Word to explain.ca
Thanks Stephen Carlick
(June 28), in a small, sound-absorbing, pot-lit studio, a group of journalists and media types convened to hear Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. Ocean, who sat in on the whole thing, was an hour late, so we all waited patiently; some chatted quietly, others schmoozed with Odd Future manager Chris Clancy, offering nuggets of insightful gold like “this must be quite a project.” Meanwhile, beside a mixing board the size of a car, studio execs discussed pros and cons of pressing the album on orange vinyl.
When Ocean showed up, he was nothing if not polite, apologizing for being late, shaking hands with everyone in attendance, pretending to remember everyone he’d met just once at some media event. “The album is called Channel Orange,” he began. “It’s gonna take about an hour of your life. I’m super proud of it. That’s all I got for you.” With that, he sat in front of the mixing board, and Channel Orange began.
The intro track is just a few seconds long, all shimmering synths and 8-bit videogame sound effects. Its “channel-surfing” sound effects introduce a theme that will run throughout the album, especially the interludes, as though you’re clicking the buttons of a TV remote to venture forward.
2. “Thinkin’ Bout You”
The first single has been given a makeover, with bigger, lush strings, both acoustic and digitized, and deeper drums that emphasize the space in which Ocean’s voice hangs.
A funked-up, showtune-esque interlude about 30 seconds in length, and darling in its exuberance.
4. “Sierra Leone”
Not entirely dissimilar to “Thinkin’ Bout You,” “Sierra Leone” is a wall of washed-out, breathy synths and thudding drums, punctuated by woozy strings and tinkling chimes. Think Marvin Gaye if he’d been into reverb.
5. “Sweet Life”
Five tracks in and I’m already out of condoms. This sultry piece is introduced by a melodic bassline and jazzy Wurlizter keyboard. Shuffling drums and thick vocal harmonies build to an all-out crescendo including a brass ensemble. The trick of building up instrumental parts until they all coalesce in a grand crescendo is one Ocean employs a few times on Channel Orange.
6. “Not Just Money”
A speech interlude about happiness over tinny traffic sounds and a turning indicator.
7. “Super Rich Kids” (ft. Earl Sweatshirt)
A talk-sung, pseudo-rap verse from Ocean over an emphatic piano and drum stomp leads to a borrowed chorus from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” but the highlight is a slow, methodical rap verse courtesy of Earl Sweatshirt. Ocean’s falsetto refrain makes it clear why the rapping in Odd Future is left to others.
8. “Pilot Jones”
The channel-surfing leads quickly to reversed synths and hammering sub-woofers, isolating Ocean’s voice so that his melody, one of the best here, lilts loud and clear above the instrumental tracks. Synth chords come in briefly near the end, but fade out again quickly into Rhodes for “Crack Rock.”
9. “Crack Rock”
Fans of the Roots’ early catalog will recognize the Rhodes keyboard and Questlove-style, hi-hat-heavy beat. The best part, though, is when the drums halt for Ocean’s melancholy chorus, and then start back up again to propel the song’s verses, about (surprise!) the adverse effects of drugs.
You’ve heard this one, but not until you’ve heard it on a space-encompassing, brain-rattling speaker system. The synth breakdown a minute in hits especially hard.
Another slow build, “Lost” begins with spare guitar, keyboard whorls and tight, cracking snare. As jabs of string ensemble are slowly added to the mix, so are more of Ocean’s background vocals and and stacks of harmony. Look for at least a trio of background singers on Ocean’s upcoming tour.
12. “White” (ft. John Mayer)
Thank god John Mayer’s contribution to this record is only a guitar part. My breath was held waiting for the track to feature his syrupy croon, but it never came — “White” is an interlude of bluesy guitar noodling and white noise.
The siren synths that begin this song, underlined by plucked bass, go staccato in the first chorus. Then, they join an all-out soul-jazz groove, with Ocean wailing yearningly in and out of falsetto, over the fray.
14. “Bad Religion”
Over a plaintive organ, Ocean begins talk-singing to a cabbie, and ends with his most audacious vocal performance on the record, hitting the upper part of his register without going to falsetto. A string section, rat-a-tat snares and hand-claps lend a gospel feel to this album highlight.
15. “Pink Matter” (ft. Andre 3000)
A lyrical continuation of “Sweet Life,” but where that song was nestled in the sexy, R&B half of Channel Orange, “Pink Matter” is at one with the more ambitious and introspective second half. Ocean stays in his resonant baritone register here, as slow, mournful strings and barely audible, clanging trash-can drums lead to funk bass, which leads to Outkast’s Andre 3000. Andre’s amazing verse is an album highlight, as is the funk guitar solo that follows him and the four-beat bass drum that ends the song.
16. “Forrest Gump”
Clicking, stuttering sub-drum tracks and quick guitar strokes propel the penultimate track of Channel Orange. A sample of an appreciative crowd underlies Ocean’s simple melody, which is mirrored by guitar licks. A whistled outro provides a nice denouement to Orange’s second half.
A reverbed-out, just-audible “Voodoo,” an early track that never made the album cut, provides the end interlude, along with muffled sounds of traffic and rain. Then, the car door opens and the sound of rain in the background intensifies. The crunch of gravel leads to a front door, and, once indoors, the recording stops abruptly. TV or reality, Channel Orange ends here.