What pushes Roll Deep Crew as far along from So Solid Crew as So Solid Crew were from "Bound For Da Reload", apart from the even more bizarre and psychotic grooves they employ, is the endlessly involving element of personality that each MC brings to their tracks. With So Solid Crew you can distinguish between each MC based on their voice and rapping style - Asher D does narrative, Megaman and Romeo do gruff nonsense etc. - but thematically and psychologically they present a largely united front. In contrast Roll Deep use differing vocal styles to create radically different and fundamentally unbalanced individual personas within a broader, sketchily cohesive crew-unit. It's not quite so easy to spot on their single "Terrible" (more of a vehicle for Wiley Kat than anything else) but you can readily and viscerally hear it on the Roll Deep Remix of The Streets' "Let's Push Things Forward" or their own "Bounce", both of which move through Wiley Kat's straightforward hyperspeed agression, Flo Dan's mysterious baritone menace and Dizzy Rascal's cracked warble with crisp efficiency, simultaneously highlighting their radical distinction from each other and yet presenting them as single manifestations of a single core idea.
I guess that core idea is a sort of grimey hard-knocks persistence. In his great article about Clispe, Michaelangelo Matos says that the duo "sound unnervingly comfortable occupying the life they describe," and that they "never sound like they're posing for anything." None of the Roll Deep crew approach the bored professionalism of Pusha T in particular, and in fact some of them seem to never be anything but hyper, but like Clipse there's a level of accepting familiarity to their grim tales that the hyper-aware self-reflexiveness of So Solid Crew avoids - whereas the latter started rapping about rising above their station almost as soon as they appeared, Roll Deep can envision no way to escape their lot. "You know I wouldn't hurt you on purpose" Wiley assures his girl on the almost comical "Everything Happens For A Reason", and his disavowal of responsibility is a telling example of his crew's "shit happens" philosophy. For Roll Deep, violence and betrayal are a fact of life, not unremarkable but not really avoidable either, and certainly not glamorous.
Roll Deep Crew also trump So Solid Crew in the Wu-Tang Clan-comparisons department, chiefly because they seem much more suited to a succession of spin-off solo careers. In fact I'm tempted to say that the crewmembers work better on their own, if only because there's more time to digest each MC's qualities on solo joints than on the whirlwind rush of their collaborative efforts (the latter can pay off brilliantly though - see the no-nonsense party track "Bounce", which rivals Pay As U Go's "Champagne Dance" for great thugs on the dancefloor action). Wiley Kat always seems a trifle conservative on Roll Deep tracks, but on his own track "I Will Not Lose" he sounds awesomely agile, rapping with a perfect precision over the stomping and stuttering beat like he's riding a bucking bronco at a rodeo. In isolation, it's clear that Wiley is the team's best technical performer, a garage MC in the traditional sense, impressing with the sheer audacious complexity of his aural pyrotechnics rather than with the realness of his stories or a flashy persona.
Dizzy Rascal's "I Love You" is probably the biggest hit the crew have produced so far (though oddly I only heard the full version for the first time a few days ago), and you can understand why: Dizzy is just so brimming with outlandish personality that he's almost irresistible. "I Love You" of course boasts insanely addictive, punishing, turgidly booming bass riffs and harsh, reticular snare snaps, but the show belongs to Dizzy. The callous chorus reminds me of Destiny's Child's "Bugaboo": "That girl's some bitch y'know, she keep callin' my phone, she don't leave me alone, she just moan and groan, she keep ringin' me at home, these days I don't answer my phone." But whereas Destiny's Child perversely employed hyper-emotive melisma to convey a fundamental emotionlessness (as much as a mixture of contempt, indifference and annoyance can equal emotionlessness), Dizzy finds good currency in perpetual emotional excess, exploiting his voice's tendency to land on unpredictable notes. He whines the chorus with such a thrilling tone of injured frustration that you almost pity him; whatever he feels, he feels it intensely. The song reaches its peak in the terse, accusatory call-and-response between Dizzy and his MC girlfriend: their game of twenty questions is so aggressive and tense that I half expect to hear plates crashing against the wall. "I Love You" is the opposite of the irrepressible giddiness of Nelly's "Hot In Herre", with Dizzy finding it impossible to keep down his festering resentment at a world that's never done him any favours.
