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Music reviews: Frank Ocean, Passion Pit, thenewno2

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At Lollapalooza, fans often either show up to the band's set because they've heard the new album, or they leave the band's set eager to hear the new album.

Last weekend's Lollapalooza 2012 -- when it wasn't being rained out -- presented a handful of good performances, with many of the artists drawing from some stellar new albums. Here are three such records worth picking up or downloading now that we've all gotten the mud cleaned off:

channelO.jpgFrank Ocean, "Channel Orange" (Def Jam) 3<br />
and a half stars -- "A tornado flew around my room before you came," Frank Ocean sings by way of opening his debut album, "Channel Orange." Immediately before this album's release, Ocean certainly created a media storm with a sly online admission of his broad-minded sexuality. Many understandably suspected the move was calculated to raise the hype for his new album; indeed, the resulting buzz caused "Channel Orange" to be rush-released. Fortunately, all that fuss turned out to be irrelevant. This is an album brimming with genius and vision -- it requires no cheap tactics to sell its overall accomplishment.

After a wide array of singles (with as widely varied results) -- and after establishing his talent as a songwriter in collaborations with Kanye West and Jay-Z, Beyonce, Justin Bieber and others -- Ocean (born Christopher Breaux) delivers a debut album that's a carefully crafted whole. With roots in soul traditions, foundational hip-hop skills and generations of R&B excellence, Ocean, 24, works his warm, reedy natural voice and his firm falsetto through a series of slow jams that are patient, thoughtful, often wordy.

Somewhere between singing and rap flow lies Ocean's unique way of making tuneful the stream of his particular consciousness. Whether embracing a romantic kind of apathy ("Sweet Life"), ruminating on one angle of a drug epidemic ("Crack Rock") or using Cleopatra as the launching pad for a 10-minute, deep, dubstep groove ("Pyramids"), Ocean hurls his favorite traditions at the horizon.

His attention span seems short, as some songs seem unfinished or end abruptly, but the music -- much of it ethereal, gauzy, held together by force of will alone and mixing classic soul harmonies with soft, glitchy rhythms -- could land this performer on a bill with Stevie Wonder as easily as on an inspirational and techie TED talk. Likewise, at Lollapalooza his band didn't support his vocals as much as they painted around them. In both settings, Ocean's talent appears as deep as his moniker.

thenewno2, "thefearofmissingout" (Hot) 2<br />
and a half stars -- Dhani Harrison seems to work hard not to sound like his father, the Beatles' George. Working within genres his dad never quite mastered (electronically) and frequently affecting his voice (non-electronically), he makes the effort to assert his individual vision. For this sophomore set, Harrison and his partner, the Grammy-winning sound engineer Paul Hicks, get the bleeps and blurts bubbling around the other capably handled live instruments, producing an effervescent total sound. The carbonation takes a few tracks to finally fizz over -- hitting a stride on the pop gem "I Won't Go" and again, joined by Ben Harper and Thorunn Antonia on "Staring Out to Sea" -- but the overall sound is a satisfying hum that grows on repeated listens. Just be sure to set your playlist to skip "thewaitaround," a jarring hip-hop aberration featuring RZA and others that's basically the Mentos in this particular pop (i.e., a gawking mess).

Passion Pit, "Gossamer" (Columbia) 3<br />
stars -- A personal as well as critical favorite of mine this year, Passion Pit's sophomore album is a bright, romantic pop confection. Musically bright, anyway -- like a Smiths song, underneath the cheery sound is a melancholy soul with a lot on his mind. Singer-songwriter Michael Angelakos recently discussed his lengthy battle with bipolar disorder; ahead of Lollapalooza he'd been canceling tour dates related to his mental health, and there was concern as to whether he'd make the fest. Without the resulting intellectual gravitas, indeed, "Gossamer" likely would be so airy and twee it would, like its namesake, merely flutter and fly away. But this record's own dynamic swings, from battering bass to almost excessively trebly percussion, as well as a careful balance between breezy synths and stoic sentiments ("I remind myself that times could be much worse," Angelakos sings in the buck-up anthem "Take a Walk," before assuring himself and others "I'll Be Alright"), makes for an experience both physically and spiritually reviving.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on August 12, 2012 12:00 PM.

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