R&B is about selling the cliché. An effective vocalist can create urgent and crucial emotions out of words that would sound cringe-worthy if spoken—imagine someone sitting you down and telling you, "I had a vision of love, and it was all that you've given to me," or, "You say he's not treating you right, then lady spend the night — I'll love you like you need to be loved."
British duo AlunaGeorge, meanwhile, make the cliché sound alien. Topically, their woozy spin on R&B doesn’t deviate very much from its stacks of influences—Aluna Francis sings about unrequited love, uncertain love, love that may be budding from friendship. But her delivery is intriguingly strange. Instead of accusing a lying lover of talking shit, Francis' deceptively brittle voice glides into a whine as tells him, “Everything you exhale is attracting flies.” Instead of demanding respect or making ultimatums after having her heart dragged around, Francis lets her fatalism and uncertainty bleed through: “I've been treading water for your love/As my light grows dim maybe I'm not strong enough.”
Francis freaks beats like a princess of hip-hop soul, but she avoids melismatic runs. Her voice sounds perpetually pitched-up. It’s thin but elastic. Like her pipes, her partner George Reid’s music moves at its own vibration.
The writing on the group’s debut album, Body Music, is deliberate. The album opens with the subdued highlight “Outlines,” in which Francis wonders, “Is this paper all I got, all I’ve got to keep you with me/Keep you from fading away?/‘Cause this paper’s not enough, not enough to bring you to me/And nothing will take you away.” The music’s conversation with the R&B that preceded it is palpable. Though Timbaland and the Neptunes are often mentioned in reference to AlunaGeorge’s sound, there’s so much more being invoked: the guttural-shrill beat designs of snap & B, the affinity for wacky call-and-responses of post-disco boogie, the power of a good bridge and/or truck driver’s gear change of ‘90s R&B, the swing of new jack swing, the slap-happy snares of U.K. garage, the intricate support of a delicate vocal that Jam & Lewis crafted for Janet Jackson.
Body Music is so much more than the sum of its parts. Or maybe that’s too trite a sentiment for a record that subverts virtually every cliché it invokes. Body Music is an island with many ports. Its focus and self-assuredness in toying with its obvious influences reminds me of big event British electronic albums of the ‘90s—Portishead’s Dummy, Massive Attack’s Protection, Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants. Though it is a love letter to midtempo, Body Music is thrilling. It thrives on tension: between sleepiness and edginess, familiarity and uncertainty, reliability and singularity.
I haven’t stopped listening to this album since I first heard it about two weeks ago. AlunaGeorge are marked by their obtuseness, but my love for this album is straightforward. It will take something massive, earth-shattering, life-changing to knock this off the number-one spot in my year-end chart. It sounds like an instant classic to me.