AUDIO BULLYS EGO WAR (Source/Astralwerks)
A debut that simultaneously reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the current British dance scene. At the heart of Ego War lie a couple of singles 'Real Life' and 'We Don't Care' - that are cheerfully irresistible, a hybrid of Streets-like cockiness and big beat techno grooves. But Ego War sags and drags for lack of further innovation. Simon Franks' voice struggles to carry a tune and on '100 Million', stretches even for a worthy lyric, while Tom Dinsdale delivers perfectly friendly but sadly familiar - funky beats and rhythms. The fact that Mixmag just declared Ego War their album of 2003 means that either I'm completely missing something, or
something else more disconcerting.
HIGHLIGHT: 'We Don't Care' stands heads and shoulders above the competition not least because, per the title, it's imbued with infectious confidence.
BASEMENT JAXX KISK KASH (Astralwers/XL)
Jaxx fans and we're very much among them at the Fletcher household may have had a hard time getting into the Brixton duo's third album. Whereas Remedy was an upbeat house party and Rooty was something of a funky hoedown, the best description for Kish Kash is
busy. There's simply so much going on here that for the first few listens, you're in danger of being swept away by it all. This speaks highly of Felix Burton and Simon Radcliffe's production skills, but then those were never in doubt; the sheer maze of musical sounds and human voices speaks a little less successfully for the duo's obvious attempt to broaden their palate.
Persistence, though, pays off, as the various guests begin to distinguish themselves from amidst the mass of noise. Meshell Ndegeocello sings up 'Right Here's The Spot' and the closing ballad 'Feels Like Home' with soulful grace; teenage rapper Dizzee Rascal enlivens the female funky voices of 'Lucky Star'; N*Sync's J.C. Chavez gets some Timberlake-style cred fronting 'Plug It In.' The furious 'Supersonic' best sums up the album's delights and frustrations: a maze of classic Jaxx sounds - booming bass synths, tooting horns, competing female voices, harmonicas, guitar solos, male MCs and a firm mid-120s rhythm it nonetheless remains stuck in second gear.
HIGHLIGHT: 'Cish Cash'. (The deliberately different spelling typifies the album's willful confusion.) None other than Siouxsie Sioux sings in her best sultry 'Peep Show' style on the nearest the album has to a rocking 'Where's Your Head At?'.
BENT THE EVERLASTING BLINK (Guidance)
Nottingham duo Neil Tolliday and Simon Mills' second album is stronger in theory than practice. Largely constructed from countless samples off hundreds of records picked up at car-boot (stoop) sales, The Everlasting Blink hints frequently at the ambient beauty of Air, the gentle silliness of Lemon Jelly, and especially, the majesty of early Groove Armada (whose breakthrough with 'At The River' came from sampling a Patti Page cassette in similar circumstances). But only occasionally, as with the Billy Jo Spears vocal on 'So Long Without You,' does the cut and paste effect make for something new. The David Essex vocal 'Stay The Same', for example, is notable primarily for its accompanying vinyl static. And the arrangement surrounding 'Magic Love,' which uses an old Captain and Tenille vocal, sounds dated. There's good stuff here, but methinks Bent might be better off scrapping the samples and just making music.
HIGHLIGHT: Jon Marsh's decidedly contemporary vocal on 'Beautiful Otherness' reminds us how much we miss his group The Beloved.
CLIENT - CLIENT (Mute/Toast Hawaii)
Reviewed in October Hitlist
DEADLY AVENGER DEEP RED (Shadow)
Though he came up through Britain's post-rave scene, Damon Baxter a.k.a. Deadly Avenger prefers soundtracks to dance records. Debut album Deep Red therefore provides music from unseen movies. There's the symphonic intro of 'We Took Pelham', complete with 47-piece Budapest Film Orchestra; the spy funk of 'Punisher'; the desert foxiness of 'The Quest'; and the synthesized drama of 'Black Sun.' Varied, valuable music for all fans of intelligent instrumentals.
HIGHLIGHT: I've a soft spot for the unnamed bonus cut, which recalls another soundtrack lover's original opus, David Holmes and his Let's Get Killed. An instantly recognizable sample from RSW's 'Biting My Nails' provides the framework for what sounds like a chaotic night on the street.
DUB PISTOLS SIX MILLION WAYS TO LIVE (Distinctive)
Two years after its initial release was postponed due, apparently though somewhat illogically, to the catastrophic events of 9/11/01, Barry Ashworth's second album as Dub Pistols finally sees the light of day. Though some will have forgotten the act's name in the interim, the delays may not be a bad thing: big beat has gone the way of the dodo, and Dub Pistols get the chance to reinvent themselves instead as the sort of all-encompassing Brit punk techno reggae hip hop ska act they surely always intended themselves to be. Lyrically, it's dynamite. Opener 'Sound Clash' provides both a poetic history of dub and an adequate explanation of the music that follows, while Horace Andy uses 'World Gone Crazy' to sing about 9/11 without taking sides, and Terry Hall continues in the genre of his recent Mushtaq project on 'Problem Is'. The further it progresses, the more that Six Million
heads into vaguely anonymous big beat hip hop dub (the amiable but dated 'Riptides' is surely a hold-over from the aborted 2001 release) but there are enough innovative productions styles and intelligent lyrics to suggest that Ashworth's Dub Pistols has a positive future. And positivity, it should be noted, appears to be the whole point of this project.
