On record – Devonté Hynes: Queen & Slim: Original Motion Picture Score (Domino)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

It has been quite a year for Devonté Hynes. While keeping his Blood Orange pop persona very much in the foreground through touring and the new Angel’s Pulse mixtape, he has really furthered his ambitions to be a composer of soundtrack and ultimately classical material. The latter projects have borne fruit with the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble, but the soundtrack ventures have also progressed with this, his second soundtrack commission after Palo Alto, completed for Gia Coppola in 2013.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas to a script from Lena Waithe, Queen & Slim has been well-received, a romantic drama with an undoubtedly tragic overtone. Without giving away too much of the plot, that is the loose blueprint from which Hynes’ score evolves.

What’s the music like?

With 20 tracks spread over little more than 36 minutes, it is perhaps inevitable that Queen & Slim feels a little fragmented at times. Yet as Hynes has already shown us in his pop music that he is capable of setting a scene with very little padding to his structures, and so it proves here.

Kids may be just over a minute but even in that time it shows a tender heart to its string scoring. This cuts to the rather more sombre piano of Hair, but here too Hynes expands the sound with a doleful saxophone. Opening then shows his ease with analogue or digital sources, teasing out threat-ridden music with little more than dissonant drones and a bass drum.

Of the more substantial numbers on the soundtrack most stick in the memory. A Couple Deer has a lovely calming sonority, while Love Theme makes much from little material, not greatly substantial but hitting the right emotional spot.

Slim Calls Home spreads out its perspective to big reverberation but then Uncle’s House reintroduces the ominous drums of Opening, which Get Upstairs and Start The Car take a step further. Hynes has a distinctive way of pointing his strings and the textures bode ill rather than good.

Sneak Out is perhaps the most distinctive and unnerving track of all, and at four minutes has time to develop. It begins with rough tremolos from solo string instruments that provide eerie outlines rather than solid shapes, the uneasy atmosphere not helped by the introduction of a wavering bass line.

A resolution is ultimately found, but despite its initially consonant chords the music of Arrival is bittersweet, with booming percussion and string-based dissonances returning to cloud the picture. The closing track Kissed All Your Scars remains affected by this but provides more respite.

Some of the snippets of music are little more than descriptive postcards in the style of Max Richter, forming briefly sketched portraits but unable to say much more than that in half a minute. They do still show Hynes’ deft way with scoring, however.

Does it all work?

Yes, largely. Some of the promising material is frustratingly short but necessarily so, meaning the listener has to deal with occasionally being sold short when enjoyable scenes or moods move on abruptly.

With that taken in to account, Hynes sets his scenes with very little fuss and plenty of flair. As an orchestrator he is of the ‘less is more’ approach, which gives him plenty of room for manoeuvre.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you are following Hynes’ work on all fronts then this will be essential listening, and it serves as an exciting pointer to show where he might go next. His is one of the most inquisitive minds in music currently, and the ease with which he moves across genres is rare indeed. It will be interesting to see if he moves on to bigger structures in the future.

Stream

Buy

You can purchase this release from the Domino website

Switched On – Blood Orange: Angel’s Pulse mixtape (Domino)

Blood Orange Angel’s Pulse mixtape (Domino)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Ahead of his first foray into classical waters with Third Coast Percussion, Devonte Hynes – the man behind Blood Orange – releases a companion piece to last year’s Negro Swan album. It is a habit the producer has developed, making a set of ‘offcuts’ available to friends in the wake of a bigger release, but given that in his own words ‘I’m older now though, and life is unpredictable and terrifying’, he has made it available to the wider public.

What’s the music like?

Cool and compact, but emotional too. Hynes has always possessed the knack of expressing himself keenly through music that does not have to be loud or brash, and the level of Angel’s Pulse even drops to a murmur at times. In doing so it draws the listener in, through songs that never outstay their welcome. Of the 14 tracks here, only two are over three minutes in length.

Musically the mood is consistent with Negro Swan but has more room in its texture – which takes it closer to the 2016 album Freetown Sound. Cool soul and funk mix freely, with the odd hint of West Coast rock. Textures are dreamy but lyrics are on point.

Taking individual tracks, the sonorous speaking voice on Berlin comes from Ian Isiah, with Porches also contributing – as with Freetown Sound, the guests easily accommodated into the album. BennY RevivaL contributes an urgent rap on Seven Hours Pt.1, while Birmingham brings a flourish from vocalist Kelsey Lu. Meanwhile Toro y Moi brings a sense of yearning to Dark & Handsome, at which point the album behaves like a radio station, switching with background fuzz to Benzo, which evokes Hynes’ home city of New York through a soft, nocturnal sax. Baby Florence (Figure) crackles with a sudden momentum from its samba-like beat.

Some of the songs on Angel’s Pulse feel half finished, but the mixing effect links them seamlessly. If anything their shorter form makes it easier for the listener to get to their essence.

Does it all work?

Yes. While not as concentrated a listen as the Freetown Sound and Negro Swan albums, Angel’s Pulse does still hang together beautifully. There is perhaps room for the songs to have been further developed, but if anything this heightens their immediacy.

Is it recommended?

Yes – followers of Hynes and Blood Orange will lap it up, while looking forward with great intrigue to the Third Coast Percussion collaboration Fields, due for release on the Cedille label on October 11.

