Saturday, September 04, 2010

Album Review: Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid (4.5/5)


If Lady Gaga's made pop interesting again then Janelle Monae's done the same for just about every other genre you can associate pop with—whilst obviously not to the same magnitude but Monae's debut album The ArchAndroid is an ambitious and at times an overreaching set; an eclectic array of classic old-fashioned pop, R&B, jazz, hip-hop and rock but still being cohesive. Kicking things off is “Suite II Overture;” An enchanting opener, strings, haunting violins and dark chanting undertones for the first half before mellowing into a lighter ambiance for its whimsical second half with harps, strings and angelic progressive piano keys.

The fast-talking “Dance or Die” is clobbered with cool soundscapes, rapid bass lines and drums, almost re-calling Janet Jackson at her most introspective. The aptly titled “Faster” kicks up the tempo, reigning in the rapid bass lines and upping the soul, kinetic handclaps and guitars—nicely merging into “Locked Inside” a sweet ode to '70's soul, with its '70's styled arrangement and drum rolls re-calling Michael Jackson's “Rock with You.” I really like the electronic guitar mid-section and how nicely it fades out with the horns.

Switching things up is “Sir Greendown,” a dark mid-tempo with haunting undertones merging swiftly into current single “Cold War,” showcasing rapid drums and moody soundscapes before the sweet electronic guitars kick in towards the middle exuding a sense of rock on a old fashioned pop inspired track. “Tightrope” featuring one half of hip-hop duo OutKast, Big Boi, finds the album at its most contemporary; penetrating with funky percussion and cool guitar work.

Introducing the albums mid-section is “Neon Gumbo” a weird but interesting progressive 1 minute interlude in reverse building a screeching horn fade out. “Oh, Maker” begins a tender vocal and guitar arrangement before the bass kicks in then ultimately fathoms a cool fusion of old fashioned pop and modern R&B when things get into gear upon the chorus' approach.

There are a lot of them on here, but amongst the most interesting numbers here is “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” an exhilarating mix of Broadway inspired rock with throbbing electronic guitars and mind-numbing vocal acrobatics. The just as interesting and supposedly Radiohead inspired “Mushroom & Roses” a climatic rock ballad ringed with strings, heavy drums, soaring electronic guitars and inaudible distorted vocal work. It reminds me a lot of “Kid A” from Radiohead's Kid A album. It's cool to see Monae streaming from the same vein from such a unique sound and making it work.

“Suite III Overture;” introducing the last part of the album, showcasing classic '50's inspired strings and haunting undertones slowly merging into “Neon Valley Street” showcasing a fresh R&B sound and angelic vocal work, which works well with the strings and the burst of stuttering electronic guitars towards the end.

Along with “Neon Valley Street,” the biggest highlight the albums last section is “Make the Bus,” an '80s inspired dance number, throbbing with synths, cool soundscapes and drums. The last couple tracks ”57821,” “Say You'll Go” and “BaBopByeYa,” don't seem to have any interesting qualities and seem to give you more than you bargain for, dribbling on for a lengthy 17 minutes between them.

As ambitious as The ArchAndroid is, it's understandable that not everything quite works. Its eclectic mix of classic old-fashioned pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop doesn't withstand throughout the whole piece and can seem a tad contrived—especially the last section unnecessarily lengthening the album without actually delivering any solid tracks. However despite this The ArchAndriod is indeed the most well put together spectrum of different genres I've heard in awhile; remaining cohesive and generally consistent without the dramatic switches in genres seeming overwhelming.

Best: Tightrope, Cold War, Come Alive (War of the Roses), Locked Inside, Neon Valley Street, Mushrooms & Roses, Oh Maker, Dance or Die

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