It's quite a shock to go from "I Love You" to Flo Dan's "Big Mic Man", which swaps Dizzy's no-holds-barred impact for sly, prowling dancehall-garage. The dry, pounding 4/4 beat tapers off at the end of each bar, diffused or evasive, mired in a tremors of quivering military snares, and the resulting swampy groove is suggestive of a patrol in the Vietnam jungle, interrupted and delayed by the sudden intrusion of snipers and (ahem) snares. In stark opposition to Dizzy, Flo Dan's flow is all restraint, a stark monotone basso profundo that's ultimately just as close to the edge of all-out violence as Dizzy's explosiveness, if not more so. "Bun dat with da fire!" he mutters, and warns that "I'm gonna leave this place in a mess!" What's fascinating about "Big Mic Man" is how unequivocally an MC tune it is: there's definitely a groove there, but it's as compromised and enfeebled as those on Original Pirate Material, not so much stop-start as surge-slip. It forces all of your attention onto Flo Dan, makes you listen to the steady implacability of his rapping and puzzle over his enigmatic blankness. It's an odd approach for someone unlikely to win the crossover attention of a Mike Skinner, but it's surely a positive sign that I've returned to "Big Mic Man" more than any other tune for the past six weeks or so.
An announcement. In a couple of days I'm moving out of home, and into a nifty terrace in the inner city suburbs where I can do general student lifestyle-ish things with three friends of mine. There will be no internet in the house, at least initially. As a result it will be less easy to furnish you all with Skykicking updates, and these will probably end up happening once every one or two weeks. You'll still be able to contact me on my e-mail address, but don't respect prompt replies. The plus side is that hopefully I'll end up writing more complete articles, and maybe I'll also do better in my studies than I did this year through lack of procrastination outlets. The minus side is, well, less updates. My apologies.
At times like these I begin to feel a bit sentimental, and I'd like to thank everyone who has read and enjoyed my stuff so far, and especially everyone who has provided support, criticism, advice and inspiration. Shout-outs: Matt, Andrew James, Tom Ewing, Mitch Lastnamewitheld, Frank Kogan, Michaelangelo Matos, Ned Raggett, Nicole Willett, Nick Kilroy, Fred Solinger, Michael Daddino, Ally Kearney, Sterling Clover, Josh Kortbein, Robin Carmody, Jess Harvell, Ethan, Simon Reynolds, Dan Perry, Guy Campbell, Andy Kellman, Spencer Chow, Nitsuh, Ricky T, Gareth, Daver Mofo Popshots, Ronan the Littlest Raver, Job De Wit, Ian Bleeding Ears, Greg S, Omar Munoz, Daniel Werner, Ben O'Connor, Velimir Grgic, Keith McDougall, Jonathon Dale, Dean Carlson, Mark Richardson, Todd Burns, Scott Plagenhoeff, Marcello Carlin, David Howie, Alex Honda, Nathalie, Badger, Dave Stelfox, Andy Battaglia, Bill E, Glenn McDonald, Bob Zemko, Mark SinX0R.
And hey, if your name should be on here and it's not (keep in mind I'm tired and a bit tipsy) just remember that I love ya. I love all'a ya.
The standard equivocation over the Horsepower Productions album is a questioning of its overt sense of refinement and restraint - especially compared to the ruff'n'ready sound of the garage pirates. It's worth thinking about another contrast for the album though, and that's with all the garage producer (cf. garage crews) LPs that have been released so far - MJ Cole, The Artful Dodger, Wookie etc. In Fine Style is maybe the first of these which has been so confident in the quality of its own grooves that it felt no need to court a crossover audience through investment in songform. Which is kinda ironic, as I think of all those listed Horsepower Productions have the most to gain by becoming more pop. In fact, the shivering soul of "One You Need" - their sole excursion into the land of female vocals thus far - remains perhaps a career best for this reason. Like Massive Attack and DJ Shadow, Horsepower Productions' brand of intricate disquiet doesn't require vocals to be successful, but it is nonetheless periodically rejuvenated by the pathos which vocals can bring in their train - or, at any rate, it could be.
