guitar player (there's a rather unexpected «harsh» break midway through that is somewhat reminiscent of Adrian Belew's pop albums).

This in itself is not a problem; the problem is that the same formula is applied for the other nine tracks — and regardless of whether the tempo is a bit slower or faster, the melody a bit darker or a bit lighter, the basic mood is always the same. Coastal Grooves is a record for nostalgically oriented romantics, not deep enough to offer you a groundbreaking perspective on the issue of one-night stands and/or long term relationships, and not shallow enough to be ridiculously offen­sive or refreshingly humorous. Hynes delivers all the lyrics in a slightly whiny, ever so vulnerable near-falsetto (allegedly this was a forced change from his earlier style due to a throat operation he had) that fits this neo-New Romantic vibe perfectly, but can get annoying fairly quickly, because ultimately this is just a well-tuned mating call, and ten unsatisfied mating calls in a row can give the impression of... well, let's call it an «inefficiently functioning bit of genetic code». And even his guitar playing often comes across as somewhat under-realized: many of the songs contain snippets of potentially great riffs and embryonic ideas of perfectly constructed guitar solos, but it is almost as if he is too afraid of being accused of unsuccessfully ripping off Prince — in the end, he never really gives us a chance to see if he truly is as good as Prince or not. (Probably not, but I get so desperate by the time the record ends that I'd rather hear a bad take on a Prince-style guitar solo than a good take on a «Prince-in-the-womb» guitar solo).

I do not want to sound at all like an insensitive dude from a distant age, mind you, but while the technical aspects of the record are impressive, its vibe ultimately gets lost on me — like on that last song, ʽChampagne Coastʼ, whose repetitive chorus of "come to my bedroom, come to my bedroom" basically sounds like he is a reclusive kid inviting a friend to show him a collection of Star Wars action figures, rather than, er, uhm, you know. Perhaps it is simply too much of a chal­lenge these days to make songs that would be sexy and polite, rather than «sexist», at the same time. Also, perhaps the presence of additional musicians would not have hurt, either: I feel that there might be a terrific, tense, heart-tearing, sweaty groove concealed in the core of ʽThe Com­plete Knockʼ, but all the song does is loop the same potentially cool call-and-answer guitar figure for five minutes, without properly resolving it into anything cooler.

This is not to say I did not enjoy this, or, for that matter, tip my hat to the decidedly anti-main­stream nature of the record, which uses electronic instruments very sparingly and places primary emphasis on Eighties-style guitar playing. On his subsequent albums, Hynes would move far closer to that mainstream, which makes Coastal Grooves sort of outstanding at least within his own small catalog — I could, in fact, easily see a certain category of fans abandoning him after Cupid Deluxe while still clinging to Grooves as a tighter, hotter, and bolder artistic statement. Yet even such a verdict is not really saying all that much.

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