Monday, April 1, 2013

Dawn Richard: Goldenheart (2013)

(Our Dawn)


Progressive rock's gradual invasion of R&B is complete now; we needn't fight it, if The ArchAndroid didn't already convince us it wasn't necessary. Former Bad Boy associate Dawn Richard's phantasmagoric, ethereal solo sophomore effort clinches the transformation -- and not merely because compositions by two members of Genesis are interpolated at various points. The record begins with teasing, ghostly orchestrations calling up "In the Air Tonight" -- a desperate and haunted melody that here serves to introduce us to Richard's fiercely smooth, carefully tentative M.O.: her songs are bottom-heavy and shimmery but twist their various knives in a confident, celebratory manner when the moment calls for it. That confidence is well earned even though Richard enters the world as a self-releasing solo artist without much clout behind her. We have to turn to deep cuts on R&B albums these days to find anything as terrifically bold as the stunt of melding Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" with a hi-NRG backbeat. Richard embraces everything she can think of, and the result is a consistently surprising, affectedly atmospheric record whose ghostly orchestrations and tricky, sensual beats amply reward the nocturnal heart.

Hooks are scattered, but hooks aren't really the point of an album like this anyway. Listen carefully to "Return of a Queen"; though its "do what you want to me" refrain offers concurrent strength and delicacy enough, you're stricken immediately by another, deeper contradiction: musically, it's sparse and direct but also florid, expansive, immersive, and its build into propulsive electro with an "Adorn"-like center is sweeping and feverish, especially in the properly moody setting it deserves. For a quicker primer on Richard's intriguingly warring impulses (war being a constant lyrical theme here, with even sex a "tug of war"), move up closer to "Northern Lights," something akin to Robyn Miller's music from MYST fused with a Jock Jams compilation -- it claps to insanity, peaking in a sharply exhilarating melodic chorus, one of many that are carefully mounted and dispersed by writer-producer Druski (Andrew Scott), who lays the bedrock for Richard's glorious vocal acrobatics. Her singing is perfectly nuanced, glowering and towering without a hint of the cloying easiness of a less adventurous pop singer.

Scott and Richard's taste may or may not be great, but it's certainly interesting, making entertaining and useful hay out of its intense schlockiness -- and as on recent totem albums by Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, and Frank Ocean, there's a certain pleasingly calm normalization of verbal and aural weird that artists outside of the R&B genre never seem to find quite so easy and joyous. Yeah, Richard's intricate lyrics aren't too far from Led Zeppelin's tiresome advocacy of fantasy novels, but she at least lives in 'em. When she starts a war on "Riot," it's a statement of purpose with giggly excitement toward the wet 1997 streets evoked by its heap of radio club music influences; the point being that even when she's relatively conventional, she finds excitement in it. And not to bring things back to a rockist platform, but one of the startling things about Goldenheart is its absolute heaviness -- the backlit sci-fi beauty in instant touchstone "Gleaux" boasts a tremendous focus and seriousness as the sex and subversion in its melody get steamrolled by its quixotically manic pace changes; the sound is positively huge, never mind Richard's unwavering voice.

Call it "modernist urban nocturnal pop" if the existing umbrellas don't satisfy you; they don't seem to satisfy Richard, who can exercise so many ideas in so little time it's kind of exhausting. The only song here with full-on outside production, by an outfit called the Fisticuffs who've worked with Miguel and others, is "Tug of War," and what a batshit piece of wonder this is. Initially it's stunningly soft, leaving room for emphasis on the expressive vocal and beat; but as the massive bass takes over, the pleading and strong insistence in Richard and her pure-sex determination to "be the champion" reaches a critical mass even as the song comes to seem ever more felt and layered. Its push and pull drum sound, its gloriously sensual rhythm make the forbidden point that we should be so lucky to deserve "what's coming to you," as she puts it. It's enough to make you wish for an immediate follow-up with a broader string of producers, something I generally don't advocate.

With all this talk of heaviness, we're underselling how fun this record is; its crafty camp and dissonance are the initial attraction and a strong reason to return. "Tug of War" segues splendidly into the great "Ode to You," which builds and releases its frustrated grooves with kiss and seduction, occupying firmly the sense of desire and need that seems so verboten in so much modern rock music. Case in point again, the classicist slow-jam and hot-shit single "86," conventional but sort of glorious and bringing us the killer hook of the whole LP. And remember that Richard herself, though she displays no sense of outsize ego, is a determined and dedicated artist; we don't abide much by the rather sexist "diva" distinction for anybody, but "Goliath" is the kind of showpiece that brings the house down in every capacity -- the size of it fills your head, the rhythmic vocal interactions and overdubs are Marvin Gaye-worthy, and note how Richard never forgets the record's swirling, cohesive motif of that starkness that's only pounded through with the incessant beat.

No doubt describing an album like this can seem reductive; "spacey" doesn't tell you much of anything, nor does the fact that a song with the line "vibrations set the tone" ("Frequency") actually is deliriously fun and sexy and not just silly. If you need a basic rundown on what's going on here, the single won't tell you much. Track down the craziest moment of all here, the Cruella Deville as Laura Nyro nonsense "Pretty Wicked Things" and fall the fuck into it. Distant, intense, almost shapeless, it's high cinematic drama with the wild ambition of contact you'll remember from the girl groups, but nothing like their letter or spirit. Its sweetness and darkness are so playfully skewered, especially in the vocals which "ooooooo" and "ohhhhhhhh" out into oblivion, that you feel like you're gonna lose patience with it any second now, but its muffled goth-soul keeps ingratiating. Leave the record on in the background and you're impressed enough by it already, but pay close attention and it's an absolute jolt.

Richard is going somewhere for sure... but she's not quite there yet. This would be an even more special record had it been pared down a bit, but like so many major R&B releases in the last few years, it's simply too long, to the point of being overwhelming. And in this case, it's also front-loaded, which makes the back half disappointingly forgettable, especially when it drifts into faux-inspirational stuff like the piano-heavy "Warfaire," which is no match for the Des'ree hit it immediately recalls. Cut this down to eleven or twelve songs and it's an enduring, remarkable dark night in, preferably shared with someone good in bed who either has drugs or feels like drugs. That's not to be reductive toward Richard's craft, it's just that her work here is genuinely, uncompromisingly erotic and adventurous, and you'll want all the time you can have with her most breathless and inspired work here. Never see the break of Dawn, indeed.

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