Stream

Buy

On record: John Cale – M:FANS / Music For A New Society (Domino)

MFANS

Richard Whitehouse considers in detail John Cale’s Music For A New Society, back from its original release in 1982 and now in digital guise.

That John Cale should have chosen to make his 16th studio album the rewriting of his eighth is hardly provocative in itself. Not least as Music For A New Society remains in any case the most provocative of all his releases, coming at a time when Cale – poised on his fifth decade – was not so much reassessing his creative priorities as searching, uncertainly if by no means tentatively, for the way forward. That the way forward only made explicit its fraught genesis explains why Cale should wish to readdress such anxieties and, in doing so, transcend them.

Originally released in September 1982, Music For A New Society came in the midst of what is perhaps Cale’s most challenging creative period. Seemingly caught on the back-foot with the advent of punk rock, this most recalcitrant of singer-songwriters duly stormed the citadel in the visceral guise of 1979’s Sabotage/Live (among a select handful of live albums to consist wholly of new songs), followed by its studio complement in 1981’s waspishly sardonic Honi Soit. Finding himself without a touring back the following year became the catalyst for Cale to pursue a more inward and uncompromising take on those issues personal and social in its successor – the result of live improvisations at New York’s Sky Line Studios – and how like Cale to focus his acute emotional angst through the discipline of a ‘time is money’ schedule.

Warmly while equivocally received on its release, Music For A New Society predictably died a death in commercial terms and soon went out of print. For a 1993 reissue, Cale subjected it to a degree of revision – notably with the inclusion of the track ‘In the Library of Force’ for a close of magisterial despair. Appreciative of if understandably guarded as to the qualities of an album long held in high esteem, he performed it live at the Aarhus Festival in 2013 then refashioned it from scratch into the very different if no less absorbing statement of M:FANS.

This release comprises a remastered Music For A New Society (largely adhering to the 1993 revision), such as renders its claustrophobic intensity with even more unsparing immediacy, along with M:FANS: their differences (not so) paradoxically highlighting their relatedness.

The precise nature of that relationship is clear at the outset – the barbed nostalgia of blurred keyboards and acoustic slide guitars of ‘Taking Your Life in Your Hands’ now an ominous processional of fazed ambience and interpolated voices, while the world weary vocal as set against mindless ostinato patterns of ‘Thoughtless Kind’ yields to an agile vocal line made more tactile by an unwavering rhythmic backdrop as makes possible the heady culmination. ‘Sanctus’ (heard now in a ‘Sanities mix’ as though to acknowledge its history of mistitles) duly swaps a fragmented vocal given context by fugitive percussion and glowering organ for a dehumanized rendition made even more menacing by its remorseless electronic backing.

By the same token, the eloquent vocal as enhanced by a fervent organ contribution of ‘If You Were Still Around’ is accorded greater sonic presence through melding of its keyboards and guitars with a motoric rhythmic undertow. Most lauded among the original tracks, ‘(I Keep A) Close Watch’ (the stripped down reworking of an opulent ballad from 1975 album Helen of Troy) has now acquired a deft lilt to its vocal thanks to the soulful backing voices – while, in ‘Broken Bird’, the formerly haunting combination of imploring vocal with subtly shifting keyboards has taken on heightened expression with piano and electronics sharply separated.

The intimate confession with acoustic guitars and intertwined strings of ‘Chinese Envoy’ gets a complete rhythmic overhaul with syncopated backing vocals over a funky electronic groove – while ‘Changes Made’, with its almost affirmative vocal and full-on rock backing, receives a more circumspect treatment via a whimsical central interlude and narrower sonic ambience. ‘(In the) Library of Force’, its initial incarnation no less fateful despite loss of that slammed piano lid, is more self-contained with its spoken voice foregrounded and an equivocal close.

M:FANS finds no place for ‘Damned Life’, its careworn vocal thrown into relief against the skewed instrumental paraphrase of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, or the palpably uneasy amalgam of matter-of-fact recitation over an intrusive classical sample that is ‘Risé, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov’. Music For A New Society is rounded off by out-takes of ‘Chinese Envoy’, heard in a ruminative acoustic version that is an almost perfectly realized demo, and ‘Thoughtless Kind’, which emerges as no less direct in its emphasizing one of Cale’s most revealing lyrics. M:FANS opens with ‘Prelude’, the fragmentary sample of a reticent phone-call between Cale and his mother as heard through a haze of processed ambience, and gains a second version of ‘If You Were Still Around’ whose discreet choral enhancement exudes even greater emotion. It closes with ‘Back to the End’ – a wistfully affecting number not so much abandoned as lost at the original sessions, and that makes for a restrained yet uplifting close wholly in keeping with the underlying affirmation of this ‘new’ album as well as (one presumes) of John Cale.

Make no mistake, such affirmation does not make M:FANS any ‘easier listening’ than was its parent album; rather the raw confessional of 33 years ago takes on a greater musical presence that conceivably serves to obscure or at least make the more oblique its singular perspective. As such, it fits securely into that sequence of albums which began with 2003’s HoboSapiens and then continued via 2005’s blackAcetate to 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood: a sequence in which personal observation has been rendered no less expressively acute for all that its creator has become not so much a primarily emotive force as a teasingly provocative presence. Where Cale goes from here remains to be seen: he evidently has an album of new songs ready for later this year; meanwhile, his realizing of The Velvet Underground & Nico to mark its 50th anniversary of release should be no less timely or relevant than is M:FANS.

Listen