Rex Orange County’s (real name Alexander O'Connor) previous album Apricot Princess was my introduction to the artist. It was a piano-driven, middle-of-the-road jam session whose easygoing feel flitted between melancholic and stoner. It's my favorite album to drive automatic to, but it’s an otherwise moderate effort at elaborating on the strengths of the previous release, bcos u will never b free.
And ever since O'Connor did that collaborative cover of "You’ve Got A Friend In Me" with Randy Newman, I’ve found it hard to separate the two in terms of melodic approach. O'Connor sounds like zillennial Newman, fiddling on a beat-up Yamaha keyboard in a room plastered with ABBA and Fleetwood Mac posters, while kush smoke eddies out into a blood orange, mayfly sunset. Not a bad thing. But I think for a while, O'Connor got very creatively comfortable, playing to clear melodic strengths that appeal to kids who keep a copy of Amy Winehouse's Frank in a candle-lit shrine.
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That said, it’s not every time an artist can release a follow-up that manages to be both more experimental and catchier than its predecessor, but Rex Orange County achieves this with his new album Pony. In opening track “10/10,” we get O’Connor mixing it up with auto-tuned vocals that somehow manage to brighten his drawling melisma. Introducing the album with keys would be too easy, which is why I think O'Conner opts instead to hit us hard with Third Eye Blind-esque guitars. "10/10" sets the tone—we're getting something just a tad more electric than what we're used to, and that's a good thing.
That electricity takes on more forms than just treble and distortion. The horns on "Laser Lights" (and some twiddly flute-work) call to mind the stylings of Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. Choral melodies allow "Face to Face" to hit the ground running, and that momentum sustains. The pulsing bass rhythmics in "Never Had the Balls" sound like the kind of song that plays in that part of the romcom where the lovesick boy sprints past airport security to the girl about to board for Mexico.
What brought on this artistic turbocharge? Is it the collaborations? Did brushing shoulders with Tyler, the Creator increase his powers?
The bouquet centerpiece of Pony would probably have to be "It Gets Better." It's likely the weirdo track of the album—a samba-esque hip-shaker (with violins?) that wouldn't sound out of place if somebody put it in Justin Bieber's Purpose. And I don't think the comparison is a stretch—Pony, like Purpose, highlights the creative sensibilities of its artist not with complicated song structures or poignant lyricism, but with slick, adventurous production.
The pulsing bass rhythmics in "Never Had the Balls" sound like the kind of song that plays in that part of the romcom where the lovesick boy sprints past airport security to the girl about to board for Mexico.
Those little composition/production tricks aren't the highlights of this album. As usual, it's O'Connor's chord sense that carries the whole thing. The man knows his scales. The way he reads the relationship between notes, O'Connor sounds like he could've gone on to become a Broadway composer but decided the indie circuit was more his steez.
We still get to see his prosaic lyricism at play here. "But until somebody sits me down / and tells me that I'm different now / I'll always be the way I always am," he warbles on "Always." O'Connor's words have an abstracted quality to them. These are real feelings, but because they're delivered with confidence and emotional security, they seem almost low drama.
Where does Rex Orange County have to go from here, then? How long can he hold on to what, so far, has been a consistent up and up trajectory? Perhaps the next album (though maybe I'm speaking too soon) might call for out-of-the-box features and collaborations, or writing beyond his vocal range. Or maybe I'm expecting too much. I'm most likely going to put Pony on while I'm behind the wheel and stuck in traffic, as O'Connor coaxes the tension out of my clutch grip with his baritone croon, because it's easy listening. Is it bad that I classify him that way? Easy listening?
Nonetheless, it is good to hear Rex Orange County experimenting with synthetic sounds and left-of-field textures. I was briefly afraid to give Pony a shot, assuming that, much the way O'Connor sings very comfortably within his range, his oeuvre might resign to languishing in the realm of lounge. With this album, he makes his way closer to the status of full-fledged cool cat. In the year 2039 (assuming the music plays on for that long), when they start doing retrospectives, they'll remember Pony as the pivot, the album where O'Connor really started breaking the stallion of his creative powers.