, August 6th, 2013 09:12
The strong influence of R&B on young contemporary producers has been impossible to miss over the past few years, and following dubstep's dissolution no end of producers have shown their enthusiasm for it in their productions. Mount Kimbie, Jacques Greene and Joy Orbison have been among the most notable, but they're merely the top of the iceberg. AlunaGeorge’s George Reid, meanwhile, represents perhaps this trend's logical endpoint: rather than simply throwing some cut-up vocals from a Cassie track into his productions, he joined forces with vocalist Aluna Francis to reimagine the genre on their own terms. Their appearance with 'You Know You Like It' on Tri Angle last year - usually a label known for its dark and cerebral output - was something of a watershed for this movement, demonstrating that far from remaining in the domain of the top 40, modern pop-leaning UK R&B was taking a more independent route.
On 'Outlines', the opener of the duo's debut album Body Music - released through Universal subsidiary Island, it must be said - it's not hard to hear what Tri Angle boss Robin Carolan was drawn to. As Francis sings "Is this paper all I've got / All I've got to keep you with me" in genuinely heartfelt tones, Reid's spacious, atmospheric production demonstrates that, at their best, they're capable of writing emotive, mature R&B with a knowing eye on the 90s. Indeed, 'You Know You Like It' was a similar story, combining a glossy sheen with the kind of idiosyncratic production touches that Tri Angle staples oOoOO and Holy Other would construct entire tracks out of.
For the most part, though, it's not the influence of US R&B that permeates the album, but a pastiche of late 90s and early 00s UK pop, and unfortunately this is where Body Music starts to come undone. Francis and Reid are clearly in thrall to the era, but it's almost as if they're unable to fully reconcile their childhood memories of this music into something more adult. Admittedly, this isn’t always a bad thing. "Why you here again / Hold on a minute, let me check this out / Your invitation's a fake / Must be from a ticket tout", sings Francis on 'Attracting Flies', with the kind of sass that'll give people of a certain age cause to reminisce about All Saints' better moments. And the key change and soaring vocal trickery at the heart of 'Kaleidoscope Love' - which could almost be described as Spector-esque, in an Ableton kind of way - elevate it to one the album's surprise highlights.
It's a shame, then, that for every track that offers a fair approximation of the joy of vintage Sugababes, that there are several more that end up sounding as sanitised and disinterested as a discarded holdall of Jessie J's castoffs. The jaunty acoustic guitar and piano at the heart of "Best Be Believing" are combined with a simplistic, unimaginative "Na na na na na" refrain that's less pop affectation and more lazy supermarket advert jingle fodder. 'Superstar', which seems to be a story about the female narrator's obsession with an unspecified male figure, comes across less like a dangerous obsession and more like an immature schoolgirl crush: "I'll be his number one fan / Even if it makes me look a fool", Francis sings, in a fashion frustratingly at odds with the bolshiness displayed on other tracks. Perhaps the most spectacularly ill-judged moment is the duo's terrible cover of Montell Jordan's 1995 classic 'This Is How We Do It', a version which has "awkward V Festival singalong moment" written all over it.
However, if there's a weak link in the AlunaGeorge partnership, it's undoubtedly Reid. While the idiosyncratic traits of Francis' vocals are surprisingly endearing over time, which transcends their weaker aspects, the same can't be said of Reid's production. His efforts may hint at influences like Timbaland or the Neptunes, and 'Attracting Flies' and 'Just A Touch' (which has the same weird bounce as a Silent Shout-era Knife production) may offer glints of individuality, but on the whole Body Music's tracks feel like little more than fairly unimaginative collage pieces: fifteen years of pop trends, compressed into one very indistinct style. Much like Disclosure's take on house, his style of pop is one that seems to have been injection-moulded rather than hand-crafted, leading to rather forgettable tracks like 'Diver' and 'Body Music'.
Body Image's cover image is pretty naff, even in a year that's already seen no shortage of bad artwork. But it also, unwittingly, encapsulates the fundamental disconnect going on within these songs. While suggesting on the surface that Body Music exudes sensuality - a trait that's surely a cornerstone of most contemporary R&B-influenced pop - Reid and Francis' disconnected, apathetic expressions actually mirror the album's glaring lack of it. Is Body Music supposed to be mature electronic pop music for enlightened twentysomethings looking to revisit their youth, or sanitised music for pre-teens? As much as AlunaGeorge would probably like to think it’s the former, it unfortunately often comes across more as the latter - and without much in the way of knowing irony.