The British have always had a thing for the music of Black America. An almost-random example: Paul Weller. In the mid-'80s, shortly after launching the Style Council, Weller opined that black people were "the only people making any good music, like they've always been." This attitude is surprisingly common among U.K. music hipsters. What makes the British different from black-music devotees in other countries is the combination of pious reverence with a lack of humility. From the Rolling Stones onward, British artists have always been totally confident that they can not only master these foreign forms but contribute to their development. So, Weller, for instance, immediately ignored the implication of his remark (hands off, Whitey) and churned out his own faux soul.
Embedded in the British response to blues, soul, funk, hip-hop, deep house, et al., is a paradox: The strenuous effort to be authentic immediately creates inauthenticity. The more fiercely you identify with the original, the more you erase your own identity and end up producing something not only unoriginal but deeply redundant. This cruel dilemma—fidelity versus mutation—has convulsed British music repeatedly over the decades: from the schisms of trad jazz vs. free jazz, to blues purism vs. progressives, to more recent debates about hip-hop, where the argument is about whether British rappers should ape American MCs or instead inject stilted Anglo cadences into their flow and parochial references into their lyrics.
Two new albums from London offer the latest twists in this long-running saga. White Bread Black Beer is the highly acclaimed comeback of Scritti Politti's Green Gartside, whose shift from postpunk to soul predated and probably influenced Paul Weller's. The Warning is the latest from Hot Chip, indie-rockers a couple of decades younger than Gartside, but similarly besotted with the blingy sounds of today's R&B and rap. (Last week, both bands made the short list for the Mercury Awards.)
One of the instant stumbling blocks to the U.K. embrace of soul is that a deficiency of fiery passion is precisely what's authentic to the English. This isn't just about the clichés of English reserve but also about the contrast between the blood-and-fire fervor of so many American churches and the wishy-washy torpor of Anglicanism (whose services hardly any Britons bother to attend, anyway). Soul wouldn't exist without gospel, and, in the United Kingdom, a much smaller fraction of the population believes in God than in America.
Green Gartside once described Scritti's songs as "hymns for agnostics, for the disillusioned like myself." Circa 1980, the band abruptly swerved from fractured postpunk with Marxist lyrics to seductive blue-eyed soul. The new songs addressed those quandaries left when you've lost confidence in politics altogether: "Faithless now, just got soul," he crooned sweetly on the 1982 gospel-flavored single "Faithless." Like many left-wing theory fiends, Gartside lived in a world that had been radically unsettled by Deconstruction, causing him to lose his belief in Marxism as a "science of history" that mapped the righteous course to a utopian future. The result was doubt and existential drift, but also a liberating giddiness and joy, captured on a jaunty Scritti tune titled "Jacques Derrida." The song also featured early evidence of the singer's enduring passion for hip-hop in the form of a section where Gartside "raps" about the voraciousness of desire—Sugarhill Gang meets Semiotexte. Twenty-five years on, the new Scritti album, White Bread Black Beer, starts with a paean to rap music, "The Boom Boom Bap." The title evokes hip-hop's looped break-beats and 808 bass—"the beat of my life" croons Gartside—while the final verse is composed entirely of song titles from the first Run DMC album ("hard times, sucker mcs, jays game ..." etc.). "Boom Boom Bap" is confessional, Green has said, all about the thin line "between being in love with something and being unhealthily addicted to it."
A self-conscious pop version of what the French crit crew called "intertextuality" has long been a hallmark of Gartside's songwriting. "Gettin', Havin' and Holdin' " (on 1982's Songs To Remember) interpolated a lyric from Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman."Cupid & Psyche 85, Scritti's breakthrough album on both sides of the Atlantic, contained the U.K. hit single "Wood Beez," whose chorus goes, "Each time I go to sleep/ I pray like Aretha Franklin." This would be cloyingly cute if Green didn't really mean it: Soul for him served as a salve for the anomie of an existence without the comforting fictions of truth, progress, and identity. Hence his "unhealthy addiction" to black music's pain-killing power. If Gartside could no longer believe in any "Absolute" (the title of his second U.K. hit—no, really!), if he knew even the Sweetest Girl hymned in his songs was a myth, then at least he could believe in the mystery of melody. On White Bread, the singer reaffirms his faithlessness ("After Six" beseeches, "Oh Jesus, keep your love away from me"), but he has found a secular surrogate in the form of his new wife, Alys. The Lacan fan who once sang, "Now I know to love you/ is not to know you" (Cupid's "A Little Knowledge") now lives a life of marital bliss in East London.
