Album Of The Week: Tinashe Aquarius
There are so many good new albums coming out this week — from Ex Hex, from Steve Gunn, from Zola Jesus, from Vashti Bunyan — but this week still turned into a two-horse race between Tinashe’s Aquarius and Caribou’s Our Love, two exceptional pieces of work. The hardest thing about that decision: those two albums fit together so neatly that it feels like a shame to pit them against each other. Caribou’s Dan Snaith is a longtime indie fixture who came to dance music late in life, and Tinashe is a former child actor and a young entertainment-industry veteran. Their backgrounds are nothing alike, but they’ve still crafted two remarkably similar albums, albums that make a lot of sense when played back-to-back. They’re both warm, lush, considered albums, albums that use electronics and open space to conjure these soft, expansive, luxuriant moods. And they’re both emotional albums, albums about love, about inner turmoil and contentment and longing and satisfaction. They’ve got similarly smart and understated ideas about melody. Caribou’s “Second Chance,” could’ve fit seamlessly onto the Tinashe album. The decision wasn’t easy, but it really came down to this: Our Love is an album of tracks; its moods and momentum hinge on tiny fluctuations of rhythm, and climaxes can come when a little bassline drops into the track for the first time. Aquarius, by contrast, is an album of songs, of verses and choruses and bridges and all that good stuff. I tend to like songs better than tracks. Must be the rockist in me.
We don’t hear too many albums like Aquarius, albums where the lineup of producers and songwriters and guests changes from track to track but the mood remains constant throughout. Even 10 or 15 years ago, when major labels cobbled together albums like this way more regularly, it was rare to hear an artist who could find ways to make all those different producers’ sounds unite and interlock. These days, when labels seem inclined to leave promising young B-listers on the shelf forever, an album like this feels miraculous, like a unicorn appearing in front of you on a mountain path. When an album like this — one where DJ Mustard and Stargate and Boi-1da and Evian Christ and Detail and Blood Diamonds and Mike Will Made-It all get production credits — actually hangs together as an album, I can’t help but get a weird little rush. Listening to Aquarius, you can get a brief feeling that the system works, that this thrown-together mob of executives and professionals and outsiders have all gotten together to help a young woman realize her vision. History has proven the opposite time and again, but Aquarius makes the entire music business sound like an enterprise dedicated to helping people become great.
As a singer, Tinashe belongs within the R&B conversation, but she’s not anyone’s idea of a power-belter. Her voice is slinky and playful and soft, and she knows how to ride on top of a beat or to multitrack a chorus of evocative aaahs. There’s no church in her delivery. It’s easy to compare her to Aaliyah, and Tinashe definitely picked up a few ideas on how to deliver breathy poise from that late legend. But there’s also some of the young Janet Jackson’s guileless charm. On something like the “Cold Sweat” intro, Tinashe isn’t exactly singing or rapping or even doing some conversation. Instead, her words sound like conversation, albeit conversation from one of those people whose conversations inevitably sound musical. Tinashe’s done serious time in the Hollywood trenches — playing the little kid’s girlfriend on Two And A Half Men, singing in a girl group that toured with Justin Bieber. But she’s also spent the past few years finding her voice on her own. I first heard of her when she sang on Ryan Hemsworth’s Guilt Trips album last year, but she’d already released two of her own mixtapes by then. A third, Black Water, came out toward the end of last year. I didn’t really get it at the time, but listening now, it sounds like the Aquarius sound was already coming together. That mixtape, like this album, was a pillowy mood piece, an exercise in woozy intimacy. But on Aquarius, she pulls off that same feeling with more confidence and grace and force. She’s doing the same things she’s been doing for a while; she’s just doing them better.
