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Inc., ‘No World’ (4AD)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 19, 2013
Label: 4AD

Atmosphere is everything in R&B these days, from the erogenous dirigible of Usher’s tantric “Climax” to the Weeknd’s baR&Biturate haze. Naked expression is out; suggestive veils (murmur, distortion, the omnipresent scrim of crushed bits and tape hiss) are in. So it seems fitting that one of the genre’s most ethereal examples yet would come from 4AD, the iconic former home of shadowy sorts like Cocteau Twins, Bauhaus, and This Mortal Coil.

Inc., the duo of brothers Andrew and Daniel Aged, don’t make Goth&B. Indeed, compared to airy, arty types like How to Dress Well and Holy Other, they’re refreshingly traditional, sounding more like neo-neo-soul than any other “alt-” appellation. Credit their background as session players and touring musicians with artists like Raphael Saadiq, Robin Thicke, and Cee-Lo, among others (even though, in their press photos, they look all of about 16 years old). They’ve clearly had a copy of D’Angelo’s bedroom masterpiece Voodoo resting under their pillows for a long time, because No World has soaked up that album’s hallmarks as though by osmosis: cotton-tipped rimshots, opalescent Rhodes, dampened reverb, and an achingly present sense of room tone.

They seem perfectly aware of it, too. “I feel like we’ve been here before / A place that we already know,” they sing on album opener “The Place,” whose crisp finger snaps and milky swirls are ladled straight from D’Angelo’s cereal bowl. On “Trust (Hell Below),” they break out the same whispered falsetto and hushed close harmonies as “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” It’s kind of like Voodoo: The Princess and the Pea Remixes, all that bump and moan as heard through a towering stack of mattresses.

But their charcoal-rubbed, palladium-tinged mood board tears pages from other inspirations, too. The flanged guitar of “Black Wings” flashes back to mid-’80s Cure, the quavering tones that open “Lifetime” offer an earthier take on the xx’s moonlight serenades, and the lilting tremolo of “Desert Rose (War Prayer)” is culled straight from My Bloody Valentine’s playbook. The closing instrumental, “Nariah’s Song,” mulls over its pensive chords with the loving grace of Robert Glasper’s modal meditations or the opening fantasia of Prince’s “Condition of the Heart.” Short and sweet, it’s a perfect miniature that withholds more than it gives away. In fact, it’s easy to imagine a pianist like Glasper taking it even further, which is a testament to Inc.’s talent; not every upstart R&B act has a potential standard in them.

No World takes many of its cues from electronic music, with beats that split the difference between Dilla’s dusty breaks and the nimble swing of British artists like SBTRKT and Jamie xx. There’s the faintest hint of drum and bass in “5 Days,” and trap’s skittering hi-hats and snares flick across the surface of the record like skipping stones. Appropriate for such ambient trappings, the brothers’ processed voices accentuate breath and grain over literalism: Their hooks sink deep, but you’ll be more likely to hum than sing along, simply because their words so often disappear into the ether like messages traced with your fingertips on a fogged mirror. Nothing wrong with that; their heavy breathing signifies plenty on its own.