Karaoke, Crooning, Creed
Arthur Ashin —the 30-year-old Brooklynite behind Autre Ne Veut— cites karaoke as the 'primary influence' on his music. Part of this comes due to the nature of his liveshows: like so many one-man-band types, Ashin performs on stage with no band, instead singing —in his wild wail— over playback. When punters describe this (actually really ballsy) set-up as "like karaoke," it's meant as a criticism; but Ashin turns it into a virtue. As with actual karaoke, letting loose with mic in hand allows Ashin to play up this performative aspect of his singing, amplifying it with a kind of conceptual over-exaggeration.
In indie music, this kind of theatricality —creating a persona, then living up to it— is relatively rare. Most nervous —or, indeed, anxious— synth nerds who started out making minimalist ambient music would stay just there; or keep that self-effacing air no matter how dramatic their music got. But, as Autre Ne Veut, Ashin has provocatively poked at expectations of the indie artist. In 2011, he took the audacious, borderline-obnoxious step of covering Christian-rock colossuses Creed, a gesture that questioned the usual mores of good taste and indie credibility in a fashion as dramatic and defiant as Ashin's adopted persona.
It's a persona that's bundled up in his voice, which is every bit as bold and beery as the most committed, most striving-for-it karaoke singer. Where his 2010, self-titled Autre Ne Veut LP found that voice sounding a little rough and strained, on Anxiety, his big, belting-out singing feels more controlled; just as the programming on the album feels brighter, bolder, and closer to the hi-fi, glossy, pop productions Ashin endeavors to summon.
Ashin draws from commercial R&B ballads, beginning with over-the-top '80s pop and moving through slow-jam iterations drawn from Quiet Storm, to New Jack Swing, Timbaland's productions with Aaliyah, and the contemporary work of figures like The-Dream. On the Autre Ne Veut LP that felt, too, like maybe it was a provocation: for all the times he's compared to his pal/peer Tom Krell of How to Dress Well, Ashin makes music that arrives at a completely different register. Despite his ambient background, he doesn't play with lo-fi haze or melancholy minimalism; and his voice is rarely layered, and never restrained. This is not music of restraint, but excess; not vulnerability, but projection; not insular hesitation, but outward explosion.
Though Anxiety marks a definite step up from Ashin's debut, it shows that he certainly doesn't have Krell's considered philosophical leanings, lyrical depth, and ability to sustain a mood. Its title suggests, perhaps, a theme; anxiousness a recurring currency for anyone trying to navigate the often-alienating landscape of digitized contemporary times. But the songs —using the word 'baby' more times in 38 minutes that Ashin would in a year's worth of conversations— subscribe to the simple universality of the pop-song. They're often about breakups, or something resembling such; but the details are light, and the syllables —no matter how evocatively screeched— seem just as much to be sounds as they are text.
This is not a necessarily criticism, and when Ashin turns his hand at building big, baleful ballads, it certainly matters not; the simple sentiments, when part of the right song, hitting a charming kind of sincerity. Amidst the hysterical falsettos of "Gonna Die" and the two-part mantra "World War," Ashin plays with images conflating the end of a relationship to the end of the world; whereas the tender resignation of the acoustic-guitar-dotted, downpitching kiss-off "A Lie" and the snarling, synth-blasting sound-off "Counting" find Ashin living out the emotion —both positive and negative— that come with any kind of goodbye.
It's at moments like these that the feeling of Ashin as a pastiche artist falls away. That the attendant irony of summoning the FM detritus of love-songs-and-dedications yore —or, indeed, of covering Creed— is swamped by a feeling of sincerity. Hearing Ashin wail away, borderline hysterical, amidst "A Lie" is like one of those fleeting moments when a karaoke singer just nails it: the genuine transcendence feeling all the more beautiful for being unexpected.
Release Date: February 12, 2013