Album Review: Blood Orange – ‘Coastal Grooves’

Soulful, tinged with the glamour and drama of NYC’s ’80s underground

Of all the imagined New York Cities past, present and future, it’s the one of the early ’80s that lingers longest in the mind’s eye. Just imagine!

Outrageous drag balls, bumpin’ block parties and no-wave freakshows over a backdrop of crumbling tenement blocks and copious neon. This is city living at its most vital, the creative impulse rubbing up suggestively against sidewalks streaked with filth, and leather-clad hoodlums lurking at every turn.

It’s precisely this NYC that Essex boy Devonté Hynes went off in search of when he moved out to the Big Apple in 2008. Here, the seeds of solo project [a]Blood Orange[/a] were sown in between working with wildly disparate folk like [a]Diana Vickers[/a] and [a]Theophilus London[/a], recording under the more familiar [a]Lightspeed Champion[/a] moniker and – more brilliantly – becoming a consultant for [a]Jay-Z[/a]’s fashion brand, Rocawear.

‘Coastal Grooves’ is inspired by the tragic, street-tuff transvestites of Jennie Livingston’s seminal NYC doc Paris Is Burning, cited as an influence by everyone from [a]Madonna[/a] to [a]Lady Gaga[/a]. Says the man himself, “I was trying to write songs that could be sung by a drag queen”, and it’s an ambition matched in the opening lyric of very first track ‘Forget It’. Propelled by puttering, funky guitar the song gives way to doomed romance in the chorus (“I am not your saviour”), revealing a thin, gauzy vocal from Hynes that’s notably less estuary-accented than before. ‘Sutphin Boulevard’ is even better, with a kerb-crawling swagger that brings to mind campy gang-flick fave The Warriors . It also dovetails well with the tranny love theme, grooving with all the train-wreck confidence of the guys’n’gals that populate Paris Is Burning. By contrast, ‘I’m Sorry We Lied’ rushes by like it has seen something lurking in its peripheral vision, Hynes picking up the pace as an electric guitar plays high and lonesome and panicked arpeggios flutter round his urgent vocal.

‘Can We Go Inside Now?’ (“I was a lonely girl, I grew up fast”) does Chris Isaak gone New York noir, and ‘S’cooled’ is an electro-house tinged, Catman groove surfing a bassline that sounds like the thick layer of grease coating a nightclub wall. It’s more of a jam than we’re accustomed to from Hynes, but pretty cool all the same. ‘Complete Failure’, meanwhile, sounds like a Western showdown in a garbage-strewn back alley, backed by a choir of angels with dirty faces. ‘Instantly Blank (The Goodness)’ sounds like a loved one disappearing through the steam from a manhole cover, and ‘The Complete Knock’ is a murky, middling disco caper that could be Foals wandering about in their sleep. The melancholy aspects of Hynes’ vision come to the fore on closing pair ‘Are You Sure You’re Really Busy?’ and ‘Champagne Coast’, despite the former boasting the deliciously feisty opening couplet “What’s in this for me?/Just get the fuck out of my house”. It’s nice that Hynes has emotionally invested in what could easily have wound up a pretty narrow conceit, but it’s still here that the album comes slightly unstuck.

Ultimately, ‘Coastal Grooves’ can’t quite transcend its identity as the solid handiwork of a talented journeyman, whatever its attempts at pathos. The record leans at times too heavily on its basic formula of pizzicato electric guitar and seedy, somnambulant basslines. Still, as a slice of

squalid glamour with a beating heart under its rusted exterior, ‘Coastal Grooves’ deserves your attention.

Alex Denney

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