Thursday, May 16, 2019

album review: 'the juice: vol. 1' by emotional oranges

So we're venturing back into the muted, murky R&B rabbit hole and let me pose to you a somewhat unique prospect: a duo, comprising of both a guy and girl working together on vocals, picking up slick elements of 80s funk, some of Janet Jackson's sultriness, but a lower timbre overall to play to a more sultry and "mature" vibe. Would you bet on a group like that?

Hell, you probably would have sold me based on the R&B duo dynamics alone - I've long held the private belief that mixed gender groups with effective balance can rarely be matched and it's been decades since you've had one with consistent success. Hell, the surprisingly long running success of Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum in country have proven there's a lucrative market, but if you look at R&B or hip-hop, you typically get the 'token' girl who winds up having as much talent as everyone else combined, like with City High and arguably The Fugees. The closest I can think of to making that balance work is Doomtree with Dessa holding up her end with the rest of the crew, but again, that's hip-hop, not R&B. So when I started hearing underground buzz for Emotional Oranges - and when I say underground buzz I mean the measurable promotion through the Joe Budden Podcast and a certain manager who will go unnamed - I figured like with Asiahn I'd give them some airtime. So, eight songs, just under a half hour, what did we get from The Juice: Vol. 1?

So here's the funny thing: the more listens I gave The Juice: Vol. 1, the more I realized there was absolutely a real comparison point to Emotional Oranges, one that damn near slipped my mind but is all the more stark the more listens I gave it: The xx. Specifically, the more expansive sound that trio began pushing on I See You that had kept the tightness of their early records but took producer Jamie xx's broader palette to heart for a striking and underrated release. But where that band still remained all tight nuance and delicate, thoughtful subtext, Emotional Oranges are more pragmatic and direct - nuance comes through more mature and complex relationships in the text, and where The xx only occasionally touched upon the interplay of their singers, that interplay becomes the crux of Emotional Oranges' approach to narrative and balance. And what should come along with that comparison to The xx is critical acclaim, because Emotional Oranges might have just made one of the best damn R&B projects of the year with the sort of textured variety that just raised the bar in a big way.

And we have to start with our two main talents: Kelly Porter and Mitchell Bell, and that critical element of balance and restraint that would be so easy to compromise for a lesser group. Both are good singers, but their greatest strength comes from poise and control in the embrace of lower vocal timbres, close pickups, and minimal effects around them - they're not about to oversell harmonies for easy melodrama when their dramatic interplay is more complex but also more compelling, and emphasizing the crackling humanity adds to the root of their chemistry. They may not be romantically involved outside of the music, but they sure as hell can make it seem convincing on record, and the messiness surrounding a non-traditional relationship is not framed as extra so much as a natural reality that just has to be handled. In other words, we're dealing with the 'mature' R&B tag that shies away from explicit language and a lot of description, more reliant on abstraction and implication - understanding the tease is just as compelling as consummation, and in some cases more so.

Of course, that murky sense of ambiguity - moral and otherwise - in the relationship means that finding a clear emotional center that's sympathetic is difficult to say the least, but that's because Emotional Oranges are smart enough to realize that in 2019 the 'mature' R&B tag allows the flaws to shine through and feel all the more realistic. That's one reason why the tension of 'Hold You Back' feels earned with her moving onto a relationship with a woman - this is 2019 folks, keep up - and being able to retort that no matter what he might say and even if it doesn't work with the new girl, she's not going to want him anyway. But outside of that and more to the point, the fact this pair makes any sort of sense along side each other is the embrace of those flaws - both are moody and brooding but have enough ego to know their value, and both know exactly how to push each other's buttons of distrust and insecurity. 'Personal' is all about this interplay, and so is 'Built That Way', where she makes it clear she can handle honesty and stifle any jealousy she might have... because if it's not making money to milk the drama, why start it? And that ruthless sense of pragmatism slides across the hook-up on 'Motion' - the better version of Normani and Sam Smith's 'Dancing With A Stranger' - as well as on pretty much every breakup song here, from how 'Someone Else' highlights his exasperated impatience and her refusal to give in to his ego, to how 'Unless You're Drowning' anchors the hook in how they know they're very much not for each other with the unspoken realization that they'd still come through if it all falls apart. It's very reminiscent of the FXX show You're The Worst in how the main couple's damage probably will prevent proper stability, but said damage probably enables them to be stronger than most even if they're plainly seeing others outside of the relationship. 'Good To Me' is a prime example of this, where it's clear all the cards are on the table, but even if they aren't, the hook up is happening any perception of the truth be damned. But the album is also smart enough to end things with 'Corners Of My Mind', where both have realized it doesn't work again and one might even be moving on... but there's still something left in the margins that might work better outside of something traditional, the sort of naturalistic back-and-forth that might be lightly toxic to everyone around them, but is real.

But here's the thing: all that lyrical nuance really wouldn't stand out as strikingly as it does without the production and choice of tones, because this is an album that could very easily wallow in smoky reverb and trap skitters and a swampy atmosphere... which makes it all the more impressive that it doesn't. No, if there's something that gives The Juice Vol. 1 a lot of power, it's the sense of tightness and controlled groove that runs through this entire project - you could fuck to this, but also dance to it and it won't be long before it could be one and the same. Of course, part of this comes from me being a sucker for R&B with actual guitars, which balance their liquid, almost pedal steel-esque tones off the sharper funk of the bass and the right split between organic drumwork and programmed beats - take the melodic post-chorus on 'Personal', the sharper echoing rollick of 'Hold You Back' that plays off a very 80s-inspired drum cadence, or the liquid early 2000s R&B sharpness of 'Built That Way' that feels the most modern in how it ratchets up its tension, or the obvious Daft Punk homage that plays across the 'Unless You're Drowning'. And it's not since Frankmusik's 'These Streets' have I heard such an unsettled but open-ended conclusion to a project like this with an impressive amount of hazy momentum. Even one of the songs that feels the most modern, 'Someone Else' with its programmed beat and pitch-shifted vocals, captures that necessary melodic tension by still places the guitars in the mix and having a really strong hook. That's the other thing: where a lot of R&B in this lane would have the tendency to meander or coast on dance grooves, Emotional Oranges knows that actual melodic hooks in both production and the vocal line will be much more catchy and infectious, and for just eight songs, it goes down fast. Now if I were to nitpick here - outside of a few flubbed rhymes on 'Built That Way' - I'm not crazy about the hook on 'Good To Me': the synth gloss is a little filmy, and while I like the guitar's contributions to the atmospherics, the percussion feels a little overmixed in comparison with the melody - still good, not quite great.

But honestly, folks... this is so ridiculously well-composed and structured that I'd be hard-pressed to find a lot of flaws beyond just wanting more of it. The chemistry is genuinely great, the sonic palette is modern but understands its roots and has the sort of groove that more mainstream R&B could afford to embrace, and the writing is flat-out excellent, direct and pragmatic but showing the sort of mature, emotional intelligence that can be sexy as hell. Or to put it another way, I'm not sure what else you could want for this sort of R&B, which is why I'm giving it a 9/10 and absolutely a recommendation - slinky, sensual and understated but catchy as all hell, I feel confident in calling this one of the best projects of 2019. And considering it won't be heard by nearly enough people, you absolutely need to check this out - this album fucks.

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