Saturday, January 10, 2009

It's All About the Stragglers
(ffrr/Public Demand)
Uncut, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Could it be that 2step garage, like any sugary carbonated beverage, has already lost its fizz? Fabulous singles still stalk the higher reaches of the charts--Architechs' "Bodygroove", Monsta Boy's "Sorry", Truesteppers' "Out of Your Mind". But it no longer feels like UKG's got the UK 30 in hegemonic stranglehold. The backlash is well under way: not just from outsiders (Melody Maker's risible, straight-up racist "UK Garage My Arse" cover), but from within the scene. Like hardcore in '93, like drum'n'bass in '96, underground producers are going dark; they're literally stripping the sunshine out of the music by eliminating the treble frequencies (diva vox, singalong melody) and pushing basslick pressure to the fore. And now, here come the albums--as with jungle's crossover phase, almost always underwhelming and belated-seeming.

Britain's biggest-selling dance act, Artful Dodger have always been ultra-populist. That's what was good about them, and about UK garage: the transvaluation of London underground principles captured by the line in "Re-Rewind," where Craig David sings about being "real hardcore" in the most fey, velvety, softcore croon imaginable. Similarly, the hallmark of Mark Hill and Pete Devereux's production is that it's simultaneously dainty and raw, prissily finessed and speaker-mashing ruff. "Re-Rewind" is one of four killer tunes that make It's All About the Stragglers (crap title, innit) a de facto Greatest Hits: the insinuating bass-bubble of "Something", the classy, clever "Woman Trouble," the moody, loping groove of "What You Gonna Do". Of the rest, "Twenty Four Seven" is a notch above filler, and "RU Ready" is enhanced by MC Alistair's street ragga vibe.

Overall, though, Stragglers is further proof of the incompatibility of dancefloor-targeted genres with the album format. What is thrilling and singular as a single is inevitably diminished and muted when surrounded by similar-but-not-quite-as-good material (marked by the sort of semi-songfulness that's the downfall of all crossover house and jungle). It forces you to notice the faceless prowess of the "featured" vocalists, the over-used arrangement mannerisms: in Dodger's case, the same pizzicato string parts, shlocky piano trills, acoustic guitar spangles, and xylophone scampers that MJ Cole deploys as gestures at "musicality".

2step's hyper-gloss production and highpitched divas proved that extreme treble can be as intense as extreme bass, inducing a headspinning sensation, like champagne's running through your veins instead of blood. At its best, UKG has both--it's all top-end tingle and sub-woofer boom. But on Stragglers, not only is every track here in its perfunctory radio edit, but it sounds like they're radio mixes too: mid-frequencies flattening out the polar extremism of club-oriented garage into a dulled sheen. The result is disappointingly mild and characterless, pop music without the pop.

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