January 29, 2014

Test Spin: Post Tropical, James Vincent McMorrow

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James Blake, How to Dress Well, Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd. In the past couple years perhaps no other genre of music has been experiencing a creative renaissance quite like R&B. While for much of the last decade the genre was considered a kitsch pop element to not be taken too seriously, many of the best new artists making music these days are using it as a platform for intricate songwriting and huge emotional heft. As a result, it can be very difficult for artists to pave their own lane in the genre and make their voices stand out.

For Irish singer/songwriter James Vincent McMorrow though, it’s as simple as using live drums. The prevalence of falsetto and warm keyboards on his sophomore effort Post Tropical will be nothing new for those who are fans of the above artists (especially James Blake). But when cymbal crashes enter the mix two-and-a-half minutes into first track “Cavalier,” the song takes on a unique airiness, harkening back to a time when folks like Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding worked with studio musicians.

This is not to say that Post Tropical is merely a nostalgia trip. Like much of the best modern pop music, the album takes cues from a myriad of styles and genres. The tight handclaps that ground “Red Dust” are a sidelong reference to Chicago’s juke electronic music. However, McMorrow’s brittle falsetto and euphoric harmonies that crowd out all other sonic space, suggest something far less frantic. The title track builds on a Celtic folk guitar line in its second half but is again tempered by McMorrow’s mounting harmonies.

Title aside, Post Tropical seems poised for contemplative listening in the dead of winter, where landscapes can often be rendered monochromatic and spaces and gaps make themselves known. “There is so little light from the warmth of the sun,” McMorrow laments late into the album, with all but a spare keyboard to support him. McMorrow’s lyrics throughout the album — remembering his first love in “Cavalier,” for example — convey spitefulness of the cold, but at the same time his voice is so smooth and the arrangements of Post Tropical so lush, there’s also a palpable appreciation of it. Even as he ventures toward warmer climates, reaching for palm trees in “imagined destiny” on “All Points,” he is drawn to the cold — “Still thinking of the cold air,” he remarks, “always thinking of the cold air.”

The drums are so important on this album in particular because, without them, McMorrow’s builds to euphoric highs from his chilling lows would sound fairly cheesy. In “Repeating,” vocal harmonies build in intensity to the point that they literally distort in the speakers by track’s end, a move which would be predictable filler if not for the burst of cymbals that emphasizes McMorrow’s lines, then the snare roll that accompanies the rest of the song. Thanks to that initial jolt, the track becomes an engaging album highlight.

Another artist who uses percussion strategically like this is Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, but McMorrow manages to conjure as much emotional impact with a significantly more limited palette of sounds. Post Tropical sounds aware of the musical climate that surrounds it, but exercises restraint in creative ways. That is a great attribute for an artist who seems poised for a big break this year as a result of this album. Here’s hoping James Vincent McMorrow can continue to be savvy with his musical toolbox. And that the cold doesn’t let up too soon.