We all know that the whole PBR&B thing got way out of hand way too fast last year. It’s not that the four acts people really wanted to talk about twelve months ago didn’t sound R&B-ish in their own way, but rather that none of the sounded at all like each other. Frank Ocean made distanced, theatrical pop music, the Weeknd made the same post-dubstep Houston amalgam as album-era Drake, How to Dress Well made straight experimental music with Inoj-inspired vocals, and Miguel made modern-radio R&B with an artsy and nostalgic edge. If there was a larger aesthetic going on, its supposed existance had a lot more to do with an eagerness on the part of the media to connect the dots than any sort of real-life cohesive scene.
Even so, it would be tempting to recapitulate last year’s arguments after hearing the duo Rhye’s debut album Woman, if only because it is the most easily available comparison and the story works. Last year’s clusterfuck must have given birth to a second wave. We’re finally here: post-PBR&B! Well that would be just fine if Michael Milosh, Rhye’s resident soft-voiced skinny man hadn’t already been making very similar sounding music for almost ten years. Sure, Milosh’s vocals are smooth as glass and the album is coated in a generally sensual aura, but one could say just as much of Bon Iver and I don’t think anyone’s willing to accept him into the new pantheon of rhythm and blues.
In fact, comparing Rhye to Bon Iver is much more productive than any nu-R&B act, because Woman is actually the quiet culmination of a number of recent explorations on the softer side of indie music. Milosh’s vocal’s have a distinctively casual tone, certainly not emotionless, but less urgent than comfortably wanton. In a larger historical perspective, they are most reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie, the sweet yet raspy voiced ballad singer who spoke infamous lines like “for you, there’ll be no more crying.” Sad, certainly, but digestably so. Through a more holistic lens, the music’s tone mimics that of Paul Simon’s crowd pleasing exaltery anthem’s of the 1980s, minus most of the African rhythms. While not nearly as political and slowed to an easier pace, Woman embodies the same warmth and untortured feeling of soft rock’s classics.
What makes Rhye particularly compelling in 2013 is that such a richly classic feeling has been compiled from relatively recent sources. The album’s slow pace may throw you. As before, slow build R&B precedents like Al Green or D’Angelo might immediately come to mind, but unlike either, Woman almost never aims to promote tension. Far more comparable are the experimentally droopy sounds of trans-Atlantic indie acts like the xx or James Blake, guys and gals who ride on negative space and minimalism as method of creating emotion.
On the production side of things, however is really where Woman gets creative. The beats range from smooth jazz, to soft neo-disco, to post-rock string arrangements. And while Milosh’s voice tends to ground his vocals in comfortable influences and inflections, Robin Hannibal’s production shows a kaleidoscopic yet controlled approach to the album’s very specific tone, yielding thirty five minutes of some of the most assured and intricate music to come out so far this year.