Friday, 13 May 2011

Album review: House of Balloons - The Weeknd

I can't claim to be any expert in RnB. I sort of lost interest around the time that Missy Elliot last made a decent record (Work it?). It's fair to say though that it probably hasn't had it's best period in recent years. It is easy to forget that at the turn of the millennium, Missy's producer (Timbaland) and others like the Neptunes were being feted as the very best in the world. Magazines were waxing lyrical about their ability to use techno style stabbing beats to modernise the urban sound. Then we had Chris Brown, R Kelly's increasingly bizarre behaviour and a lot of records that sounded tired and formulaic.

Imagine my surprise then when I heard the Weeknd's House of Balloons.  The Weeknd are clouded in mystery but are supposedly Abel Tesfaye (vocals) and Jeremy Rose (production) and hail from Toronto. They have made this album freely available to legally download (see link below), incredible given that its the most fresh sounding RnB album I've heard for some time. What is immediately apparent is the sense of space in their sound - clearly influenced by US chillwave and possibly even London's post dubstep scene. This all adds a slightly melancholy vibe to the production. The album take the listener on a journey through a night (or indeed a weekend) out and there are melodic hooks and crazy lyrics aplenty to keep things interesting throughout.

The opening two tracks ease us in before third track Glass table G. This starts a bit like something off the last Fever Ray album but then, three minutes in, shifts completely with a buzzy bass and vocals about the culmination of a wild night out. 'She give me sex in a handbag, I get her wetter than a wet mag' - it's sleazy, un-PC and quite brilliant. I doubt I'll hear a more compulsive piece of music all year. Next track The Morning is a much more conventional RnB track with its talk of 'pussy assed niggas' but still finds time to talk about codeine cups. Wicked games has electric guitar straight out of an 80's film soundtrack but Abel's vocal soars to create a blissed out coke haze - it's absolutely lovely in a really guilty pleasures way. By this stage, halfway through the record, an open minded listener can't help but be drawn in even if this isn't their natural territory. You feel dirty listening to it but its so good you can't help it - sort of how you feel watching Top Gun or Dirty Dancing.

The second half of the record in particular shows that the band have pretty varied taste. Indie is not an unknown quantity to Weeknd with both Siouxxe and the Banshee's Happy Home and Beach House being sampled. The band that spring to mind most though are the XX - not only because of the sense of space but also the way that they are happy to let a song unfold at it's own pace - quite a feat on a debut album where the temptation is inevitably to make every song 'matter'. A perfect exmple is Coming Down which drifts by effortlessly in the way Fleetwood Mac's Albatros would if it had R Kelly singing over the top of it. Loft Music is another highlight - 'I hear noises in the bathroom' again hints at the debauchery of the main protagonist. Final track The Knowing is frankly ludicrous. Its clearly an atempt to end things on a slightly more meaningful note and wouldn't necessarily sound out of place in a Disney movie (think Lion King) with its anthemic afro balladry.

The album as a whole is undoubtedly over the top in its hedonistic melodrama but is utterly enthralling. This is clearly a record that can only benefit from being played very loud on a car soundsystem - and how many records can you say that about recently? The production is superb and the vocal exposes a drug-addled vulnerability that many will relate to. I've been playing it to death over recent weeks and I think (especially given that its absolutely free) you should check it out too....let me know what you think.

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