HIGHLIGHT: 'Problem Is.' The least original song on the album is, perversely, the most enjoyable: this is the closest we've ever come to Terry Hall singing for The Specials since, well, Terry Hall sang for the Specials.
HYBRID MORNING SCI-FI (Distinctive)
With their 1999 debut Wide Angle, Hybrid were declared leaders in a new generation of techno, just when the movement was at its most mainstream. Yet their moment never quite arrived and, four years later, Morning Sci-Fi will struggle for similar acclaim. To their credit, the Hybrid duo of Chris Healings and Mike Truman have welcomed a guitarist-vocalist, Adam Taylor, and they've also invited New Order's Peter Hook to add his distinctive bass: the two new forces collide on the single 'True To Form'. Taylor also sings 'I'm Still Awake' and 'Steal You Away' while 'We Are in Control' is proper symphonic techno, but all in all it breaks little new ground.
HIGHLIGHT: The always-welcome Kirsty Hawkshaw (famous among techno fans as the voice of Opus III and several BT/Way Out West classics) arrives just in time to see the album out in special style by singing 'Blackout.'
LFO SHEATH (Warp)
Given that this is only LFO's third album in twelve years, it could well have been called 'We Are Back' but for the fact that a) they used that title on 1991's bass-heavy seminal debut Frequencies and b) LFO is now merely Mark Bell, partner Gez Varley having gone on to pastures solo since 1996's Advance. In the seven year interim, Bell produced Bjork's Homogenic, and parts of Sheath those that are precise, spare, and meticulously-crafted sound like a continuation of that work. Turns out they are, except that Bell suffered a certain crisis of confidence about filling them with anything less beautiful than Bjork's voice - so while he allowed his synths to take the lead on some tracks, others he left hollow, as if awaiting a voice to fill a void. Finally, a fan-friend (Shaun Kendrick) borrowed Bell's masters, compiled a tape, and played it to Mark as concise proof of Bell's production skills - at which the artist agreed to release the mix as stands. Sheath, then, is hardly new, but it certainly doesn't sound dated. And for all that sparseness, when Bell wants to, he gets noisy and aggressive, especially with the headbanging 'Mum-Man' and 'Snot'. So while Sheath should in some ways be filed under "experimental electronica" alongside the rest of the Warp catalogue, Bell's lasting influence on and continued interest in the dance floor enables him to cast an influential shadow over much of the company he keeps on this page.
HIGHLIGHT: 'Freak.' An obvious reference to (and even imitation of) 'We Are Back,' the robotic "We are going to freak you out" vocal makes for the most old-fashioned and yet immediate track here.
OVERSEER - WRECKAGE (Columbia)
Reviewed in October Hitlist
PLUMP DJS EARGASM (Fingerlickin')
In more optimistic times, Eargasm would be receiving global press acclaim for its vibrant variety of sexy dance grooves. Sadly, during this period of contraction, consolidation and general repetition, people seem unwilling to embrace even those albums that do their damndest to push forward. Admittedly, the UK duo of Lee Rous and Andy Gardner announce themselves with the overly Chemicals-like 'Creepshow', but they quickly shake off obvious influences (and avoid including all their early singles) on straight-up party tracks like 'Weighed Down', 'the Funk Hits the Fan' and, especially, the unrelentingly twitchy single 'The Gate'. Personally, I could do without Gary Numan singing on 'Pray 4 U' he's had enough revivals to start a church already - but it's a relatively small complaint as Eargasm's second half otherwise becomes ever more introspective with the mutated vocals on 'How Much is Enough?', and the rather sad finale 'Tilt'. Segued where necessary, broken up where it serves the songs best, Eargasm is probably as good a debut album as weve heard from the UK scene this year.
HIGHLIGHT: 'The Gate.' One of the most pulsating singles of the summer; named for a studio effect popular with electronic and rock acts alike (naturally used to excess here), it's the perfect advertisement for Eargasm.
It's sexy, voluptuous party music intended for short term enjoyment, but with underlying, undeniable quality. An ideal match for the 2003 Beaujolais Neauveau vintage, itself the plumpest in memory. Try
THE STREETS ALL GOT OUR RUNNINS (Vice EP)
Mike Skinner as The Streets, onstage in New York October 2002
Mike Skinner's debut as The Streets, Original Pirate Material, was rightly hailed as British dance music's major musical event of 2002. This EP reminds us that no one from the UK has comes close to carving out such vibrant new territory this year including, unfortunately, The Streets themselves. 'Streets Score' shows up as a dark instrumental intro and spoken-word outtro, the lyrically witty 'Give Me Back My Lighter' has been part of the live set since last year but as with the equally sharp title track, sounds like an out-take from Original Pirate Material. The quartet of accompanying remixes serve their purpose: Dizzee Rascal shows up on 'Let's Push Things Forward', while both a High Contrast mix of 'It's Come To This' and Mr Figit's take on my personal fave, 'Don't Mug Yourself' up the tempo to drum and bass territory. For all its immediate appeal and despite the fact it's about the best record reviewed here, it's hard not to view All Got Our Runnins as a stop-gap measure, a way of maintaining attention while figuring how to seriously Push Things Forward with the second album. Wisely, perhaps recognizing this dilemma, the Vice label has decided to sell the EP primarily online, which allows fans to pick up the couple of new tracks for a buck apiece, and bide their time on the remixes. .
HIGHLIGHT: 'Weak Become Heroes' always stood out lyrically for its loved-up nostalgia; now it stands out musically with a housed-up remix courtesy of Ashley Beedle. Respect.