The succession of near-instrumental grooves on In Fine Style meanwhile reminds me of the '96 Full Cycle compilation Music Box, and not just because this is about the most accurate stylistic reference point available. Music Box is, song for song, easily the superior of New Forms, but its very consistency perhaps prevents it from being as exciting and intriguing as the latter record, whose frequent missteps are more than excused by the astonishing highs that result from Roni Size and Reprazent stretching their wings - where is Horsepower Productions' equivalent of "Share The Fall"? (if, of course, Zed Bias's remix of Two Banks of Four's "Hook and a Line" hadn't beaten them to the post) Suffice to say that the trio are just too sonically evocative to limit themselves to the downbeat eeriness that dominates the always lovely-sounding In Fine Style.
That said, a large part of my love for 2-step is based around the beat itself; a passionate belief that, underneath the vocals and the arrangement dynamics and sometimes even the bassline, this approach to rhythm is one of the most expressive (and impressive) rhythmic formulas out there. So an album like In Fine Style, which plays like a homage to the attraction of the 2-step beat, is going to win me over no matter how minimalist it is. There is, at the end of the day, something to be said for stripping back the layers of songfulness in order to simply revel in a groove, to marvel at how the beats seem to ricochet off eachother, how every sound interlocks in an astounding display of flawless dysfunctionalism.
Of course, if you're clever you can do both, foregrounding the groove and the song without either seeming to detract from the other. The Junior Boys' debut EP (which you can obtain by talking to them) makes this balancing act its mission and its purpose, and as a result sounds like that imaginary Horsepower Productions excursion into songform. Of course, the garage trio would have to swap their Jamaican influences for arch Euro affectation to sound like these guys, but hell, Timbaland's certainly bridged bigger gaps. The bigger problem would be how to negotiate the songs themselves, which tend to defy any easy equation of pop + dance. Sometimes the Junior Boys are, like Coloma, dance-dabblers, with the songs themselves the undeniable center of these concoctions, looking out uncertainly but visibly through the maze-like web of rhythmic detail that surrounds them. Other times they are groove-scientists, constructing dense rhythms within which only mirage-like glimmers of a song can be discerned, the fleeting vocal hooks manipulated with as much ruthlessness as in any Dem 2 production.
When you're not listening to these songs, it's easy to underestimate the sheer perversity of their rhythmic excess - the songs are just too easily memorable to countenance it. Listen again though, and you are inevitably struck by the pole-vaulting elasticity of their grooves, shivering and bristling so naturally that it seems likely that the duo have never even heard of a four-to-the-floor beat (they have; the bouncy "Bellona" suggests a potentially lucrative detour into microhouse-pop, sounding like Jurgen Paape producing The Aluminum Group). Needless to say, these guys bring as much rhythmic inventiveness to the table as any producer in hip hop and garage combined; their insolence lies in incongruously combining it with glittering arctic romanticism.
The Junior Boys join a long tradition of sonically rich effete Anglophilic pop, evoking New Order, The Associates, Bark Psychosis, The Blue Nile, Talk Talk, even latter-day Depeche Mode - the singer (Jonny? Jeremy? I can't remember which) reminds me slightly of Martin Gore, actually. Certainly the music is chilly enough, though it's as much the frostbite of cloudless nights as it is electroclash machinery, all sparkling synth twinkles and lush chords, spiked with the skyscraping glitter of guitar (or whatever the duo use to suggest the presence of one). What Junior Boys share with all of these groups perhaps is a love of the swoon; their songs always seem to be in the verge of emotional intoxication. "You make me feel more than real", the singer sighs with a hint of ambivalence to his desire, as if the intensity of the other's presence induces an instant and dangerous state of deliriousness, of larger-than-life unreality. In another song he croons in near-falsetto "When I see you, you make my high come down, and I want to see you shake this whole damn crowd." Voyeurism - as far as I can tell a recurrent theme here - is not merely used for its own sake, but as a vehicle for a seductive form of self-negation. The singer is deflated by the presence of the object of desire, and enjoys it, enjoys the sense of awe-filled unworthiness. "Baby, put your trust in me," he pleads, and the groove swerves into darkness, stuttering uncontrollably around zapping bass hits. We have given up too much blood in this sacrifice of subjectivity, and the final stages of emotional vampirism are as disturbing as they are pleasurable.
