Dev Hynes is not your savior, or so he forewarns on “Forget It,” the first track on Coastal Grooves, the debut recording of Hynes’s latest incarnation, Blood Orange. Salvation is out of the question. But as a songsmith, axe hand, and now androgynous-sounding retro vocalist, Hynes does offer chameleon-like versatility. Once the guitarist for the annoyingly named, middling post-punk revivalists Test Icicles, Hynes has since struck out on his own, recording first as Lightspeed Champion, a chamber pop singer-songwriter reminiscent of Ed Harcourt. Now he is Blood Orange, a higher pitched, breathy staccato male diva whose sly, genre and gender bending recordings call to mind imagined mash-ups of, say, Prince with the Durutti Column or ESG.
At its best, Coastal Grooves revels in sparsely arranged electric guitar riffs, simple danceable percussion, and periodic interjections of synth. “Sutphin Boulevard” is perhaps the finest example. With a new voice for a new persona, Hynes parades over twittering leads and slinky, punchy backbeat. The combination is such sheer swagger that the spacious arrangement and minimal harmonic movement come off as penetrating and addictive rather than merely simple. “S’Cooled” is a similarly endearing groove-cum-composition.
Broadly speaking, Hynes works two different variations on laid-back numbers, a shade to the left and right, respectively. Coastal Grooves offers several sets of slower, more mysterious riffs made for the mise-en-scenes of dusty trails filled with mysterious urban drifters, as well as a few tracks indebted to ’80s dance pop and Hynes’s post-punk revivalist roots. Hynes’s approach on the former helps entrench a mode of slightly sinister intrigue but also highlights the extent to which Hynes offers clever instrumentation and technical ability rather than any great harmonic or melodic talents. Hynes’s latter batch of tunes is sometimes quite successful (as on the near-disco breakout “The Complete Knock,” or the hard-driving opener “Forget It”) but at other times flops (as on the irritatingly frantic twang of “I’m Sorry We Lied”).
Whether a frolic or a detour, the latest stop on Hynes’s winding musical road is worth a listen. But take his own early words as this listener does: out of context, as an invocation of caveat emptor.