Friday, December 15, 2000
Artful Dodger - Its All About The Stragglers

My favourite garage track this year isn't Wookie's "Battle" (good tune though it is), but a surprisingly little-known remix of Valerie M's "Tingles 2000" by garage-stars Artful Dodger. It's a strange choice perhaps, because said remix flies in the face of nearly all the major trends in garage this year, foregoing both rude basslines and sophisticated soul stylings in favour of a gorgeously ethereal slice of cross-hatched ambient-garage, complete with tinkling glockenspiels, shimmering keyboards and deliciously chopped up vocal lines. It was one of the last of its kind though - the bassline-driven end of the scene had been growing steadily right through '99, and for the last six months it's been so dominant that groups like Artful Dodger, only just having broken through to the mainstram, now rely on bass-heavy remixes by acts like The Wideboys to get played by the DJs who used to rinse their tunes. Tunes like "Re-Rewind" still get played on the radio of course, but with hardly a bassline to speak of, it's difficult to imagine it coming up through the pirates and clubs now.

On the other hand, it's easy to forget what a bloody great single "Re-Rewind" actually was. Sure it's easy to dismiss now, now that Artful Dodger (Mark Hill and Pete Devereaux) are household names and Craig David's smirk is everywhere. But this time last year, "Re-Rewind" boinking into the no. 2 spot was a tremendous moment; an announcement that 2-step - real 2-step, mind - had finally crashlanded into the UK's national consciousness. What distinguished "Re-Rewind" from previous garage hits like "Sweet Like Chocolate", "Sincere" and indeed all of the group's subsequent singles was its lack of compromise. Oh sure, it's catchy, but then so is "Doom's Night". A closer listen though reveals that apart from Craig's smooth vocals, there's precious little melodic detail; some sparse keyboard chords is all really. The real hooks are all in the bizarrely stunted, stereo-panning and interweaving beats. For much of the track even the sparse keyboards fall away, and the sonically rich field of rhythmic detail - clicks and whirs; car screeches and windscreen smashes - is all the carries the song. It was perhaps the most rhythmically intense top five hit of the year.

"Re-Rewind" sounds particularly great in the context of its parent album Its All About The Stragglers (spelling of "its" theres, not mine) - a strange, tossed-off sounding name for an album as airbrushed as any to come out this year. Unexpectedly, "Re-Rewind" is the possibly the rawest-sounding track on the album as well as the most popcentric. In fact the duo, like MJ Cole, seem at pains to push themselves away from "conventional garage", prefering to explore fusions with other styles. However where Cole's fusionist tracks tended to be straight acid jazz or soul tracks with a 2-step beat looped underneath (sometimes a bit halfheartedly), the Artful Dodger seem to put a lot of thought into moderating the beats in order to suit their melodic environment as they did for Craig David on his R&B-garage hybrid "Fill Me In". First track "Think About Me" features tense strings and rippling piano reminiscent of Hybrid, and as if in acknowledgement the drum loop underneath owes us much to Hybrid's brand of expansive breakbeat as it does to garage. They've got a sense of humour though - in some places the vocal is morphed with the EQ as if it was a '97-era speed garage track.

Meanwhile new single "Please Don't Turn Me On" mimics the structure of "Fill Me In" exactly; becalmed verses with slow R&B beats alternating with the more excitable, string-filled garage choruses. "Please Don't Turn Me On" - all spiralling guitar, live bass and unthreatening beats - isn't as dynamic as "Fill Me In", and coupled with guest singer Lifford's smooth, soulful vocals, the whole affair sounds less like an exciting mixture of ideas and more like a pleasant cop-out. Arguably too much of the album has that air of fussy complacency: "Something" and "R U Ready" are both straightahead 2-step (the latter's actually an MC track), but their dreamy chords and becalmed crawl push them into MJ Cole territory. To be fair, both are lusciously produced with deliciously nuanced beats, but there's only so long you can go without a nasty bassline. "Twentyfourseven" isn't even 2-step anymore, but rather a sunny female vocal track with polite R&B beats similar to much of the backing music Hill created for Craig David's album, and has a similar accomplished-but-unexciting feel to it; imagine Rodney Jerkins producing Des'ree.

Luckily the duo balance these with some more fun moments. "Outrageous" is the closest the album comes to a "track" - chopped up vocals, shivering xylobass riffs and wonderfully hard snares (even at its weakest this album is a joy to listen to), it reminds me of Sunship's excellent work on Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers". As far as I can tell, the Dodger actually cut up the female vocalist's phrases so that they still make some weird sense (like Bowie writing words on glass and smashing it to make new lyrics from the fragments), but I can't for the life of me work out what they are. "I Can't Give It Up" is like a more pop-focused version of Cole's "Crazy Love", with busy pizzicato strings and lightning-quick beat programming, and its straightforward pop stylings make up for the absense of "Moving Too Fast". "Woman Trouble", here in two separate versions (the original's club-focused attack or the single version's pop anthemics), is a lot of fun either way with Robbie Craig's memorable, melodramatic vocals, and final track "We Should Get Together" actually has a prominent, verging-on-naughty bassline.

The general lack of much bass on this album feels strange when its deployment was a mandatory aspect of good 2-step in 2000. Unlike jungle's media-whore period from '95 to '97, most of the overground album garage artists (Artful Dodger, MJ Cole, Shanks & Bigfoot) haven't had time to enjoy their status before the scene suddenly changed around them (the other two, Truesteppers and Wookie, had a love of bass all along). Cole caught up quickly with his bass-heavy post-album work, and cunningly worked dub remixes into the folds of Sincere to suggest that he'd been on the right train all along, but Its All About The Stragglers contains little concessions to the sound of now that the Wideboys remixes on the singles represented. In that sense it's a bit of a curiosity, a cul-de-sac denoting a direction for garage that's been largely bypassed, rendering it curiously more likable than it otherwise might have been. As an album it is, like Sincere, a qualified success: it's at its worst enjoyable and at its best fantastic, but it's hardly the definitive statement it might have been. If you're a fan of the singles so far, you'll enjoy Its All About The Stragglers a lot. If you're looking for an album to sum up garage for you, the answer is, as always, the same: go and buy a compilation.


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