Surprisingly, given my usual conceits, I actually think the Junior Boys could afford to retreat slightly from the cliff of abandonment-in-groove - their rhythms are so endlessly delightful on even their most songful tracks that they really have little to gain in drowning themselves in grooves, and certainly if I line up my favourite moments on the EP, they're the ones that favour clarity and lightness of touch rather than the more dystopian rhythm tracks. A strong song-focus also allows the duo to play around with the basic structure of the grooves; the petulant, morose "Birthday" pumps quietly but steadily on a simple Moroder bassline, allowing the rhythm to stomp and stamp around like a sullen and pouty child, less danceable but more evocative. Similarly the gossamer sighs of "Last Exit" alternates classic "One In A Million" stutter-beats with ever-retreating dub-refracted snares, as if the song is constantly running from its destination, scared or shy of what it might find.
On the other hand, I still find myself returning to the cut-up madness of the Honeys + Skrilla Mix of "High Come Down" (reviewed here a while ago), with its Squarepusher-like hysterical groove. But this is slightly different to the duo's more minimal groove tracks like "You Want To" or "I'm So Into You", in that its song, shattered into a thousand shards as it is, still exerts a magnetic force on the random-seeming drum hits, gathering and assorting them around it like armour. This groove still has a song's imprint, the suggestion of an emotional imprint rendered untranslatable but still for all that visible, and still capable of arresting you with its force.
P.S. Majors (and indies) be vigilant: these guys deserve a record deal.
"Thug Lovin" made me somewhat wary of the new Ja Rule album, not because it's a bad song (it's not, really) but because it seemed so unsurprising for a return Ja Rule single (and when you think about, nearly all of Ja Rule's big singles have been quite unexpected). I mean, when the most interesting asset you can bring to the table is Bobby Brown with a throat infection, you've got to start wondering about who's looking after the ideas box. Everything from the relaxed guitar glimmer to the self-pillaging Stevie Wonder swipe suggested that Irv was entering into his decadent late-nineties Puff Daddy phase where everything sounds like everything that has come before, only less impressive obviously (would that make "I'm Real (Remix)" Gotti's "Mo' Money Mo' Problems", then? And, following that logic, "Can I Get A..." his "Big Poppa"?).
Listening to The Last Temptation for the first time turns out to be an oddly pleasant experience though, once you get past the initial impression that it's going to be an accountant's hip hop album (winsome but faintly disturbing Ashanti duet? Check. Token Neptunes production? Check etc.). Specifically, the fourth song "The Pledge Remix" forms something of an early peak with its murkily over-produced atmospheric funk spilling out all over the place, an impressive bursting forth of MOR-hop so excessive, so indecent that it almost becomes avant-garde. Ashanti is singing an anti-hook all over this like an eerily dispossessed - if correspondingly empty - siren. The whole thing, to continue with the Puffy analogy, reminds me of "It's All About The Benjamins", in other words the moment where the hubris of all the collective personalities involved caused the tune to be squeezed out of bed, somehow making the track better for its absence.
Nothing is quite as disquieting, but at the least the feeling of oddly pleasant mainstream oiliness continues on "Murder Reigns", which has a guitar lick that could at any moment burst into "The Boys of Summer" (not the DJ Sammy version), and on the swishing "The Warning", whose refined lounge-funk glide reminds me of the instrumental interludes on Supa Dupa Fly - real smooth shit. "Connected" is even better/worse, with its plangent piano tinkles and some Nate Dogg wannabe crooning the chorus for all the world like it's '92 (sadly this ain't nearly as good as, say, that Kurupt track I just listed). This is the sort of album that you end up liking precisely because it's not a masterpiece; the sort of album that does its best to fill in all the aural spaces you aren't listening for, hanging somewhat limpid in the air between the speakers and your ear, boring, but comforting too.