Right now, Tinashe’s signature song, and probably the reason she gets to release a major-label album in the first place, is “2 On,” the clipped and focused DJ Mustard track. Unlike most Mustard tracks, “2 On” isn’t exactly a banger. It’s calm and direct and effective. It’s a song about enjoying your own drunkenness, but Tinashe sounds fully in control, her voice floating unperturbed above Mustard’s synthetic tick-tock. But for all its chill, “2 On” is still an outlier on an album that really isn’t concerned with partying. More often, the tracks float with her voice, bending and fluttering with her. The songs can be about ardor or heartbreak, but they’ll still have that unhurried, remote drift to them. A song like “Bet” has the rat-tat-tat hi-hats and bass gurgles that you expect from a big-money pop song, but it gives them room to breathe, and then it erupts into a dizzily gorgeous Dev Hynes guitar solo toward the end. “How Many Times” and “Far Side Of The Moon” and “Wildfire” percolate with such ease that you almost don’t notice the killer hooks until they’ve wormed their way inside your brain. Rappers show up sometimes, and even though they’re guys I like — Future, A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q — their verses are always the weakest parts of their songs, since they can’t help but pierce through the atmosphere that Tinashe has so lovingly conjured.
These songs are slow-burners, songs that reveal themselves slowly, over multiple listens. “Pretend,” the album’s second single, came out weeks ago, and I feel like I’m only starting to understand what a perfectly written pop song it is. There’s feeling on “Pretend” — the wish for a passion that’s just not there, the hope that you can make things better just by acting like it’s better — but Tinashe and producer Detail don’t blast you over the head with it. They handle it delicately, gracefully. And while Tinashe keeps her delivery as flat and assured as ever, she lets a ghost of regret creep into her voice, subtly revealing itself in a tiny creak here or an ad-libbed ooh there. The other songs work the same way, taking their time in revealing themselves. “Wildfire” just laid me out the last time I heard it, even though I’d been living with it for a couple of weeks and it hadn’t had that effect on me before. Other songs will probably work the same way. Aquarius is a slow mist of an album, an unhurried pleasure. When was the last time you could say that about a major-label pop album?
Other albums of note out today:
• Weezer’s gleaming Ric Ocasek-produced comeback move Everything Will Be Alright In The End.
• Flying Lotus’ death-obsessed jazz-fusion odyssey You’re Dead!.
• Caribou’s lush, architectural, emotive dance opus Our Love.
• Ex Hex’s raucous power-pop hookfest debut Rips.
• Zola Jesus’ grand, operatic pop move Taiga.
• Steve Gunn’s spacious, fluttering folk-rocker Way Out Weather.
• Vashti Bunyan’s fragile, personal folk seance Heartleap.
• Iceage’s “I guess this is what Danish punks think country music is” country move Plowing Into The Field Of Love.
• Godflesh’s deeply heavy reunion album A World Lit Only By Fire.
• Blut Aus Nord’s pagan black metal wallow Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry.
• Peaking Lights’ hazily melodic Cosmic Logic.
• Radiohead drummer Philip Selway’s elegiac, singer-songwriterly solo album Weatherhouse.
• Allo Darlin”s charming twee-popper We Come From The Same Place.
• Bass Drum Of Death’s cranked-up garage blast Rip Tide.
• Field Report’s pretty, thoughtful Marigolden.
• White Laces’ thoughtful classic rocker Trance.
• Winterfylleth’s atmospheric black metal churn The Divination Of Antiquity.
• Johnny Marr’s arch, professional rocker Playland.
• Wampire’s relatively dark sophomore LP Bazaar.
• Peter Bjorn And John member Peter Morén’s solo effort Broken Swenglish Vol. 2.
• Bishop Nehru and DOOM’s self-titled debut team-up as NehruvianDOOM.
• We Were Promised Jetpack’s stormy, melodic Unravelling.
• Dark Blue’s post-hardcore debut Pure Reality.
• A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s moody post-rocker Atomos.
• The Dead Milkmen’s second reunion album Pretty Music For Pretty People.
• Gorgon City’s smooth dance debut Sirens.
• Music Go Music’s lush disco effort Impressions.
• Hungry Cloud Darkening’s lush, celestial Glossy Recall.
• Stench’s deconstructed metal attack Ventures.
• Hozier’s self-titled charm-rock debut.
• Stevie Nicks’ unreleased-songs collection 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault.
• Vince Staples’ Hell Can Wait EP.
• The Bug’s Exit EP.
• Fiancé’s EP1 EP.
• Deaf Wish’s St. Vincent’s +3 EP.
• Ex-Breathers’ ExBx EP.