In 2008, New Times contributor Ben Westhoff hypothesized a worthy argument: R&B music is dead. Westhoff complained that R&B had surrendered its identity to the demands of urban radio. The genre's faceless, plodding hip-hop beats were the antithesis of Teddy Riley, D'Angelo, and R. Kelly, creative songwriters who parented an edgier, sexier style of R&B a generation ago.
Westhoff's story foreshadowed R&B's current creative reawakening. Depending on your perspective, "indie" R&B is either whiny and self-involved or intriguingly emotional. The savviest soul warblers, though — think J*DaVeY from L.A. or Discovery from New York — breathe new possibilities into familiar genre tropes. The vaporous, seductive sense of quiet encircling records like Theo Parrish's Uget places them at a healthy distance from the overcooked prom ballads so popular on your radio dial. Similarly, while James Blake sings in a reedy falsetto, he sounds nothing like Anthony Hamilton or Miguel.
"I don't actually listen to R&B that much," chimes 20-year-old Alec Koone (a.k.a. Balam Acab). "I'd describe my own music more as ambient hip-hop, like Flying Lotus or Madlib."
Balam Acab is scheduled to perform Thursday, December 15, at Crescent Ballroom.
An undergraduate at Ithaca College, Koone still tinkers on self-bought studio equipment. He lives at home with his parents ("They really like the live show") in upstate New York. At first blush, he looks every bit the part of an anonymous and somewhat standoffish teenager. But his output — distinctly and powerfully his own less than two years into his proper recording career — tells a different story. Koone is deconstructing, although not singularly, the way we think about and listen to R&B.
Indie watchdogs first caught word of Koone in April 2010, thanks to the title track off that year's See Birds EP. Like the disturbed musical spawn of Gonjasufi and Burial's William Bevan, "See Birds" couples a timorous vocal with a rhythm so far off-center it threatens to get seasick. It's a warped little number and, to this day, Koone only appreciates the song's success grudgingly. "I was surprised by how much 'See Birds' caught on, because it's not one of my favorite tracks I've done by any means," he says.
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Released early in the third quarter of 2011, new album Wander/Wonder fielded glowing endorsements from such trendy institutions as NPR, Stereogum, and Resident Advisor. For this go-around, Koone sanded a few of See Birds' rough edges: "Oh, Why" occupies a gentler middle ground between electronic shoegaze and heaving chamber pop. Six-minute instrumental take "Long" approximates the portentous chug of Nosaj Thing — minus Nosaj's thudding, distorted bass.
True to its moody namesake, Wander/Wonder is a lonely album in sound, tone, and often content, with songs that address feelings of marginalization and uncertainty. In this case, it seems that the album was a product of Koone's preferred means of recording.
"In my experience, it's best and most productive to work alone," he says, making note of the fact that he's been recording on and off with a grab bag of musician friends since age 13. "But if you can find serious musicians to collaborate with, that can be very rewarding, too."
Perhaps what's most gratifying about Wander/Wonder is how free Koone feels to subvert his tried-and-true "R&B" tag. The drums are still stalwart, the grooves ripped from a history of black slow jams, but he undercuts them with choral coos, churchy strings, and wafer-like clouds of synthesizers. In a twist of irony, it turns out that one of R&B's most progressive composers doesn't even make R&B.