opinion by PETER TABAKIS
If you have even the mildest interest in the music of AlunaGeorge – since you’re reading this review, that’s probably something of an understatement – chances are you know the following two facts: 1) AlunaGeorge is a UK duo which consists of Aluna Francis, who sings, and George Reid, who provides instrumentation and produces their songs, and 2) The duo (Francis, particularly) very much adores 90s R&B. The second fact has dominated the duo’s narrative to such a degree that you’d expect them to be a revivalist act, in the way Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings pitch-perfectly channel the soul sound of the 70s. They’re not – quite the opposite, actually. And lest you think all this talk is just the usual internet echo-chamber hype, oh no, it’s right there in the opening paragraph of the press release for the duo’s first-rate debut album Body Music:
Do you remember a time, not so long ago, when pop music felt strange? Alliances of visionary producers and charismatic singers spawned a series of songs that were as radical as they were catchy: hits like Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” Aaliyah’s “Try Again” and Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My).” It was great, wasn’t it? AlunaGeorge thought so too. Now, when the Top 40 has never been more homogenous, they want to shake things up again.
Granted, nothing in those five sentences explicitly states that AlunaGeorge are slavish devotees to a bygone style of music. But the implication is that their music is at the least backward looking. Well, yeah, but only in the sense that AlunaGeorge’s songs share the ebullient novelty characterized by the classic singles the press release cites. That’s what also sets AlunaGeorge apart from Purity Ring – on the surface, one of their closest peers – another singer/producer electronic duo who are more interested in (sometimes dark) ambient prettiness than approximating pop music. AlunaGeorge, on the other hand, aim at pure pop immediacy; their music begs to be loved outside the hermetic confines of the blogosphere. Reid’s machine-made flourishes proudly distinguish Body Music’s songs from the insipid residents that usually sit atop Billboard’s Hot 100. And yet, Francis’ vocal melodies are ready-made to blast from open car windows.
When Aluna Francis and George Reid first met in 2009, he was playing guitar for a proggy-rock band and she was a singer in an electro-pop group. They’ve been releasing songs as AlunaGeorge ever since, but it was the 2011 single “You Know You Like It” that brought real attention to their collaboration. One of Body Music’s many highlights, that mid-tempo, slinky come-on of a track showcases the duo’s essential sound, which they both expand and deepen on their debut.
AlunaGeorge hew to a consistent template on Body Music: Francis provides instantly alluring vocals and enormous pop choruses, and Reid lays down a panoply of ever-shifting, frenetic electronic sounds, skittering beats, and booming bass thumps. Body Music’s fourteen tracks alternately strut (“Attracting Flies,” “Bad Idea,” “Just a Touch,” “Lost and Found”), slow to jam-tempo (“Outlines,” “Friends to Lovers,” the title track), and sway to-and-fro (“Your Drums, Your Love” “Diver,” “Best Be Believing”) so regularly that the album never succumbs to tedium or the dreaded pop-album bloat.
As the voice of AlunaGeorge, Francis should be the star of Body Music. And she often is, with her vocals and lyrics shifting between petal and thorn. Her kewpie-doll voice may have a limited range, but she can scuff its sheen and drop into an angered low register enough to suit the needs of a song. Lyrically, Francis is at her best when dissatisfied – for example, is there a better way of calling bullshit on a lover than “everything you exhale is attracting flies?”
Francis and Reid may be equally talented, but he does the heavy lifting on Body Music. When Francis’ melodies drift into the humdrum (mostly on the mid-tempo numbers), Reid saves the song with impressive studio cartwheels. But when she dominates a track, such as on “Just a Touch,” he knows enough to retreat into background.
Though Body Music contains only one true misfire (the immediately forgettable “Kaleidoscope Love”), the album’s strongest tracks glow so bright that fine songs such as “Diver,” “Lost and Found” and “Bad Idea” can get lost in their shadow, at least on early listens. Of the album’s excellent singles, the walloping and breathless “Attracting Flies” is the clear standout. Still, my two favorite songs are (as of yet) non-singles. The sighing, lovelorn album opener “Outlines” proves Francis can deliver a remarkable slow jam (in contrast to lesser late-album cuts “Body Music” and “Friends to Lovers”). On “Just a Touch,” Francis plants her head in the sand to convince herself to remain with a cheating lover (“Baby I don’t want to know…tell me the next time.”). The contrast between her heartbreaking lyrics and delivery, and Reid’s buoyant, streamlined instrumentals amaze the old fashioned way, without studio pyrotechnics.
Body Music concludes with a delightful, if utterly unnecessary, “bonus” take on Montell Jordan’s terrific single “This is How We Do It.” In a recent interview with NPR, George Reid explained why the duo covered the song in the first place:
[We] were doing some festivals last year, and this year we’re doing loads of them — this is all without us having an album out — so we’re expecting a lot of people to listen to an awful lot of songs that they’ve never heard before. It was a case of having something that people would recognize in our set.
AlunaGeorge can rest assured that the days of needing an eighteen-year old song to thrill an audience are now long behind them. Their Body Music will surely suffice. [B+]