Of all the bands I was looking forward to this weekend — trust me, there were a lot — Autre Ne Veut was probably in my top two. He did not disappoint. Arthur Ashin, the Brooklynite singer behind the alias, brought his brand of stubbly yet smooth R&B to the Orange Peel, perfectly crooning his affection in an earthy falsetto that would make Justin Timberlake jealous. Even Bob Boilen of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” seemed pretty smitten.
(On a complete side note, I think Bob Boilen must have some sort of public radio teletransport machine, for his whirlwind tour of every Sunday-night act spanning multiple venues defies the laws of physics.)
R&B might be one of the hardest genres to get into as a listener (let alone as a singer). It’s the Harlequin novel of popular music, ridiculed for its cheesy confessions and melodramatic crescendos. R&B requires its male artists to be clean shaven, sweet and to pour the ladies a glass of zinfandel before proceeding to remove her clothes, so to speak. Say “R&B” out loud and I guarantee an image of Babyface or D’Angelo pops into your brain queue (with Michael McCary, the baritone from Boys II Men, doing that sexy narrating thing). This is where Alternative R&B/Neo-Soul says: enough is enough.
Autre Ne Veut brings the romance without the affect. He’s the five o’clock shadow to Babyface’s … babyface. He can be hungover and still convince his lady that she’s the only one for him. Take another example of a guy who’s breaking new ground in R&B: Frank Ocean. He’s trying to seduce the boys, too (“Forrest Gump you run my mind boy”). It’s not all rose petals and silk sheets for these post-R&B crooners. They’re masculine and melodious and backed by some serious synth.
While most of Mountain Oasis skewed heavily toward dark, heavy electronica, Sunday night’s Orange Peel lineup sprinkled some sugar and soul into the mix. After Autre Ne Veut came How to Dress Well (for me, a disappointment) and Mount Kimbie (pleasant and danceable, though not as heart-wrenching as ANV).
A guy who showed up late to the show eagerly asked if Autre Ne Veut had already played his ultra catchy “Play by Play.” That song begins with a few elongated cries of “Baaaby.” It intrigued me that so many dudes seemed into this R&B singer (there were definitely more males than females at the show), so I asked the guy what he liked most about ANV. He said he reminded him of Prince, in reference to the way he was innovating the genre, not churning out some smooth or plunky butter-greased hits.
When Autre Ne Veut calls you “Baaaby,” he really means it. He doesn’t have to wear a suit and tie and Armani cologne to prove it. A backward baseball cap and sweatshirt will do the job just fine.