P.S. Perhaps I should explicitly state that the rhymes haven't sunk in yet, although I should say that on "Thug Lovin", which I am more familiar with, Ja Rule does what I think is some of his best work yet! This is relative, obviously.
Fred on "Hot In Herre". He's wrong about the placement (should be no. 2 at the least!) and he's half-wrong about The Neptunes' production (not mediocre; generic, and all the better for it), but he's right about absolutely everything else.
Don't you just love rediscovering tracks you haven't heard in ages? In this case, it's replacements of some of the casualties of the Great Hard Disk Meltdown of 2002 (in no particular order):
1. Mya - The Best Of Me (Trackmasters Remix) 2. Da Brat - That's What I'm Looking For 3. Method Man - Release Yo Delf (The Prodigy Remix) 4. Kurupt - The Hardest Muthafucka 5. Soul Decision - Ooo It's Kinda Crazy 6. Too $hort - 2 Bitches 7. Betty Boo - Where Are You Baby? 8. Sticky Fingaz & Petey Pablo - You Know U Ghetto 9. Philly's Most Wanted - Cross The Border 10. Trina - Da Baddest Bitch
My attempts to write about Saint Etienne's Tiger Bay in any great detail precipitates a rather insistent and long-lasting writer's block, which is odd or perhaps fitting considering that in its extended European-release form it is possibly my favourite album ever. What I can say is that one of my most vivid memories of last year is being holed up at home with tonsillitis for almost two weeks, missing far too many torts law classes but not really caring - I had my cups of lemon and ginger tea, a sundrenched couch by the window and the recently purchased Tiger Bay playing on repeat. The eye within a storm of activity, time passed with a glorious lassitude that renders it in retrospect a good deal pleasanter than it actually was - at least from the vantage point of the mountain of commitments I've accrued in the time since.
This slice of time-outside-time (no classes, no student politics, no social engagements, a necessarily restricted lovelife) perhaps coloured my perception of Tiger Bay: what I return to endlessly with these songs is their sense out-of-timeness - even the most superficially "modern" pieces feel like artifacts, flawless constructions unearthed from another age that would crumble to dust at the slightest breath of air. Stanley and Wiggs call it their "techno-folk" album, which makes sense to me; this is part archaeology, part travelogue, a roadmap and an excavation of emotional terrain held suspended, ossified by bad choices, words left unsaid, questions unanswered. Saint Etienne inhabit their characters, but they also struggle with them, and sigh at their intractability - Sarah's angelic empathy refuses none, but its endless capacity is itself a gentle rebuke. Sarah's vocals here - particularly on "He's On The Phone", "Former Lover" and "Marble Lions" - are the best of her career, her graceful intensity reminding me of Mrs Ramsey from Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse (or rather, when I read the book Mrs Ramsey reminded me of Sarah), combining deepness and blankness, transparency and opacity so seamlessly, reflecting back perfectly all the desire and doubt you pour onto and into her, and yet remaining essentially unknowable.
For an album that means so much to me, Tiger Bay leaves me with little sense of an emotional investment in Saint Etienne itself - a curious fact that can be seen not in how much I love the preceding albums (both very much if you were wondering, especially So Tough) but in how little their subsequent albums suffer from the burden of my expectations. Objectively, the desiccated lounge-pop Good Humour is almost a betrayal of everything that Tiger Bay stands for, made worse by the fact that it indicts Tiger Bay by implication (for there is a discernible trajectory that can be traced through the group's early work, ultimately arriving at this point). It's also an abject lesson in how not to make a Saint Etienne album, finally demonstrating irrefutably how little cynicism and irony infects the group's other work by being their only album that is steeped in them. I say objectively because the album's existence doesn't bother me in the slightest, and I think all the singles, especially "The Bad Photographer", are pretty fab (ironically Good Humour, despite being their bid for pop-revivalism credibility, is their only album that justifies the "Saint Etienne = singles band" misconception).
