Wednesday, November 13, 2019

album review: 'the juice: vol. 2' by emotional oranges

In the past six or so months it's been fascinating to watch the rise of Emotional Oranges. I remember seeing them with buzz earlier this year - well-earned by dropping one of the best EPs in The Juice Vol. 1 - but that buzz has built momentum with a tour that has sold a lot better than I expected and a rapidly growing fanbase. No joke, when I saw them live not long ago, I was shocked how many people filled the room and were gripped by the live show of two barely seen silhouettes... that nevertheless performed incredibly well live with the chemistry of the duo translating remarkably.

But with added attention comes added scrutiny and criticism, and for Emotional Oranges, it came in two places I'd argue were expected and rather depressing: the group's relative anonymity, and the fact that the songs seemed a little too airtight and streamlined, a little too ruthlessly calculated to attain wider appeal. Now on the surface both of these criticisms might seem to make sense - even with the branding it does stunt curiosity in the personalities of the artists when they hide in the shadows, and that sleek construction thus comes across all the more mechanical... until you remember that the emotional complexities and interplay in the writing gave both of them plenty of personality and a unique dynamic, and the more organic, well-produced grooves and heavier reliance on guitar really did not match the trap-saturated R&B scene, nor really the more soulful contemporary R&B vibe, although they'd probably be closer to that category. Again, I'm surprised more of the obvious comparisons to The xx haven't shown up - you can recognize the critics who know - but I'll also admit that I was a little concerned about the second EP. I had heard snippets live and I wanted to hear how everything translated on record, especially as I'm always skeptical when artists drop multiple projects in a year when they could be combined into one stellar release with the fat trimmed. But okay, what did we get on The Juice Vol. 2?

So here's the thing: I actually went back and relistened to The Juice Vol. 1 a number of times alongside Vol. 2, and I think it's important to confirm a few things. For one, by this point Emotional Oranges absolutely have a streamlined formula that if you're already a fan of their work, you're going to like and "get" this project quickly: slickly organic guitar-driven grooves that are impeccably mixed, with a clear fondness for retro-R&B tones of the late 80s and early 2000s but the right tonal choices to keep things modern, and the unique interplay that does help Emotional Oranges stand alone in the pack, something that I still find pretty damn compelling and for which I don't think they get enough credit. That being said, I will say that Vol. 2 as a whole feels a little more uneven in comparison with Vol. 1, absolutely great but not among the best of 2019, even if I will argue that there are a few individual cuts that go toe-to-toe with the best off the previous EP.

And given that I already covered The Juice Vol. 1, I'm going to spare most of the recap and description of the sound we do have here, because the sound has not changed or evolved to a huge degree. The vocal harmonies are still great in striking the remarkable balance between mature relationship complexity and the very human questions of insecurity and messiness, the melodic grooves are prominent and impeccably balanced to support them, and while I'll always be a little more accommodating for the more rough-edged, organic-sounding percussion, the hip-hop touched drum machines do have the well-blended body to hit pretty effectively, like with the slightly more dense and grainy pickup on 'Iconic' or the more defined vintage West Coast progression on, well, 'West Coast Love'. Hell, the only guitar pickup I didn't quite love was on 'Your Best Friend Is A Hater' against the stiffer groove and a clear shot at making something more commercially accessible with the male singer's verse cadence, and that's more because the trap touches are a little overexposed, not because they're outright bad. But the playful synth inflections off of the guitar on 'Just Like You', the slightly scratchy groove backing the rollick on 'Not Worth It', and the ramshackle strumming that builds to a more stable progression on 'Sundays' is terrific, and then the album ends with 'Heal My Desires', which in embracing a very late 80s-early 90s R&B timbre in its guitar as it builds its rollick is easily the most distinctive cut here, and in my opinion a phenomenal standout. It's also where I have to question anyone calling this album anonymous or generic playlist fodder, because not only is there plenty of tonal diversity, it also feels spacious and modern enough in its groove change-ups to stand away from being a pure retro throwback, or indeed like much else in mainstream or indie R&B. 

Now if I did want to highlight a place where this EP is a little less interesting than Vol. 1, it is in the content, and that ties back to a slight shift in the overall tone and emotional dynamic of the interplay that I like so much. Simply put, if Vol. 1 was a project where the loose arc had everything fall apart, Vol. 2 is putting more of it back together, which means naturally the drama is a little less dynamic or punchy, and we get a few more cuts where the stakes naturally feel lower. 'Iconic' is the biggest example of this - basically playing as a drunken hook-up that seems almost aware of its incoherence, but the subtext is underwhelming, and while 'West Coast Love' is exactly what it says in the title and tacks on its obvious reference points, it doesn't really punch higher. Compare this to 'Just Like You', the sort of song where he clearly wants her there for the hookup, but masturbation takes center stage and I really like the exultant recontextualization of how it frames her pleasure, which sadly can still feel taboo with certain audiences. And that power recontextualization is really present across much of the EP, for how his hookup desire is flipped with his own words back at him on 'Don't Be Lazy' to 'Your Best Friend Is A Hater', which despite the mildly embarrassing title and the likely truth in his assessment of how he's just looking to go out and relax, she's willing to highlight his own insecurities fueling it - again, the give-and-take is what makes this interesting. But what I appreciate more is how - like on the first EP - there's a maturity and sensitivity to the framing of both partners that highlight despite miscommunications and very real missteps, there's a chemistry in their give-and-take, especially when it comes to any sense of reconciliation. I won't lie and say that his mistrust and insecurity on 'Not Worth It' - mirroring a lot of 'Built That Way' but now showing more plainspoken honesty - that it did get to me, and the miscommunicated longing between old flames on 'Sundays' when neither never quite left each others' lives also had a lot of weight. And that's another reason why the loving rebuild of 'Heal My Desires' hits so well - it's not a straightforward love song so much as the connection changes what you want and how you want it in a relationship, which after strings of mistakes and questions of the past, that's the sort of healing that matters. And as much as The Juice Vol.1 ended with a lingering kiss-off where the door was left open, there is some poetry in the maturity to reconcile like this, coming full circle.

In short... yeah, this is another great EP from Emotional Oranges, full of terrific grooves, incredibly well-structured songs, great interplay, and grounded sensuality. It's not better than Vol. 1, but given the loose storytelling and themes they took, I'm not sure it could have been, even if it does serve as a good ending point to this series. More importantly, it does show different sonic avenues for the duo to explore, and while I don't expect them to properly enter the mainstream with this sound, I sure as hell wouldn't complain if they got close. As such, very solid 8/10, absolutely recommended especially if you get the chance to see them live, and I truly hope Emotional Oranges ride this wave into that debut album. They're on the right path here with a vibe in R&B that's more unique than they're often given credit, and I can't wait to see it fully blossom.

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