Hailing from the west side of the city, Hot Chip have their own equivalents to Gartside's "pray like Aretha." "Look After Me," one of the highlights of The Warning, nods to Dionne Warwick with the couplet, "Every time I see your face I break down and cry/ I see it in your family as they walk on by" while last year's Coming On Strong was even more blatant with the cheeky lyric, "I'm like Stevie Wonder, but I can see things." You can certainly hear '70s and '80s funk 'n' soul—Wonder, Prince, Jam & Lewis—in the group's sound. But Hot Chip's primary passion is contemporary rap and R&B. Whereas the poststructuralist Green gets around the faux-black problem by worrying away at the very concept of authenticity, Hot Chip use their lack of street credibility to make their music simultaneously touching and comic, injecting an element of bathos that rings true while also exposing the exaggerated "realness" of rap.
The approach is easily mistaken for smirky irony; sometimes (as with the Stevie Wonder wisecrack) you might think they're simply taking the piss out of black music. What really seems to confuse some people, though, is the way Hot Chip deal in mixed emotions. Soul is about strong feelings, rap is about force of personality … but what do you do if your inner core is passive-aggressive, listless, a little lukewarm? The group's two singer/songwriters, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, aren't parodying rap and R&B, exactly, they just keenly feel the gulf that separates black pop's high-gloss fantasy world from the scuffed 'n' shabby reality that nearly all of us inhabit—especially those who live in the rain-spattered, narrow terraced streets of West London. So, in "Playboy," the sad-sack protagonist soothes his heartache by cruising Putney in his Peugeot and imagining he's a gangsta: "20-inch rims with the chrome now/ Blazin' out Yo La Tengo." The title track of The Warning reads thuggish—"Hot Chip will break your legs, snap off your head/ Hot Chip will put you down, under the ground"—but is delivered in voices that sound more Modest Mouse than Mobb Deep.
On Coming On Strong, tracks like "You Ride, We Ride, In My Ride" and "Shining Escalade" had a translucent faintness, as if they're diagrams of Timbaland or Dr. Dre productions that have yet to be colored in. The Warning retains the R&B and G-funk influences but adds some rave energy. "Over and Over" is a double-edged celebration of trance-dance monotony. The music—mindless boogie at the exact intersection of Daft Punk and Foghat—enacts its theme perfectly, but the lyric seems to almost mock the listener for responding to the dancefloor summons: "Like a monkey with a miniature cymbal/ the joy of repetition really is in you." At the opposite sonic extreme, the slow-soul ballad "Look After Me" is a crestfallen tune about the breakdown of a relationship ("Look after me and I'll look after you/ that's something we both forgot to do") gently propelled by tender-hearted clicks of rhythm guitar straight out of a classic-era Stax session.
Talking about his own first encounter with the Memphis soul sound, Green Gartside once declared: "There was something about when I found Stax, that beat, that snare drum ... all its voids required me to fill them, and sometimes that was very violent, a theatrical excess." But it's more the case that Black American music fills the holes in the British soul: The healing pain of soul music offers a mirage of wholeness. The sharpest U.K. operators feel both the pull of this fantasy passion and its out-of-reachness. Or as Hot Chip sing it in "The Warning," an oblique paean to machine soul and synthetic funk: "Excuse me sir, I'm lost/ I'm looking for a place where I can get lost/ I'm looking for a hope for my malfunctioning being/ I'm looking for the mechanical music museum."