Onwards then to Places To Visit, which I haven't actually heard in full, but is nonetheless worth mentioning for the snap-back-into-place brilliance of "We're In The City" and "Sadie's Anniversary", two songs which strike me as the closest the group have ever come to capturing themselves as themselves. "We're In The City" is chilly house-pop at its more brittle - a desert-like expanse of desolation seems to exist between each kickdrum pulse and hi-hat swish, while the melody is paired back to nothing, just a barely-there bassline, lonely-sounding beeps and ghostly synth vapour. Sarah is at her most precise and evasive, a bodiless presence that infuses the song, surrounds it, not in the city but of the city, creeping up through drainpipes and cracks in the pavement. "Sadie's Anniversary" is of the sort of morose ballad that the group could easily spend their entire career exploring, beats be damned. "One year to the day, since you put on the night; one year to the day that you shot out the light" Sarah begins mysteriously, and it seems fitting that the song has taken a year to emerge - Saint Etienne always worked best with love's gentle ebb and flow rather than its raging torrents, and Sadie's convalescence creates a sadness akin to diamond, beautiful in its hardened and perfect rigidity. "I'll never say those words again," she sighs, "no, not to anyone...that matters," and it's the qualification that makes her declaration gripping, suggestive of not a heart broken but rather a heart forever denied its full potential, a heart resigned to a grayer and less truthful life from this moment onwards.
I suspect that Sound of Water, an album which I only discovered recently, has a mixed reputation because it forces the resisting fan to confront the group's increasing distaste for emotional absolutes; put simply, there's nothing here to match the sheer uncomplicated joy of "Nothing Can Stop Us" or "I Was Born On Christmas Day". Why should there be? There's so much emotional terrain still left to explore, terrain that requires more caution, more reflection, more hesitancy. To make it harder for the reluctant listener, the emotional terrain that Sound of Water does in fact explore is every shade of wistfulness and not much more, its greatest extremes being the rich lugubriousness of "Heart Failed (In The Back Of A Taxi)" (the group's house-pop at its most frigid and most sumptuous) and the glorious reverie of "Sycamore", the album's peak and one of Saint Etienne's finest moments period.
What I find stunning here is the sheer power that the group summon up in the service of such a gentle, undemonstrative feeling: the harpsichord lurches like the world is dropping out from beneath it while Sarah sings "na na na na, na na na na" unconcernedly, almost distractedly, and then the world does fall away, into a snow-scattered void of awe-filled sighs, majestic, mysterious. "I'm thinking of Ben," Sarah coos so lightly, "I'm thinking of your new green dress," so lightly in fact that her words seem to drift across the music like bubbles, "I saw it unfold, unwrapping..." Is this maturity? To be so intensely centered and aware of oneself that even the slightest modulations of emotion spark off slowly ripples of sonic seratonin, even at the instigation of simple memories, half-remembered scents, allusions? The rest of the album contents itself to operate within the borders established by these aforementioned "extremes", and while I consider the walk through the shadowed-but-prosperous valley between these two peaks to be exceedingly pleasant, I can at least understand the reticence of others. It is, to be sure, the group's most underrated album.
Go to the Bpitchcontrol website and click into the 'BPCTRL Special Edition' area to hear a rather great DJ-mix by Sascha Funke in realaudio. It starts with Air (!) and just gets weirder and better as it goes along. Root around a bit while you're there; I've been listening to Bpitchcontrol's Berlin 2001 compilation non-stop (rotating with Jay-Z's latest), and I'm looking forward to hearing this year's equivalent - needless to say the label is firing on all cylinders, and deserves your attention.
While we're on the realaudio tip, go here to listen to full-length tracks from the Martini Bros' album Play. Specifically, tune into the first track "Boy/Girl" in all its don't-miss-a-second eleven minute glory - sensual, emotional, epic, delicately compulsive, this unfurls itself so gorgeously that the last five minutes seem almost unbearably brilliant.