R&B is different in England. Some of it is that old, stereotypical British reserve, but a lot of other factors are at work, too. In the UK, the music doesn’t have nearly the church pedigree that it does over here, and it doesn’t have the same weight of historical importance; it’s not struggle music, exactly. It’s party music, dance music, but in different ways than the party/dance wing of American R&B. There’s a huge Afro-Caribbean influence, since much of the UK’s black population has West Indian family roots, and it also has a deep pedigree in what the critic Simon Reynolds calls “the pirate-radio continuum” — which means it has a lot to do with dancehall, with rave, with jungle, with garage. The Notting Hill Carnival, the annual London street party where titanic sound systems fight for drunken passer-by attention, is a big thing, and it tends to blur all those different genres into one dizzy whole. British R&B was some of the first music I ever loved, since my pop-music awakening happened at age nine, during the one year my family spent just outside London. This was 1988 and 1989, and the most important American singers were guys like Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown — rhythmic singers, singers who interacted with their newly computerized beats in hard, percussive ways. And at that time, the British singers who mattered the most were all women — Lisa Stansfield, Caron Wheeler, Yazz, the Swedish-born but London-based Neneh Cherry — who could cooly and calmly navigate those dance beats, sassing or purring their way through breakbeats without ever attempting to overpower them. Those singers weren’t necessarily a part of anyone’s avant-garde, or at least they weren’t just that. They were pop singers, singers of songs that nine-year-olds screamed at each other in the bus on field trips. And Body Music, the gorgeously engineered debut album from the London R&B duo AlunaGeorge, is pop music in the exact same way.
I’ve seen a few (largely positive) reviews of Body Music that place AlunaGeorge in a recent lineage of alt-pop experimenters and express some vague disappointment in the album for being too slick, for not pushing the tricksy elements of the duo’s sound far enough. And it’s certainly true that Body Music finds one sound and sticks with it; there’s very little formally daring about the album. But there doesn’t have to be, and I don’t hear the same experimental edge in the group’s sound that some other critics do. AlunaGeorge aren’t futuristic auteurs; they’re pure-pop synthesists, absolute professionals working in a tradition of pop music that’s just slightly different from the pop tradition we’ve got in America. Body Music doesn’t have the same elegant formalist sweep as something like Channel Orange, and it doesn’t even have the same party-up momentum of something like Settle, the great debut from AlunaGeorge’s “White Noise” collaborators Disclosure. Body Music is a collection of singles and possible singles, not a classically constructed album-album. About half the songs are old, some of them borderline paleolithic in internet-time, and there’s no particular thought given to the way one song transitions into the next. But those individual songs are often amazing, and there’s so much at play within the songs themselves that it seems churlish to complain about the way those songs fit together. The slickness isn’t a problem; it’s an asset.
Aluna Francis, the duo’s vocal half, isn’t a power-singer, but you can tell she’s listened to, and absorbed, a whole lot of Aaliyah. Francis’s chilly accented playground-taunt delivery has little of Aaliyah’s pillowy grandeur, but she uses what she’s got in some similar ways. The important thing about her thin, conversational voice is the way she slides it through the beats, finding understated emotional notes and projecting sidelong round-the-way-girl charm. Her nagging hooks sink deep, and it takes a while to realize how perfectly constructed something like the chorus of “Attracting Flies” is. And there’s an infectious breezy confidence to the way she moves through her verses, half-rapping them sometimes. (She actually does rap during the group’s surprisingly non-embarrassing cover of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” and she can do that, too.) Francis doesn’t have anything like the depth of her London R&B peer Jessie Ware, but her cool, detached demeanor is enough to make up for it. Whether she’s flirting or kissing someone off, she carries it like your weak shit could not possibly bother her. She sounds cool, and that’s important.
It’s probably easier to sound cool when you’ve got someone like George Reid, the duo’s other half, putting the tracks together. Reid is great at pulling in tons of different sounds — the wobbles of first-wave dubstep, the wet low-end of bass music, the pings and whirrs of cerebral dance music. If AlunaGeorge’s pop sounds oblique to American ears, that’s mostly Reid’s doing; when Francis sings a hook, he’ll summon an R2D2 beep to answer her, or he’ll make sure the drums hit on the parts where they’re not supposed to hit. Before Francis’s voice comes in on “Attracting Flies,” Reid’s track sounds like two digital songbirds arguing with each other. His beat for the “This Is How We Do It” cover takes the muscular thrust of the original beat (itself sampled from Londoner Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story”) and ably translates it into twinkling space-pop without losing its propulsion. His track for “Lost & Found” is straight-up UK garage, but it’s done with a sinuous slink, not with the riff-happy pound of Disclosure. And even when the duo slows down on a track like “Friends To Lovers,” he doesn’t resort to slow-jam sonics; he keeps the sounds buzzing and percolating in a way that reminds me of a much more streamlined Flying Lotus. But even if the duo’s version of pop music is as restless and inventive and sharp as it is, it’s very much pop music. And we’re lucky to have an album of straight-up pop music as fun and as smart as this one, especially while we’ve still got some summer left.
Body Music is out now on Vagrant.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Robin Thicke’s mercilessly fun Blurred Lines.
• Regal Degal’s lush post-punker Pyramid Bricks.
• Dead Confederate frontman T. Hardy Morris’s chilled-out solo move Audition Tapes.