Music is a crutch though, which is perhaps why I was extravagant today and bought Ayia Napa: The Album mixed by Shanks & Bigfoot
. "Now surely," I hear you cry, "there is a natural limit to the amount of UK garage compilations a person can have before they grow tired." Well, there should
be, but obviously not in my case, 'cause I'm still planning to pick up the second Pure Silk
comp. in order to have Wookie's "Scrappy", E.S. Dubs' "Standard Hoodlum Issue" and M-Dubs' "Bump & Grind" on cd. But back to the album at hand...
The big surprise is that this is actually by far the least commercial compilation I've yet come across. After "Sing-A-Long", I was expecting this to be something of a "Now That's What I Call Garage!" set, but it seems that the duo are feeling a tad guilty about their more mercenary urges, and are using the backing of the Ministry Of Sound to achieve something of a temporary volte face.
So, while the hits are present in forms both chartbusting ("Buggin", "Girls Like Us", "What's Going On") and reconfigured ("Fill Me In", "Flowers", "Straight From The Heart"), for the most part this is some of the most moody, raw 2-step action yet to be heard outside of the clubs or pirates. Even "Sing-A-Long" itself is stripped of its childlike appeal, the dub mix included here resembling nothing so much as a vaporous ghost-dream of the original, with disembodied vocals and a sickly bassline.
I can't help but think that this is some deliberate attempt on the part of the Ministry to corner the entire garage market by so radically differentiating this from their previous, Artful Dodger-helmed Rewind compilation, which was a commercial/historical primer set for the genre. Only two tracks, the Stanton Warriors' mix of Basement Jaxx's "Jump 'N' Shout" and B15 Project's omnipresent "Girls Like Us" overlap between the two, a remarkable feat of restraint. Presumably, the "Ayia Napa" in the title implies that this album is supposed to be listened to while holidaying in Ayia Napa, and such jetsetters obviously know their garage, so most of the tracks are new and obscure.
The hits are, of course, brilliant. The Sunship mixes of Craig David's "Fill Me In" and Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers" streamline both for heightened dancefloor appeal while retaining the originals' charms. "Flowers" in particular is crammed full of vocal wizardry, with a looped octave-jumping sigh that's been the most gorgeous radio moment of the year so far. Meanwhile "Buggin" by Truesteppers aka Jonny L has that aforementioned slamming production and great chorus to recommend it.
Wookie's "What's Going On" still represents for me the pinnacle of 'songful' 2-step, though. The pouncing, salsa piano line, thick warbling bass line and helium vocals combine in an unlikely but perfect recipe for some of the sunniest pop music you'll ever hear. It's Wookie's most obvious moment, but it sounds so optimistic, so unfettered by the past that the "new Summer of Love" hysteria seized upon by the media suddenly makes sense.
Future hits come in the form of Comme Ci Comme Ca's (heh) "Summer Of Love", which is saved from a death-by-over-smoothness due to its intriguingly off-the-wall latin flavoured production, and DJ Luck & MC Neat's "Masterblaster 2000", which has similar anthemic potential as previous smash "A Little Bit Of Luck", but with a sophisticated arrangement of woven together flickers of piano and synth squiggles which hopefully ensures a longer shelf life.
Venture outside those though, and the popular formula for garage is strikingly absent, and instead we're treated to a host of dub mixes of tracks that are generally obscure anyway. A long way from house or r&b, these tracks are minimalist in both arrangement and melody. It's a more immersive type of 2-step, characterised by hypnotic breakbeats and cycling xylo-bass riffs that skip around in your head like the cacophony of an insectile orchestra.
Truesteppers' "The Finest" sets the tone about halfway through the first disc. Roughly based on Foul Play's "Finest Illusion", it revels in the kind of darkside disorientation that was previously the sole domain of Dem 2. The Break & Bass mix of The Wideboys' "Hustler" takes things quite a few steps further, overlaying slamming breaks over an amusical motorbike bassline. That's nothing though compared to Timo Maas's mix of Azzido Da Bass's "Dooms Night", originally a german techno track. Basically coming across as a hybrid of The Chemical Brothers and Mr. Oizo's "Flat Beat", it doesn't actually work as a track really, but it's bizarre enough to justify its inclusion.
There's also a strong ragga influence, as shown on the boisterous "Boost Them" by Kitachi, and Richie Dan's great vocals on "Call It Fate", which has a wicked bassline and a fragile trebly glockenspiel melody - a trick that sadly seems to have been abandoned by most scenesters. The ragga aspects merely emphasise the debt these underground tracks owe jungle, a debt made explict on TKS's "Fly Bi", which samples hardstep classics like Renegade's "Terrorist", Splash's "Babylon" and MA2's "Hearing Is Believing", although in most other respects it's actually a hip hop track. The acknowledged influence doesn't just extend to jungle though; Mellowtrack's "Outa Space" is in fact a blatant remake of The Prodigy's hardcore track of the same name, and unsurprisingly goes down a treat.
Groove Chronicles chip in two charmingly individual tracks, with their mix of Sia's "Taken For Granted" (a dark cello-driven vocal track with a totally bizarre string orchestra interlude - a trick shamelessly stolen from Richie Boy & DJ Klasse's "Madness On The Street", but since they're ripping off the best garage track ever, I can hardly complain) and "Raw To The Floor", which contrasts some eerie piano work with the wordless wail of the girl from The Orb's "Blue Room" to great effect.
I already had the Stanton Warriors' mixes of both "Jump 'N' Shout" and Jocelyn Brown's "Somebody Else's Guy", though both sound just as fine here. The idea of the latter (combining vocal house with a pummelling break) is repeated brilliantly in Club Asylum's mix of Kristine Blond's "Love Shy", although its lush production is also very similar to The Dreem Teem's excellent soft-hard concoctions. It's the catchiest non-hit on the compilation.
The best track though is an utter surprise, being Shanks & Bigfoot's own remix of Kavana's "Will You Wait For Me". The duo could have gone the route of MJ Cole in making a turgid ballad even more excrutiatingly fluffy, but instead this is fabulously dark. Isolating a fleeting low, murderous croon from the original, they add a suspensful Indian woodwind-and-string drone backing, menacing horns, a booming bass line and an exquisitely assymetrical kick drum arrangement. It's utterly delectable.
As a whole the compilation is not one I'd recommend for newcomers - even I find it to be a bit alienating in its underground monochromacity at some points, although I've got to listen to it more obviously. I think it's a bit of a shame that the duo have felt the need to flit between the extremes of pop savviness and wilful amusicality, as Timmi Magic's Pure Silk: The Third Dimension proved that a successful middle ground between the two can be found.
Still, there's plenty here to please both the new fan and the dedicated collector, so if you're into the scene you should enjoy this a lot.