The desperate center of Jessie Ware’s debut album, “Devotion,” is “Taking In Water,” a languorous and arresting tragedy about punishing oneself so that someone less worthy might live. Over gaseous, melancholy synths Ms. Ware unfurls her tale heavily.
“I wish I was you, a piece of gold at the bottom of the blue/Too heavy to swim, but too beautiful to lose,” she yowls regretfully. At the chorus she’s all resigned exhale: “I’m taking in water for you, my love/Pulling you out, I’ll take the blue.”
“Your Drums, Your Love,” the latest single by the duo AlunaGeorge — like Ms. Ware, from London — takes the water theme even more literally. The opening synths recede like ebbing waves, and the vocal part of the hook has a bit of viscosity to it, over which the singer Aluna Francis sings, with surprising cheer, “I’ve been treading water for your love/Whether I sink or swim, it’s you I’m thinking of.”
Water cools, and water soothes, and water obscures. That forward-thinking British soul music is hitting an amniotic phase isn’t so surprising: after the club always comes the comedown.
Ms. Ware’s sensuous and stirring “Devotion” (PMR/Island), and the limited but impressive output of AlunaGeorge (which also includes the producer George Reid) repeat a familiar pattern in British soul music, which in its more mainstream forms has in recent years tended toward the retro-minded, like Amy Winehouse, and Adele. But British soul countermovements have long been more experimentally inclined than their more popular British cousins and also their American counterparts, and this is where Ms. Ware and AlunaGeorge reside. They’re in the shadow of club life — Ms. Ware more so than AlunaGeorge — an approach that’s come to feel especially British, and one that doesn’t directly contest American R&B on its own terms.
Often the singer that the husky-voiced Ms. Ware brings to mind is Lisa Stansfield, the Briton who made dance-friendly R&B in the late 1980s and early ’90s that became internationally popular. “Running,” from Ms. Ware’s album, sounds modeled on the Stansfield sound, with its unsteady splashes of synths, its falsetto counterpoint vocals, and Ms. Ware’s singing, which is woozy but purposeful. “Your words alone/Could drive me to/a thousand tears,” she moans, not sad at all. The same goes for “Sweet Talk,” which is part rushed, past lush.
Ms. Ware got her start singing for restrained electronic music producers like SBTRKT, though early on she was trying to do too much. Quickly, though, she learned to ooze into the beat. On “Sanctuary,” from SBTRKT’s debut album, she’s basically just sighing.
Working in that realm also got her comfortable with propulsion, which is why “Devotion,” while no means a dance album, has the outline of club music on it, a trick similar to the one pulled off in recent years by the British singer Jamie Woon, who starved dubstep down to an unexpected folk core.
Ms. Ware’s high point is “Wildest Moments,” a stunner of feeling and warmth that, with its booming opening drums, verges on trip-hop. “You and I, blurred lines/We come together every time,” Ms. Ware sings. “No to Love” has a loping drumbeat reminiscent of Soul II Soul, early British hybridizers of R&B and dance music, and “Night Light,” maybe unintentionally, has echoes of the soft post-disco soul of George Benson’s “Give Me the Night.” (yas one of my fave songs)
In the United States R&B has been hopelessly conjoined to hip-hop, suffocated at its center trying to serve a nonnative constituency. (That’s not counting R&B’s middle-age-aimed adult-contemporary wing, which mostly aims to remind listeners of the music they grew up on by polishing up its rough edges.) Generally the genre has come to live in hip-hop’s shadow; most singers choose to stand close to it in hopes of catching some refracted glare.
Club-aware electronic soul hasn’t been a factor here since the early-mid-’90s time of CeCe Peniston or Des’ree (who is, in fact, British), singers who mainstreamed the tradition of the house music diva. Nowadays this sort of club-aware electronic soul isn’t just a British phenomenon — listen to “Head Shake” by the Swedish producer Saturday, Monday with the yelping singer Julia Spada — but it’s notably un-American.
What AlunaGeorge does that Ms. Ware does not is accept the dictates of the dance floor. Its music moves directly, rather than luxuriating in the empty spaces left behind, like residue. Its music is brisker and chillier, and also at times exorbitantly strange.
Ms. Francis doesn’t have Ms. Ware’s softness of voice. Instead she’s thin and nasal and punchy. On the EP that immediately preceded “Your Drums, Your Love” she tightly embraced the club-pop of the early ’90s. “I’m not hard as a rock I’m just not easy to break/But don’t take it as an open invitation to try,” she cooed on “Just a Touch.”
Mr. Reid is doing the complex work here, creating tracks that reference New Jack Swing, 2-step garage, Timbaland and other innovative approaches to R&B. But they’re all a bit blurry, as if you’re listening to them underwater.
Source: NY Times