Album reviews: Keeping it surreal

Album reviews: Keeping it surreal

Frank Ocean

Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)

In the midst of all the think pieces analyzing Blonde as an event, it seems worth restating the bottom line: Frank Ocean is a brilliant songwriter, musician and producer, and Blonde is overflowing with sonic and compositional gifts; it’s almost embarrassing. So when I played this for my dad on a car trip and he wasn’t feeling it, I pondered. Was it the kind of album that required active attention, that wouldn’t stand a chance under a conversation in a rumbling car? Did Ocean sound too self-absorbed for my pops? Or, from a certain angle, did the music just sound blandly retro, kind of derivative?

On the last point, it’s true that Ocean takes raw material from obvious sources—gospel, pop, hip-hop, doo-wop. But, completely comfortable with the substance, he distills it—eschewing drum tracks on half the songs—and then he alters it, makes it strange, makes it shimmer and vibrate. Reading Blonde as art music, it’s John Cage’s prepared pianos. Reading it as rock, it’s Big Star’s Sister Lovers. But it’s pop, with chipmunk voices, Carpenters quotes and a massive audience—it’s an event to celebrate.

Frank Ocean, Blonde

De La Soul

and the Anonymous Nobody… (AOI)

De La Soul’s first record in 12 years was celebrated before it existed, as thousands of gleeful fans helped the hip-hop legends exceed their Kickstarter goal by half a million dollars. Who knows how the influx may have affected De La’s approach, but Nobody is the most sprawling, daring album the group has ever released. Stylistically restless, it features guest support from all corners. Usher sugars up the slow jam “Greyhounds”; Little Dragon enchants on the minimal, mesmerizing “Drawn”; David Byrne animates the sinister, slinky “Snoopies”; Snoop Dogg brings louche charm to the hooky, dance floor-friendly “Pain.”

That guest list isn’t even half complete, and for De La Soul to adopt an impresario role on its own comeback release might seem odd. But fans know it lines up perfectly with the trio’s abiding modesty, and when Posdnuos and Trugoy drop verses, they still sound like the kids who met in Ms. Skahan’s English class, exuding uprightness and sweetness cut with mischief that sometimes tips into foolery, but never malevolence. At more than an hour, Nobody has weak moments. Mostly, and especially down the stretch, it’s goodness straight from the soul.

Angel Olsen

My Woman (Jagjaguwar)

Songwriter Angel Olsen has always had a potent voice, though her use of it has evolved. On 2012’s Half Way Home, Olsen most often nestled her vocals in echoey webs of acoustic guitar; on 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, she fleshed out the instrumentation, positioning herself as lead singer in an indie folk-rock band with occasional cinematic tendencies. The volume is a bit more cranked up on My Woman, and Olsen deploys her considerable chops more relentlessly than ever, almost wrestling down the band. The songs land hard as hell—they nearly crack the floor. Right out of the gates, My Woman is a bit exhausting, and as Olsen emphasizes volume, pitch and tone, she obscures some of the lyrics. The more Olsen pulls back, the better she communicates various romantic sorrows, in a voice seemingly built for that purpose. The band supplies gorgeous backdrops, giving way to a lone piano on the album-closing “Pops,” while Olsen sings “Baby, don’t forget it’s our song / I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.” What did you expect, a happy ending?

Contact Nick Rubin at

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