AlunaGeorge’s ‘Body Music’: Album Review

Carl Williott | July 30, 2013 7:00 am
With R&B’s reemergence as the pop sound of choice (sorry EDM, it’s true), plenty of acts are doing new takes on the old genre. There’s the baroque odyssey of Janelle Monae, the dark nihilism of The Weeknd, the impressive Mimi miming of Ariana Grande — not to mention this year’s releases from Ciara, Justin Timberlake, Kelly Rowland and Robin Thicke, as well as the return of R. Kelly. Somewhere in that renaissance, you find AlunaGeorge: a pair of Brits who combine Timbaland-inspired alien beats with AOL Instant Messenger-era lyrics to create an alternate future version of the ’90s.

The duo’s debut album, Body Music (out on Vagrant Records), operates on two levels — as a sultry R&B affair and as a chilly sonic playground. There’s a surface simplicity to the songs because of their melodic pop structure and Spice Girls-worthy themes (Aluna Francis generally alternates between the role of spurned lover and devoted lover). But each track features George Reid’s complex tapestry of rubbery bass lines, dive-bombing synths and brittle snaps — jittery arrangements that feel smoothed over and gooey because of that sensual top layer. Essentially, the duo make fire out of ice; these are love songs for Radiohead‘s Paranoid Android. The one thing is, the concept seemed a lot more novel when they first emerged with “You Know You Like It” way back in 2011.

Body Music uses a mixture of small-scale epics like “Bad Idea” or “Attracting Flies” and headphone material like the title track or “Diver,” resulting in an album cool kids can dance and make out to, in the vein of The xx.  The quiet cuts allow Reid to stretch out and explore emptiness and analog wooziness, marrying elements of glitch and trance with Francis’ beautifully yearning hooks. But a few of those unassuming entries fail to hold the listener’s attention — “Friends To Lovers,” for instance, sounds like a bland attempt at the spacey soul balladry proffered by Andre 3000 on “Prototype,” but without the inherent oddness.

Much of the energetic stuff, though, is sublime, as Reid packs in as many rave flourishes and jittery burbles as he can beneath Aluna’s alluring come-ons and lamentations (check out the intricate Plinko electronics on “Kaleidoscope Love”). It’s this interplay between the two elements that makes the songs rise above their “off-kilter R&B” label. Standout track “Lost & Found,” the group’s version of a banger, takes neo-trap and morphs it into a house flare-up, as Francis spits utter contempt for the man who left her behind in the sassy hook: “If all you wanted was a broken toy/ Then why you lookin’ at me boy / If all you wanted was a lost & found / You should’ve got me on the rebound.”

While Aluna’s voice gives the music a necessary human element, when she’s not the jilted lover, her vocals can be a bit too cutesy — especially when her voice is so often multiplied and sampled by Reid. So it’s nice when Francis breaks free from her controlled coo and displays a flash of her raw side, such as on the “Superstar” bridge.

That moment hints at the unique problem with Body Music: over the past year-plus, we’ve heard nearly half the album and have become familiar with AlunaGeorge’s formula. Granted, it’s a great formula (after all, we named their EP one of our favorites of 2012) and it often sounds beautiful. But when looked at over two years, the duo hasn’t undergone much of an evolution. Whether it’s because they emerged from the studio womb fully formed, or because they’re having difficulty expanding the scope of their sound is up for debate. Either way, unpredictable moments like that “Superstar” bridge, the veritable rave of “Lost & Found” or the unexpectedly earthy tom fills and backing vocals on “Best Be Believing” are at a premium on Body Music.

AlunaGeorge have certainly succeeded in deconstructing and then rebuilding an iconic era using flashy new parts (a mission made explicit on the album-closing cover of Montell Jordan‘s “This Is How We Do It”). When they first emerged, this was the sound of the future. But the future is catching up with them.

Best Listened To: On a headphone splitter with your boo.

Sounds Like: Purity Ring going through a UK garage phase with production from Jeff Bhasker.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

Carl Williott