If you were to look at my listening history over the past few weeks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only British music I’ve been listening to is grime. It’s been a bumper month for the genre, with banging releases from Wiley and New Gen, but in amongst the beats, I’ve lucked upon this wonderful young kid who writes unassumingly great ballads. Alex O’Connor, known formally as Rex Orange County isn’t that much of a mystery to the hype kids anymore. BadBadNotGood are hitting him up for collabs and Tyler, The Creator (of all people) has been singing his praises lately. It’s a pretty good position to be in for a drummer who transitioned into a troubadour while still a teenager. A little bit Jamie T, a little bit Alex Turner and a whole lot of heart, O’Connor has the sort of earnestness that appears to exist free of irony. It’s a lovely thing to witness, especially when the melodies – which is what he has a real knack for – are so undeniable. A tour through his small back catalogue reveals O’Connor isn’t a one trick pony, either. He was writing songs just as good, possibly even better, a year ago.
‘Best Friend’ is gloriously sad. It’s a shuffling, half-time waltz that ends up transforming into a sort of Carribean party for the broken hearted, complete with latin percussion, canned Casio horns and flute flourishes. In this way, it resembles some of the early Guillemots or Jack Penate work, which explodes into colour toward the back end as the emotion threatens to brim over an already full cup. Like both of those acts, Rex Orange County never lets instrumentation obscure the melody, which evolves into a series of memorable shout choruses all based off the original. O’Connor’s vocal tone is quintessentially British, and he builds on a strong tradition of knowing when a tune is good to give it plenty of breathing space. Whether he’s leaning back for effect or whipping out an adlib at the end of a phrase, he demonstrates a mastery of the form that would be surprising was he not preceded by a set of equally talented teenagers who managed to achieve the same feat.
One figure that reminds me a lot of O’Connor is Sam Cromack, the lead singer of Brisbane’s Ball Park Music. Both have an ability to glide up their registers with ease, moving between well placed blues and minor chords and creating lead vocal lines that seem familiar but actually contain quite a bit of musical trickery. You could easily see O’Connor performing this entire piece solo (as I’m sure he currently does, given that he plays everything) and it having the same kick in the guts. The lyrical phrasing is wonderful, too, bringing on a youthful innocence to the story of being left behind, as the protagonist tells his paramour that one day she’ll wake up and realise that she still wants to be his best friend. If only it was as easy as it is for Rex Orange County to write great songs. Then we’d be able to dance all night and sing along in whichever octave we please, never having to worry about heartbreak again.