It’s no longer novel to note that hip, young audiences have been proudly copping to an infatuation with the radio R&B hits of their youth. R. Kelly just headlined the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, with some hand-wringing from old-guard rock journalists, but little disconnect registered among their target demographic. As for Brooklyn, D’Angelo plays the Williamsburg waterfront this week, a couple days away from Beyoncé playing the Barclays Center. Both crowds will be more diverse than an Animal Collective show, say, but will still contain scores of indie-rock kids (for lack of a more modern replacement term) who probably don’t get why their attendance might be noteworthy.
I don’t have an abundance of nostalgia for late-90s/early-aughts R&B, personally, but London duo AlunaGeorge might have artificially implanted a bit in me. Their debut album, Body Music, lives up to its name by keeping everything bouncing lightly. Producer George Reid and singer Aluna Francis display their love for the Timbaland and Neptunes-era of pop by, you know, actually bothering to write instantly memorable hooks. Like his heroes, Reid likes to construct a song from weirdo elements—off-kilter synth refrains or echoed, pitch-shifted shards of vocals—but he builds tracks beyond sleepy skeletons into something forcefully present. Previously released singles “You Know You Like It” and “Attracting Flies” still sound as big and fresh as they did months ago. The ease of enjoyment here is refreshing.
The way an increased R&B influence has played out in the vaporous cloud we once called “indie rock” has been odd and off-putting. Acts like Autre Ne Veut, How to Dress Well and The Weeknd are all smoke and no fire, goofballs super-seriously, super-stuffily deconstructing music that’s supposedly about overwhelming feeling. Even for new mainstream-seeming indie artists like Solange, or breakout mainstream successes like Frank Ocean, the prevailing style has been over-slow and unnecessarily amorphous. It’s head music, better on paper than beaming from a car stereo. (Or being generous, “soul music,” if a Pinterest board could be considered the modern visualization of a soul.) The truth is, if we’re talking mainly about nuances of production and atmosphere, the hooks probably aren’t that great. The hits on Body Music show the difference between making smooth music colored by a jarring fringe, and taking smooth music as an influence but executing it in such a bare and minimal fashion that it actually becomes jarring. Pressed with it, I prefer the former.
In interviews, AlunaGeorge has talked up a love for the odd tones on Radiohead and The Knife records as an equal balance to their TRL soft spot. Warped robot dread is secondary to Body Music’s easy appeal, though, and there aren't any dystopian lyrics. If you’re looking for flaws, it’s fair to say that the duo isn’t really as futuristic in practice as they are in theory. Francis’s voice isn’t virtuosically showy, but it’s super nimble, flowing around and over Reid’s glitches to the point that they become sort of inaudible on repeat listens. But I'm nitpicking about a record with few lags, dips or dead space, until wading deep into bonus material numbs you a bit. Those bonus tracks include an instructive cover of Montell Jordan’s even-thugs-gotta-party mega-hit “This Is How We Do It.” As it turns out, AlunaGeorge does it faithfully but five percent weirder, 10 percent more tasteful, and thus 15 percent smaller than the original vintage. That may seem like a modest target to aim for, and it sort of is. When they hit it every damn time, though, you can’t help but be impressed by the marksmanship.