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Along with artists like How To Dress Well and Holy Other, Autre Ne Veut makes music that’s sometimes categorized as “PBR&B,” suggesting a point where indie pop (ironically) meets modern R&B. Autre Ne Veut’s Arthur Ashin uses R&B tropes in his music, but rather than soundtrack a romantic moment, the songs instead voice the anxious thoughts that surround love. So while most R&B singers prowl the register somewhere between a pillow-talk purr and a sultry croon, only scaling upward toward a voice-cracking, la petite mort falsetto for emphasis, Ashin has his voice begin on the other side of that crack. Even in the standout tracks from his 2013 album Anxiety, he sounded as if he might unspool (or else shred a vocal chord) at any given chorus of “Ego Free Sex Free” or “Play By Play.”
In the opening moments of his third album, Age Of Transparency, Ashin sounds more in control, his raspy voice accompanied by slow, resonant piano chords, flute and stand-up bass. But a half-minute into “On And On (Reprise),” his voice starts to hiccup and glitch, and then the music itself starts to melt, as if the tape has begun to get chewed up and then spit back out. There’s no stable foothold to be found in this seeming piano ballad, as the music lurches, speeds and stumbles, the piano and voice skipping. While Ashin has had his own voice fray in the past, now the backing music splinters to a similar degree.
That isn’t always the case with Age Of Transparency, though, as Ashin retains some of the sparkling R&B moves of his breakout Anxiety. There’s the skittering snares in “Cold Winds” and the electro jitter of “World War Pt. 2.” The beats and shouted chorus hit big in “Panic Room,” as Ashin makes the “Latch“-like promise to “Lock you up tight and still make you think that you’re free.” And “Get Out” makes a few gospel moves.
What distinguishes Autre Ne Veut from Ashin’s peers is the risk he takes in moving beyond banks of synths and drum machines to work with live instrumentation, only to then distress and warp it into unsettling new shapes. In the brooding “Over Now,” the bass is bowed and the piano resounds in slow motion around Ashin as he remembers a now-still love affair. It moves along at a crawl, at least until the midway point, when a surge of white noise overtakes the song entirely, the sound of latent resentment and bitterness finally exploding. As with any tempestuous emotional outburst, Ashin then moves to smooth things over with a layer of strings. But the sound of crackling static remains, a personal disconnection signified by the sound of a wire no longer grounded.