Frank Ocean’s Pitch-Perfect Debut Album “Channel Orange” Soars.


Ever since they arrived so very loudly in the hood a couple of years ago, everyone has been wondering who it was that would emerge from the Odd Future collective.

Not withstanding all the bombast and sheer noise, it was obvious that someone would raise their head above the parapet, and it was sort of assumed that that person would be their unofficial lead singer, Tyler, The Creator.

But his official debut solo album Goblin (actually his second, and they all of them release a steady stream of mix-tapes) was surprisingly unimpressive, and was reviewed earlier here.

But with the arrival of Channel Orange, the official debut from Frank Ocean, we have our answer. This is the real deal, and so, clearly is he.

Truth be told, he’s not really part of the Odd Future gang, but hooked up with them after they’d already come into being to act as their sort of unofficial mentor. He’d moved to LA five years beforehand after Katrina had devastated his home town of New Orleans.

By the time Odd Future formed he’d already established himself as a successful jobbing song writer, producing work for, amongst others, John Legend and Justin Bieber. You can read more in Jon Caramanica’s excellent New York Times profile here.

Channel Orange charts the same kind of confessional RnB territory that Drake mined in last year’s, whisper it, somewhat over-praised Take Care. But whilst the baring of his soul is once again the impetus for the album, there is a lot more going on here than that. Ocean is clearly a far richer writer than Drake, and the panoramic vistas he evokes are significantly broader.

The characters that people “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” for instance, are clearly related to those that drift through Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal Less Than Zero, and to some of those you find more recently in the colourful short stories of Junot Diaz. This is a world where existential angst is played out against a backdrop of urban ennui.

The latter by the way features Earl Sweatshirt, the other individual of substance to emerge from Odd Future.

But as Sacha Frere-Jones notes in his New Yorker review here, the emotional heart of the album is “Bad Religion”, performed here on the Jimmy Fallon Show. It’s also one of the few tracks that alludes to his much discussed sexuality.

Demonstrably, he’s as impressive vocally as he is compositionally. And his ability to cooly move in and out and master any number of genres, and to marry them effortlessly with pitch-perfect production all add up to spell just one thing; Prince.

Ocean is a major find, and this is comfortably one of the albums of the year. 

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Alabama Shakes, the Sound of Summer, But Don’t Hold That Against Them.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells, last year it was Odd yawn Future (reviewed earlier here). And this year, the breakthrough act to emerge from SXSW was, by all accounts, Alabama Shakes. And already you can hear the backlash to the release of their debut album Boys & Girls beginning to build.

Much the same thing happened after Amy Winehouse released what was her second and, as it turned out, her final album, Back to Black. One minute, all the right people were smiling approvingly stroking their beards and nodding their heads to the silky new sound. The following morning, it was everywhere.

They never really forgave her. Which is most unfair. It’s hardly her fault if everyone else is desperately trying to latch on to the next big thing. And you can detect that same sense of faint resentment seeping out between the lines in the admiring reviews that Boys & Girls has been provoking.

Yes they’ve paid their dues, and Brittany Howard plainly means everything she sings. And the energy and passion of their live shows has mostly been faithfully reproduced here in the recording studio. And there’s no mistaking that aura of authenticity, and the sense that here’s a band who go to bed with the Phil Spector box set Back to Mono by their bedside.

And yes, after they’ve finished touring with him this year, their next album is certain to be produced by Jack White, who’s sure to even further fine-tune their impeccable musical instincts. But you just know that come the summer, this album’s going to be all over the place.

On ads, movie soundtracks, jet-set catwalks, and, finally, as background muzak in all the lazy retro women’s retail discount clothing boutique stores in every shopping mall in the western world, and eventually beyond.

But you can only really hold that against them if they’re the kind of band who are actively courting that sort of attention. And goodness knows, there are enough bands out there that are. But this plainly isn’t one of them.

But what are you going to do? The fact of the matter is, Alabama Shakes sounds like a latter-day Janis Joplin has joined the stage at a private party hosted by Prince to briefly take the mike and lead his band. And nobody can believe what they’re hearing, least of all the host. You’ve been warned.

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