THE WHO: X Ambassadors
THE WHAT: ORION (Interscope/KIDinaKORNER)
THE WHY: Generally, I’m happy for the albums that land in my inbox daily but when an advance copy of X Ambassadors’ ORION presented itself, I was especially pleased. But be cool, I chastised myself: no matter how much I dig a band, there’s always the possibility that an output could suck. See U2’s listless No Line On The Horizon for further. That album hurt me.
(Yes: In this, the year of our Lord 2019, “suck” is a professional journalistic term. Not kidding, folks.)
So with a grip on any expectations, I readied myself for whatever Sam Harris, Casey Harris and Adam Levin – those X Ambassadors of a most familiar musical trajectory and bestowers of the Jewish blessing at the end of our very first interview – were about to throw my way. Three appetizers were already available for consumption: the high stepping funk of “BOOM” while “Hey Child” and “Hold You Down” scratched the anthemic itch with chest-swelling heart. The setup was satisfying.
Verdict? The worst thing about ORION is that if you scan the word too quickly, the mind’s eye tends to see ONION. Trust, it’s happened to me at least 9 times since the album’s title was released.
But the best thing about the album is what caught my ear on the very first listen through: what the album is not. ORION is not VHS v. 2.0. – and, no, I don’t mean the deluxe version of their 2015 debut full length.
Considerably less bombastic and aggro than VHS, ORION throws magic by allowing a wealth of unfiltered catharsis to bleed through without a modicum of shame and all of that production restraint genuinely serves X Ambassadors well. Because amongst Casey’s piano riffs, Adam’s rhythmic foundation, and Sam flexing all manner of affecting vocal and lyrical muscle, you can hear the band. I mean really hear them. Hopeful, heartbroken, insecure, vulnerable, on one’s knees, and varied shades in between.
Yes, the pop, rock, indie and R&B genres still share their toys and play nice together, but that’s the nature of X Ambassadors’ beast and, honestly, pop music tends to be at its best when flexible and surprising. Case in point: despite its erotic slow burn, “Rule” doesn’t hide from its sense of scared shitless, and whether intended or not, “Wasteland” connects tangible nostalgic and emotional dots in the vein of my beloved U2’s “With Or Without You.” Not mad at it.
Did somebody say “feature”? Step right up, K. Flay, because her singular yet clever appearance on “Confidence” renders a song moment as charming as it is fragile. But if that doesn’t thaw the ice around your cold, black heart, then absorb the blunt force trauma that is “History” at your own risk.
X Ambassadors openly concede that, while VHS was special and flush with songs that were their game-changers, as a body of work it was an everything and the kitchen sink-affair. No beat, genre, style, effect or vocal run was left unturned making it a patchwork album: enjoyable as hell and with a little something for almost everyone, but stylistically schizophrenic.
Somehow the moments between the then, the scrapped Joyful album, and the now have borne something distinctly purer and more identifiably X Ambassadors. Something sturdy of soul and flagrantly heart on sleeve that is equal parts comforting and uncomfortable in the listening yet beneath-the-skin familiar and welcome. This is the sound of X Ambassadors fully dialed in on themselves, and that’s why ORION is my Album of the Week.
Photo Credit: Lauren Kallen