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James Vincent McMorrow Sculpts Alt-R&B Into Intricate New Shapes With ‘Post Tropical’

James Vincent McMorrow
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 14, 2014
Label: Vagrant

The realm of the alt-R&B troubadour has gotten mighty crowded in recent years, with your Frank Oceans, Miguels, and Weeknds holding down the center while assorted James Blakes, How to Dress Wells, and Thundercats explore the fringes with songs that often aren’t very rhythmic or bluesy, but still have a certain Gaye-ety in their vocals.
Twisting that genre into yet another shape is Irishman James Vincent McMorrow, who released a folk-ish album in 2011 called Early in the Morning that topped the charts in his home country. While the songwriting for this follow-up isn’t radically different from his debut’s slower moments, he’s flipped the script entirely in a stylistic sense, moving into a space somewhere between How to Dress Well’s falsetto choirs and the winter wonderlands of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s a very intentional shift — in one recent, well-circulated quote, he mentioned the Neptunes, Sufjan Stevens, and Drake, in addition to recalling how he once re-recorded an entire N.E.R.D. album just for fun — but nobody will be shaking much booty to anything here. Written, produced, and performed entirely by McMorrow, the album’s instrumentation is subtle and contemplative, the tempos generally unhurried.

The real magic is in his voice, or rather voices: Possessed of a sky-scraping falsetto that draws audible gasps from crowds at his shows, he often begins these songs quietly around gentle keyboard chords that build and grow as he piles on the harmonies, turning virtually whispered melodies into giant crescendos with lush, wordless backdrops sung by armies of overdubbed McMorrows. At no point does his voice drop anywhere near a standard male range.
“All Points” has the fastest and most driving rhythm here (though that’s not saying much), with a gentle but insistent pulse doubled on muted guitar; “Red Dust” builds its tempo as much from layers of hummed backing vocals as gentle electronic percussion; “Gold” features the most overt Bon Iver influence, all brassy keyboard chords and splashing cymbals; the opening “Cavalier” is a microcosm of the entire LP, with a soft handclapped rhythm, a gradually unfolding melody, and some of the album’s highest notes.

Both chilly and warm, soulful and soft, Post Tropical is an intricate ice sculpture of an album, and a fantasy come true for anyone who’s ever misted up over Maxwell’s version of “This Woman’s Work.” (The album isn’t out until Tuesday, but is streaming now at iTunes Radio.)