According to Wikipedia, the origins of R&B trace back to about the 1940s. In the 70-odd years since then, the genre has bounced through a number of phases before arriving at today’s understanding of “contemporary R&B.” It is a genre that seems resistant to stagnation and its latest form of growth has come in the form of increased involvement with the indie music world and its close cousin, the underground blogosphere. Artists like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Miguel have all used grassroots hype to propel a rise to mainstream success, and in their wake, more and more indie artists are borrowing from and reinterpreting R&B’s dynamic traditions.
Brooklyn’s Arthur Ashin, who performs as Autre Ne Veut, is one of these artists. That said, don’t accuse Ashin of jumping on the trend train. His self-titled debut, which juxtaposed metallic production with Ashin’s soulful, hallucinogenic falsetto, was released in August of 2010, several months before the release of The Weeknd’s House of Balloons. Now, Ashin is preparing to release his sophomore album, Anxiety, which is due February 26th on Mexican Summer. The record breathtakingly fuses R&B structures with expansive indie-pop innovation, and could very well be for 2013 what Grimes’ Visions was for 2012.
The lead single for the album, “Counting,” nicely previews and alludes to many of the central elements of Anxiety. It opens with a wordless vocal hook and futuristic tones before being briefly punctuated by the dissonant squawk of brass. “I’m counting on the idea that you’ll stay,” Ashin wails, suggesting a passionate break-up or morning after, until the addendum of a single word the second time around: “I’m counting on the idea that you’ll stay alive.” According to a recent interview, the song was inspired by a call with Ashin’s ailing grandmother. Given this emotional intensity, the decision to build the song on the foundation of a sharp, danceable pulse becomes particularly provocative.
The recently released music video for the album’s phenomenal second single, “Play by Play,” features only a television screen and the song’s lyrics. This aligns neatly with the karaoke-esque nature of Ashin’s fearless voice, which other reviewers have been quick to note. To be sure, Anxiety is full of songs to be shamelessly sung along to. But it would be a disservice to suggest any kind of sloppy mimicry on part of Ashin himself; he’s not the one doing the singing along. That’s a role intentionally left up to the listener, especially on “Play by Play,” “Ego Free, Sex Free” and “World War, ” where vocal hooks are reduced to a single, essential line for audiences to latch onto. This accessible clarity is one way in which Ashin separates himself from How to Dress Well (aka Tom Krell), to whom he has often been compared after both released excellent debut albums in 2010. While each channels boatloads of heartfelt fragility into his work, Ashin chooses to eschew Krell’s lofi haze in favor of upfront ownership of his insecurity. Much like on Solange’s “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work,” the pairing of pop clarity with honest vulnerability throughout Anxiety yields remarkable results. “Counting” is a testament to this, as is “Play by Play,” where Ashin (and later a back-up vocalist) interrupts the dance party by practically crying, “don’t ever leave me alone.” And then there’s “Gonna Die.” “Someday I’m gonna die,” Ashin sings, a universal observation that, despite its obviousness, takes on new resonance because of the new-agey ether in which it floats. If Ke$ha’s “Die Young” had come from a parallel universe where immature bravado was replaced by existential crises, it might have come out sounding a bit like “Gonna Die.”
If there is one shortcoming to Anxiety, it may be that the album’s first two tracks are so assertively good that the rest of the record can occasionally feel overshadowed. Some listeners might also be put off by Ashin’s drastic delivery, but far more will be rewarded by the way his voice so appropriately straddles the line between the tenderness of his lyrics and the maximalism of the album’s production. It’s this combination that makes Anxiety one of the most exciting products to have emerged from indie pop’s courtship of R&B. Autre Ne Veut will be at the Triple Rock Social Club on Monday, March 4th. $10 at the door, 18+.