Ever since the Beatles and Rolling Stones recorded their admiring remakes of songs by Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson, British musicians have brought a refreshingly open mind to American black music.
Here in the States, black pop music is so caught up in the society's racial politics that musicians and audiences -- black and white alike -- bring all kinds of subconscious pride, guilt and ambivalence to the songs. As they travel across the Atlantic, though, the songs lose that extra baggage and can be heard simply as music. And the Brits often hear possibilities and assets that we at home simply overlook.
In recent years, a number of Brits have seized on the progressive-soul movement of the early '70s -- the subtle, jazz-tinged music of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone that blossomed here briefly and too quickly faded away. Artists such as Sade, the Fine Young Cannibals and the JoBoxers have found treasures in the unexplored potential of that genre, and now they have been joined by three more fine acts: the Kane Gang, the Housemartins and View From the Hill.
The Kane Gang: 'Miracle'
The Kane Gang has focused on the influence of Gaye and Wonder on Steely Dan and used elements of both sounds in its superb second album, "Miracle" (Capitol CLX-48176). The first single, "Motortown," acknowledges not only the Gang's American musical influences but also the industrial plight of its home town in Northern England. The glorious melody, breathy harmonies and swinging rhythms are guaranteed to seduce the casual radio listener, but the more attentive will catch the irony in the lyrics -- about promises that a new factory will solve a town's problems.
The Kane Gang addresses the current climate of disillusionment in its songs, but without the bleak desperation of British punk or American blue-collar rock. Instead this trio, which covered the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself" on its first album, draws on the gospel roots of its musical heroes and holds out the hope that better days are ahead. This gospel optimism informs the music too, which builds slowly but surely into a contagious confidence.
Martin Brammer and Paul Woods are real singers, able to pull off the grainy soulfulness of Gaye or the sardonic commentary of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen; they also lead on vocal harmonies as satiny and soothing as the Miracles'. David Brewis frames the vocals with jazzy guitar figures that are as inventive as they are economical. Producer Pete Wingfield (who has worked with the Everly Brothers and Alison Moyet) adds tasteful synth and canny commercial instincts.
The album is full of potential singles: the hypnotic, gospelish dance track "What Time Is It?"; the Steely Dan-ish warning to an old friend, "Looking for Gold (In Dirty Water)"; the luscious ballad harmonies of "Take Me to the World"; or the rousing gospel anthem "A Finer Place." The record also contains a remix of the band's 1984 British hit single, "Closest Thing to Heaven," and an ingenious African arrangement of Dennis Edwards' 1984 Motown hit, "Don't Look Any Further."
The Housemartins: 'The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death'
If the Kane Gang reinterprets Motown through Steely Dan, the Housemartins, another Northern England band, reinterpret Memphis soul through the formalist pop of Squeeze on their second album, "The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death" (Elektra 9 60761-1). Songwriters Paul Heaton and Stan Cullimore favor bouncy pop melodies over speeded-up soul grooves, while their sweet vocals mask acid commentary on modern England.
Heaton has a thinner voice than Brammer or Woods, and the Housemartins' harmonies are thinner than the Kane Gang's, but their lyrics are much sharper. The Housemartins often sound like the Hollies or Bee Gees even as Heaton is verbally skewering Tories, yuppies and pop idols. The horn-backed title song, for instance, is such a catchy pop-soul gem that one might miss the lyrics, about fools who get distracted by the royal family's antics while Maggie Thatcher squeezes them dry. The album also contains a seven-inch single with two gorgeously sung a cappella pop-gospel tunes, including the Housemartins' U.K. hit remake of Isley-Jasper-Isley's "Caravan of Love."
View From the Hill: 'In Time'
The newest addition to this movement is View From the Hill, which explores Stevie Wonder's Caribbean and jazz ballad tendencies on its debut album, "In Time" (Capitol CLX 46703). Much like the underrated Fine Young Cannibals, View From the Hill slows down the ska dance rhythms of England's early '80s two-tone movement and adds the heartfelt soul singing of early '70s Motown.
The trio is led by Patrick Patterson, who writes intensely personal confessions and sings them in a smoky, intimate tenor. Whether he's singing about the conflicts between cops and ghetto residents or between lovers, his songs swell with a palpable sadness. Over the reluctant dance beat, his strong, grainy voice seems to ache for the misunderstandings that won't go away. Patterson turns over three of the eight songs to the sensual soprano of bandmate Angela Wynter, who displays an adult approach to love songs, as if she were a British Anita Baker. The two best songs, the romantic "No Conversation" and the political "I'm No Rebel," were produced by Stewart Levine with the same pop appeal he brought to Culture Club.