Accessibility, with limits: Cloud Nothings and Kehlani

Kehlani – SweetSexySavage

“I’m too much of a woman, too much of a bad ass bitch,” Kehlani sings on a track, three quarters of the way through her debut, that plays like “More Than a Woman” without Aaliyah’s preternatural reserve. “In My Feelings” interpolates New Edition’s devastating “If It Isn’t Love” — apt, for SweetSexySavage takes its emotional cue from the 1988 track’s “Maybe she’ll take me back” middle eight. Taking no shit but giving a shit when the occasion demands it, Kehlani is the most rounded of new R&B singers: not as masochistic as K Michelle, indifferent to Fantasia’s self-help bromides. She prizes availability, with limits: “Everything I do, I do it with a passion/If I gotta be a bitch, I’mma be a bad one,” as she puts it in “Distraction.” With the well-named Pop & Oak sculpting settings that place hooks front and center but with a thick and sturdy rhythmic base, SweetSexySavage doesn’t let up. Like most albums in the streaming age, it’s too long, but I don’t know what to cut or, important, why I would cut it. As a listener entering his second full decade as an out homosexual, I savor subtext when I hear it, which is why “Undercover,” about realizing the object of desire loves you back when your friends and family don’t love him, gains in poignancy.

Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

Responsible for three punk albums as bracing as a bucket of warm saltwater in the face, this Cleveland quartet makes the expected move: reducing the distortion, jangling up. For the uninitiated, the piano with which “Up to the Surface” opens will sound like typical production sweetening, no more or less; for fans, the way Dylan Baldi and Chris Brown answer the chorus of “Modern Act” with guitar strums may prompt questions about when a Real Estate album crept into the playlist. John Goodmanson, the credits say, responsible for the million-buck sheen on clients as diverse as Brandi Carlisle, Sleater Kinney, Bikini Kill, and Hanson. Good for them. Clarity distinguishes Cloud Nothings from a thousand bands rehearsing in Ohio exurbs. Even when “Reason My Fate” rumbles past the five-minute mark, their arrangements resist sprawl, like brownstones in an old city. A singer whose screams are as intimate as whispers, Baldi also specializes in a shrewdly deployed skepticism: romanticism is the thing examined, not the prism through which to look at things. Drinking those tall refreshing glasses of driveway gravel before stepping in front of the mike helps. “I’m not the one who’s always right,” he observes in “Internal World.” “Feels like the tide is starting to come in,” he rasps elsewhere.

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