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Lately, a few noteworthy British musicians are becoming less obsessed with mimicking their American counterparts and finding inspiration in their own culture. Late last year, Britain’s underground two-step movement marched to the other side of the Atlantic, with poster boys Craig David and MJ Cole competing against U.S. artists such as Timbaland, D’Angelo, and Usher on their own turfand giving ghetto fabulousness a distinctly European flair. Whether two-step will have a lasting impact on our somewhat artistically gridlocked R&B scene is up in the air, but the new CDs by post-drum ‘n’ bass acts New Sector Movements and Spacek suggest that the best is yet to come from the far side of the pond.
I.G. Culture, the West London mastermind behind New Sector Movements, isn’t exactly a newcomer. A decade ago, he was half of the innovative hiphop duo Dodge City, and since then, he’s started two independent labelsPeople and Main Squeezeand recorded under numerous aliases, including Likwid Biskit, Murky Waters, and Da One Away. With each moniker, the common denominator has been abstract, irrepressibly funky Moog-driven grooves that swerve under and over disjointed polyrhythms informed by jazz, samba, Afro-beat, and hiphop. His latest manifesto, Download This, may well be the disc to break him into the mainstream market, but it’s not going to be easy. For all its groovy analog feel, uplifting lyrics, and rhythmic advancements, the album mostly sidesteps recent dance-music innovations even while proving itself a watershed of 21st-century electro-psychedelic soul.
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Showing that soul-based electronica can summon the blues without a suicidal-sounding female singer, the CD’s gorgeous first single, “The Sun,” is one of the most magical tunes to sneak onto after-hours clubs’ dance floors in years. Perhaps the best Stevie Wonder song that Wonder never wrote, the track creates an indigo mood as chocolate bass lines melt down and around an insistent samba rhythm. Frank McComb, late of Branford Marsalis’ Buckshot LeFonque project, is a dead ringer for Innervisions-era Wonder in his soulful tenor, which effortlessly glides over a roller coaster of loopy chord progressions. Musically, the song is reminiscent of Stevie’s unsung
electro-funk burner “Race Babbling” from Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants; lyrically, the prayerful verses”The sun can’t always shine/Please take my advice/Storms may come your way/Prepare for those days”lean more toward Innervisions’ “Jesus Children of America.”
As reflected in self-important lyrics to the too-long “Anthem” (“We’re making new movements/…New Sector Movements”), the spoken-word tour de force on “Never Been Closer” (“My turn has arrived now/I’ve waited patiently for years”), and the haunting mantra “Show Dem (Our Time),” Culture is fully aware of his frontline position in the dance-music avant-garde. Whereas “Anthem” is little more than a self-promoting commercial, on “Show Dem,” Culture seems directed more at the subconscious than the dance floor. The song’s electric voodoo vibe of ritualistic broken beats, asymmetric timbales licks, and wind chimes is barely danceable; with its ominous, slo-mo bass figure, “Show Dem” makes you feel as if you were in suspended animation, especially as vocalist J. Jay languidly sings such stargazing phrases as “We are moving forward at the speed of light” and “We are living music.” More feet-friendly is “Never Been Closer,” wherein Culture layers Afro-beat drumming with “Planet Rock”-style techno and Finn Peters’ Age of Aquarius flute riffs. The disc’s most rhythmically outré moment, however, is the jazz-inflected “Two Sides,” whose stuttering cubist beats sound as if they were lifted straight out of Frank Zappa’s Synclavier-driven Jazz From Hell.
Download This moves closer to center on its title track, on which chanteuse Eska Mtungwazi sings of computer love, and on the Brazilian-inflected “Mysterious Sound,” both of which could give Timbaland a good run for his money. But when played next to songs such as “Never Been Closer,” “Show Dem,” and “Two Sides,” these tracks sound lightweight. They’re exceptions to the New Sector Movements rule, however. Overall, Download This is to R&B and dance music what Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come is to jazz: a masterpiece of new rhythmic and harmonic possibilities.
Although not nearly as rhythmically far-reaching as New Sector Movements, South London’s Spacek is one of the most soulful ensembles to emerge out of the underground dance scene. Like “The Sun,” Spacek’s single “Eve,” from the group’s magnificent debut, Curvatia, stops you in your tracks with its startling beauty. Gracefully designed, haunting in its lyricism, and emotionally penetrating, “Eve” furrows into the spiritual/sexual psyche deeper than any electronica song since Portishead’s “Glory Box”especially when lead vocalist Steve Spacek betrays his vulnerability in lines such as “How it scares me/Try as I may/I don’t want to stay away.”
Like many triphoppers, Spacek possesses a voice that is unquestionably forlorn. Sounding like a cross between Marvin Gaye and David Byrne, Spacek’s tenor moves through the group’s nocturnal soundscapes like a ghost gliding through water. Morgan Zarate’s spiky beats and subterranean bass lines and Edmund Cavill’s lonesome guitar and orchestral synths provide the ideal foil for Spacek’s otherworldly-sounding tales of unrequited love, communication breakdown, and betrayal. Going far beyond late-night dance-floor chill-out, Spacek creates music that you’ll likely hear in your dreams.
British music writers have already heralded Curvatia as a classic, misleadingly comparing Spacek to D’Angelo. As exciting as the album is, it’s galaxies apart from nu soul American-style. Spacek eschews the dreadlocks-and-scented-oil-rubdown subject matter of the likes of Bilal and Maxwell, presenting a more poetic, rarefied, and ethereal vibe. When he sings, “When I see you next time/Will it be like your smiles and roses and kisses” on the hooky “Smiles and Roses” or “Pass me the water/Let me drink of it/And my baby daughter/Let her drink of it too” on the folksy “I Have a Daughter That Sings,” Spacek shows a closer affinity to Caetano Veloso than any Soulquarian. His sensuality never manifests itself in mack-daddy braggadocio, but it doesn’t come across as wimpy, either, even on the infectious, two-step burner “How Do I Move,” on which he sings of being paralyzed by a woman’s physical beauty.
Spacek may fare better in securing U.S. airplay than New Sector Movements, but it, too, faces a tough battle on the country’s xenophobic urban radio stations. Unlike David and Cole, who both sometimes sound like American expatriates living in London, Spacek has an unapologetically British soul. CP