Listen to this track by Mercury Prize-winning R&B flavoured, with 80s post-punk overtones, British quartet, more recently a trio, the XX. It’s “Islands”, as taken off of their acclaimed 2009 debut XX. Here’s the thing, good people: when a band lists Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, and Rhianna along with the Cure, The Kills, and the Pixies, you’ve got to sit up and take notice. I mean, the very idea!
But, here’s another thing. There has been a long tradition in the history of British rock music that holds a particular importance on R&B, in whatever form it may take. In many ways, as unique as this band is on the current musical landscape, this crossing of musical boundaries into the world of pop R&B is just a continuation of this tradition.
Here’s a clip from so-called neo-proggists, Manchester-based Elbow with their 2001 single “Newborn” taken from their critically acclaimed, and Mercury Prize nominated debut album Asleep in the Back.
When I first heard this single, I was living in the UK and heard it on the London version of XFM, which at the time confirmed for me that the British know how to do radio better than in any country in the world. Well, at least better than here, which I guess diminishes the statement somewhat. Never mind. The point is, it was a unique sound, and critics agreed. I remember the band interviewed on Jo Wiley’s program. Two members of the band were being interviewed, and I remember the banter very well:
Singer, Guy Garvey: Actually, we’re very influenced by the first wave of progressive rock. We’re like prog, but without the lengthy solos.
Guitarist, Mark Potter: No, we’re bloody not! We’re nothing like bleedin’ prog rock!
GG: (To Potter) Yes, we are.
MP: We’re not!
GG: (to Jo Wiley, knowingly and with a cheeky smirk) We are.
It’s kind of hard to deny that the band do betray some shades of prog, although it’s equally easy to say that they don’t. To me they sound kind of like Talk Talk as fronted by Peter Gabriel. But, I digress. The tension there is perhaps the engine of what makes the band successful, and why they’re able to deliver such strong material. And it’s interesting that with such a strong vocal resemblence that Garvey has with Gabriel, the band actually recorded at Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath.
Although the record was nominated for the coveted Mercury Prize in 2001, they lost out to PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Yet, they continued to put out high quality albums on their own terms, developing their sound. And this year, their album The Seldom Seen Kid won the prize.