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Gallant and dvsn's debut albums are two wildly different takes on alt-R&B

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Does that term mean anything in 2016? Did it ever mean anything?

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Mind of a Genius

If you’re in the mood to have your face melted, watch Christopher Gallant cover Sufjan Stevens’ "Blue Bucket of Gold" in a single take. The song is the closing track from Stevens’ feted 2015 LP Carrie & Lowell, a delicate, heartbroken plea for intimacy that borrows from an old mining myth. That’s how it sounds when Stevens sings it, at least. In this version, Stevens is playing the keyboard and supplying some quiet backing vocals. Gallant is up front on the mic, and he’s turning the song into a harrowing, emotional exorcism. Every new note is blown up and made bright, but the performance never tips over into maudlin territory. He ends the rendition with two clear, piercing shrieks that look and sound like they’re going to overwhelm him.

I’ve watched him sing those notes a dozen times, and I still don’t quite understand how he pulls them out of his body. If you don’t get full-body shivers, I’ll give you your money back. That voice has won Gallant endorsements from people like Stevens, Seal, and Elton John, and it made him Zane Lowe’s first-ever Beats 1 "world exclusive" last June when Apple Music’s flagship radio station started broadcasting. When Lowe needed to pick an emerging artist to introduce to the listening world, he reached for Gallant’s ripping single "Weight in Gold." There are worse ways to break out.

Gallant’s singular vocal talent is the heart of Ology, his debut LP. His power and versatility remain startling even with repeated listening. He sounds muscular on "Weight in Gold" and "Bourbon," another single released ahead of the album proper; on "Bone + Tissue" and "Percogesic," he subjects himself to pitch-shifting, and the result is ghostly and thin. He sounds purest and most striking on "Skipping Stones," a refined and lovelorn duet with Jhené Aiko. And he puts his extensive range to use on a track-by-track basis by serving as his own backing vocalist: when he flutters at near-inaudible heights, he’ll add a little weight with a backing vocal out of his chest. The falsetto described above — his killer move — is like a geyser hidden in the woods, a natural phenomenon whose source you can’t quite figure out.

Ology is all over the place

His voice is the glue holding this album together, and that’s important because it’d fall to pieces otherwise. Ology is an eclectic album, one that orbits wobbily around R&B; a less charitable listener could say it’s all over the place. A few tracks temper Sam Smith’s safe pop-soul with the fizzy electronics of Gallant’s Mind of a Genius labelmates; others tiptoe towards the inebriated, snappy hybrids on Zayn’s recent solo debut. "Bourbon" and "Episode" look back at the dance-pop and disco of the ‘80s; "Open Up" is just as spare and woozy as anything out of James Blake and How to Dress Well’s discographies. When "Percogesic" cracks open and becomes a drum ‘n’ bass track halfway through its runtime, I find myself feeling both thrilled and exhausted.

The writing on Ology inspires the same mix of feelings: it’s scattershot, and the album’s vocal-centric nature means it’s difficult to ignore Gallant’s more overwrought bits of penmanship. He approaches these lyrics the same way he approaches his singing: he goes for the gut punch, the stunning image, the poetic flourish. It’s just that his success rate is a little lower. "Bourbon" is a good example: it’s built around a solid, resonant core, a shot of liquor dumped into a cup of coffee to calm the nerves. Unfortunately, it’s compromised by some clunky, histrionic writing in the verses: "I’m a headless horseman / on quilted sand dunes." That’s the opening line, and it feels like it’s reaching for profundity it doesn’t quite attain. (You can say the same about "Weight of Gold," an excellent song that opens with the lines, "Black dust in orbit cascades down like a parachute / This gravity hurts when you know the truth.")

If Ology is the sound of an irrepressible talent using every trick Gallant has learned to date, then dvsn’s new album Sept. 5th might be its opposite: two people taking a small set of sounds and signifiers, and stretching them as far as they can. It’s an unrelenting, hermetically sealed statement of purpose. Vocalist Daniel Daley and producer Paul "Nineteen85" Jefferies are enamored with austere, throbbing R&B with a center somewhere between Prince and Aaliyah, and they rarely step outside that box over the course of the album’s 10 tracks. When a little Zapp-esque talkbox colors "In + Out," it feels like a robot’s broken into their moody basement lounge.

Everything's working in service of the vibe

dvsn are part of Drake’s OVO cabal — Jefferies is the producer responsible for both "Hotline Bling" and "Hold On, We’re Going Home," among other hits — and they exercise the same aesthetic restraint that’s helped to make their majordomo one of the world’s most popular musicians. Take Daley’s singing: he’s gifted, but Sept. 5th isn’t designed to support showmanship. Vocal pyrotechnics aren’t the point. Instead, Daley’s meant to function as one piece of a larger whole: distant piano melodies, muted pads and drum machines, judicious choral harmonies, all working in service of the vibe.

The album’s mammoth bookends, both of which were mysteriously plopped on SoundCloud last year when the group was still anonymous, are the best examples of the power and grace dvsn can attain through refined, patient songwriting and sustained intensity. "With Me" is persistent and filthy, the first of the album’s many paeans to sexual activity. "The Line" is skeptical and shy until it collapses into a simple, repeated statement: "At the end of it all, I’m coming back to you."

The chasm separating the approaches and styles employed on Ology and Sept. 5th is fascinating because these albums are ostensibly part of the same musical constellation, "alt-R&B." It’s a term that’s as pliable as taffy, and that’s because it has more to do with commercial positioning than sonic constraints: it has to accommodate everyone who’s neither an A-level star (think The Weeknd, Zayn, or even Bryson Tiller) nor a traditionalist. It’s a holding pen, a space from which you’re supposed to graduate someday. It’s an ill-defined, vague space, but I’ve come to find the vagueness captivating, if only because it makes the genre feel so spacious. You really have to mess with the sliders to get to Gallant from dvsn (and vice-versa), but they’re on the same spectrums; there’s more than enough room for both.