Thursday, November 14, 2013

album review: 'woman' by rhye (RETRO REVIEW)

I mentioned back in my review of Janelle Monae's The Electric Lady that R&B doesn't tend to work for me as well as other genres, and for a long time, I've been struggling to figure out why. Well, I think I might finally have a finger on it and I'm going to try and articulate that opinion the best I can without offending anyone. So here it goes: R&B tends to work more on the stimulation of emotions rather than the stimulation of the mind. It's the difference between a great comedy film and a great arthouse drama - they both can be fantastic movies, but they're looking to appeal to very different parts of the human spirit, and their methods of appeal should not be used to denigrate the quality if they work effectively. And for me, I'll admit that music that has a more literate feel tends to stick with me a little better than songs just trying to tug my heartstrings. But the more I think about that, the more I realize that most of the music I love triggers a visceral emotional reaction regardless of written content, so it's got to be a little more than that. 

I think part of my problem with R&B for me comes down to subject matter and presentation. If you're looking at R&B, you're going to get various permutations of songs about love and relationships, and with few exceptions, you don't get a lot outside of that. But that's not exactly a bad thing, providing the presentation is interesting and unique enough and the songwriting and delivery is strong - these sorts of songs can still trigger that positive or negative emotional response, it just might be harder for me to articulate why. It's not a matter of reinventing the wheel or blowing my mind with high-concept theses about the human experience, it's about refining and perfecting material until it triggers the strongest emotive response from its listener. Okay, I can get behind that.

So with that in mind, I took a look at the mysterious duo Rhye that received some rave reviews earlier this year for their debut album Woman, and I figured they'd be an apt test for my hypothesis here. Did the album work for me?

Okay, this is going to be an interesting album to talk about - but not for the reasons that most of you are thinking. And the best way for me to articulate how I feel regarding this album is to describe how I listened to it. This might not mirror your experience, but then again, I suspect this might have been the case for at least a few people. That being said, this is also one of those odd cases where I don't think this review will have a huge amount of value outside of me finding a way to contextualize my opinion, so keep that in mind.

So keep in mind I started listening to Rhye knowing nothing about the duo, and once I finished the album, I was, for the most part, impressed. I dug the minimalist and sparse production, I really loved the accompanying strings that had just the right timbre to send a chill down my spine, I wasn't as big of a fan of the horns but they worked well enough in the mix. As for the lyrics - well, I wouldn't precisely call them great or all that special, and not within spitting distance of Janelle Monae's intricately constructed sci-fi R&B experiment earlier this year, but they weren't trying to be. This was an album about romantic intimacy, quiet sensuality, and all about the subtleties that can't always be articulated in words. It was beautiful and really quite engaging, and the best part of the experience were the vocals. Soft, ethereal, almost a whisper and filled with emotive presence, her voice put me in mind of James Blake at his absolute best, and I was all set to give some serious accolades to the girl fronting this duo...

Except, during further research, I discovered the lead singer is a guy. Canadian contralto known as Mike Milosh, living in LA, happily married to a girl named Alexa. And since I'm behind the curve by about eight months, this was apparently the same discovery a bunch of other people made back in March when the album came out.

See, here's the thing - initially, I was bothered by this. I mean, Milosh sounds so much like a woman in the vein of Sade and the songs seemed to have a distinctly feminine vibe that I couldn't help but feel misled, particularly considering how so much of the emotional appeal of this act is how sensual and erotic some of the songs came off to be. So perhaps I'm a victim of my own gender biases and I never would have expected a man to create music in this vein. But then I thought, 'Wait, I'm perfectly comfortable with my sexuality, and I can admit that there are plenty of songs written and performed by men I find incredibly hot. Take Usher's 'Climax', one of the best songs he's ever made and one of my favourite hit songs of last year. I thought that song was sexy as all hell!

But then on the other hand, I could always tell when Usher was singing that it was a guy - even going back to listen to Rhye, it's still hard to believe that the voice is male. And then this occurred to me, 'Dude, does it matter? The music is still sensual and erotic as all hell, so why should the gender matter? Take the artist out of the equation and focus on the music!'

And here's where we run into part of my fundamental precepts regarding music and art: the artist informs the art. I always try to keep in mind authorial intent when I try to expose myself to art, the trick being seeing how well the artist executes that intent. Now there's a fine line to this, because art should still be able to stand on its own, but authorial intent should inform the work and it strikes me as irresponsible not to consider it. And with that in mind, I think I've managed to come to a conclusion regarding my problem with Rhye: the gender identity has never been the issue, it's the deception. Let's be blunt, as much as Rhye tend towards privacy and building hype with mystery as they did throughout 2012, the 'controversy' surrounding Milosh's vocals had to be intentional - no act is that myopic to ignore the possibilities here. I mean, why did they only bother to put the issue to rest after months of heated debate and allow people to speculate the vocals were female? It's this element that comes across as disingenuous to me, and while the rational part of my mind would say, 'Okay, just look past it', the more emotional stirrings that Rhye try to evoke feel undercut. That sort of dishonesty is an absolute killer for me when you're trying to make songs as romantic as these, and every time I listened through the album since, I can't help but feel more and more distant. It's not the gender-switch that bothered me, let me repeat, it's the fact they felt the need to conceal the switch at all.

So okay, why on earth did I spend so much time talking about it rather than the music itself? Well, mostly because there isn't a lot here to talk about. This album is incredibly minimalist, drawing all of the focus onto the vocals - which, I'll admit, are still very beautiful. There are a few moments where I feel the production is a little cluttered, and I don't think the horns works nearly as well as the strings do with Milosh's vocals, but those are just matters of synergy (plus, I'm a sucker for a good strings section). A bigger problem comes up in the lyrics, mostly because while they are effective, there isn't a lot there that's all that special. 'Open' and 'Major Minor Love' are probably the most interesting songs lyrically on the album, but that's not saying much. I mean, for God's sake, the title track is just Milosh cooing the word 'Woman' as sensually as he possibly can over and over again, and that just reminds me of the opening track from the third Eddie Murphy album (look it up) and I can't take in the atmosphere at all!

In the end... man, I wanted to like this album a lot more than I do, because Rhye's Woman is beautiful and striking and incredibly sexual. Maybe if you check it out with the full knowledge of what you're getting into, you'll have a better listening experience than I did. As I said, it's not the gender flip that bothers me, it's the fact that they were coy about it and they worked to deceive the audience for months. To draw a film comparison, I'm reminded somewhat of J.J. Abrams 'Mystery Box' method a bit: using mystery and deception to drive the narrative and when you open up the mystery box there's nothing there worth talking about, and I kind of get that feeling when talking about Rhye. Still, I would be wrong to deny that what is here is extremely good and if you can invested in the emotional resonance of the tracks, it's extremely compelling. Hell, when I didn't know about the lead singer, I was all set to give this album a rave review. Now... eh, not so much. It's a 7/10 from me, and a recommendation. 

If you're looking for music to make sweet, sweet love, check out Rhye - just remember kids, the important thing is being aware of the situation, in more ways than one.

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