Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid

Okay, let's say you take modern R&B, and you cross it with science fiction tropes. You frequently filter voices so that they take on a robotic cast. What've you got? 

Well, maybe Parliament/Funkadelic circa 1976. 

Now take all that, and use the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper as your template. 

Now you've got a magificent new album by Janelle Monae, called "The ArchAndroid". 

The Pepper influences are there at the very beginning, where an orchestra tunes up playing nearly the same notes as those on the earlier album. After playing through a full and gorgeous orchestral piece, we jump right into "Dance Or Die", and the true intent of the album begins to become evident. Fast paced and hooky, the song zips by in a flash of funky guitars and lightning vocals. 

That's just the beginning. There are so many highlights on the album that it's hard to pick them all out. 

The first section, which features songs transitioning to other songs (much like the beginning of Sgt. Peppers, come to think of it), continues the groove through "Faster" and "Locked Inside", making an indelible piece of continuous music that wouldn't be the same if the songs were separated. That makes it a nice touch, and a monster beginning. 

All of a sudden, "Sir Greendown" is next, adding a 1960s vibe to the proceedings, with a tinny organ, acoustic guitars, and lots of reverb : it reminds me of such early classics as the Surfaris "Image Of a Girl". The organ reverb continues into "Cold War", but then a beat kicks in and carries it into another realm. We move on to "Tightrope", which features Big Boi but sounds more like Andre 3000's "Hey Ya", with a galloping drumbeat and soul vocals. 

As you can see, we're less than halfway through, and we've already done some travelling. It's difficult, in prose, to describe the diversity here, but suffice to say that even though the musical styles are all over the place, there's a continuity among the tunes that's attractive and tight. 

Backwards vocals (hmm, also explored by the Fab Four) in "Neon Gumbo" usher us another new section starting with "Oh Maker", which is a mellow and tuneful song that could've been written by Paul McCartney, if he was channeling Corinne Bailey Rae, and had recruited Carlos Santana on guitar. "Come Alive (War of the Roses)" is punky, with fuzz guitar, rock guitar, and appropriate screaming from ringleader Monae. 

And she continues as a ringleader, marshalling us through the psych-prog of "Mushrooms and Roses". 

Everyone stop and enjoy now "Suite III Overture" (Suite II was at the beginning of this album, and Suite 1 appeared on an EP Ms. Monae did earlier). The orchestra stays for the extended "Neon Valley Street", which stays an old-fashioned torch song driven by strings and organ, until the intrusion of android vocals adding a rap in the midst of all. Seamlessly.

Oddity band Of Montreal helps out on "Make the Bus", which is funky and, um, odd. "Wondaland" finds Janelle singing in a higher range (and she has an amazing versatile voice to be able to carry off what she does on this album). The song is one of the best on an album of superlatives, featuring an irresistable hook and a general feeling of happiness. Nice. 

"57821" gives us acoustic guitar and massed choral voices, sounding pastoral and based on folk - it's a nearly perfect imitation of Fleet Foxes, as a matter of fact. And that's meant as a compliment. 

We finish with two long pieces, both distinctive in their sound and worth their length. "Say You'll Go" is a gorgeous ballad, jazz-inflected and pretty."BaBopByeYa" begins with orchestral meanderings that sound like a soundtrack for a suspense film, and when the bass drum kicks in, it's magnificent. The song slowly slides into a jazzy groove that is both old and innovative at the same time. The mood of the song continues to morph over time, but stays consistent and fascinating. 

I've spent so much time describing the album here, but I've just begun to scratch the surface. Just let me say that if you appreciate diversity in musical endeavors, this is for you. Actually, there's something here for nearly everyone. The record is dense, beautiful, and it represents a step forward for music in the 21st century. I began by comparing it to Sgt. Peppers, and - while I don't think it will ever have the influence of that album; the music audience is too fragmented nowadays for that - I think it's a valid point of comparison. This is genius. 

I give "The ArchAndroid" a 9.5 on the England Swings scale of 1-10.

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