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Two-Step to Nowhere

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MJ Cole

Sincere

(Talkin' Loud/Island)

Artful Dodger

It's All About the Stragglers

(London/Sire)

When American record companies attempt to break British-born postrave subgenres in the States, they invariably take the same approach: Real artists. Real songs. Real albums. Who has time to test-drive the dozens of look- and soundalike DJ-mix CDs out there? Not even me, and that's how I make my living.

Take two-step garage: it's been a driving force in England for four years now, the radio-ready people's choice and the cutting edge for the underground cognoscenti. Two-step garage amalgamates the pleasure principle of house music and the itchy-feet production style of post-Timbaland R & B (a sound itself heavily influenced by the kinetic breakbeat mutations and gut-wrenching bass lines of another British dance music, drum 'n' bass). Mainstream performers like Mariah Carey and 'N Sync have taken cautious steps into the sound (with, respectively, an MJ Cole remix of "Loverboy" and a new two-step-flavored single called "Pop"), but the subgenre doesn't seem poised for a U.S. breakthrough.

Several of two-step's prime movers broke away from drum 'n' bass (Steve Gurley, a highly sought two-step producer and remixer, was part of Foul Play, the group behind the early jungle classics "Open Your Mind" and "Finest Illusion"). Like drum 'n' bass's early incarnations, two-step tracks have breathy female vocals and impressionistic song structures. But two-step is pop friendlier--the beats may be shifty but they accommodate traditional songs better than drum 'n' bass's rolling piledrive. Two-step's musical MO is smoothness disrupted--clicking beats, clipped bass lines, riffs that sound like they're played on vibraphones or African mbiras (thumb pianos), all pushed to the soothing center of the stereo field. Even at its most abstract it's a very approachable sound, yet none of the British two-step artists who've released their own albums in the U.S. seems to know what to do about it.

Whenever someone makes an album in a fresh dance style that doesn't sound like a patched-together compilation, some writer will declare, "Finally! A real artist writing real songs has produced a real album." MJ Cole's Sincere has taken advantage of this critical reflex--but are we really supposed to believe an album that begins with the words "Take a ride on the wild side"? Two-step may be "wild" by definition (because of its cannonading bass lines and, even more, its underground cred), yet Sincere is a classy, even fussy album--the lively "MJ FM Interlude," a tribute to London pirate radio, is the only track that isn't overly concerned with maintaining its decorum.

Cole was educated at the Royal College of Music in London, and his training asserts itself in intriguing ways: on "Introduction" and "Sincere," his light piano figures double back on themselves just shy of turning to treacle. But the bass-line pressure that gives two-step its fire is mostly MIA, and the supper-club "musicality" all but waves the cork under your nose for approval. On "I See" vocalist Elisabeth Troy chants "There's no life without love" in a deeply serious moan that sounds less like a soul sister than a scold. "Baby be real with me....You can do it....You've got to get an attitude"--the album sounds like a self-help seminar.

Masters at Work express similar sentiments (see "You Can Do It [Baby]," which MAW released under the name Nuyorican Soul), but Cole sounds more enamored of hedonism than familiar with it. The sonic trappings are here in spades--tony pizzicato strings, tinkling high-end piano, refined soul singing--and Sincere's artwork is a medley of champagne bottle, watch, sunglasses case, record stylus, and designer shopping bag, each emblazoned with "MJ COLE" in artful typeface. But I never feel anyone deriving real pleasure from it. And unlike, say, Chic--whose frostiness was a tongue-in-cheek mockery of clubland's upscale aspirations even as it authenticated club music--there's no irony, no layer to Cole deeper than "We're here, we're rich, get used to it."

In contrast to Cole's glitz, the DJ production team Artful Dodger--aka Pete Devereaux and Mark Hill--is proletarian enough to go for barefaced hooks. Their UK smash "Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)" keynoted last year's Rewind: The Sound of U.K. Garage, the Artful Dodger-mixed compilation that gave two-step its first shot at a U.S. audience. The song is simpleminded two-step for beginners, with singer Craig David laying out the scene's niceties: a "rewind" is when the DJ recues the beginning of a track he's just mixed into, following the crowd's shout of "bo, selecta!" The fun-trick-noisemaking track features a bwong! from a Carl Stalling score and breaking-glass effects on the chorus. (David's own solo album, Born to Do It, includes "Re-Rewind" but focuses mainly on tepid R & B.)

Artful Dodger's new album, It's All About the Stragglers (due out this Tuesday) works the same formula--radio-ready pop songs atop dance-floor-friendly two-step beats. But like most dance artists, Artful Dodger doesn't have the tunes. The two best tracks are "Re-Rewind" and "Movin' Too Fast," a hands-off warning reminiscent of TLC and sung by Romina Johnson (which has been featured on more compilation albums in the last two years than I want to think about). The vocalists either strain to "legitimate" two-step (as in Craig David and Robbie Craig's obnoxious tag-team crooner session on "Woman Trouble") or simply fall to pieces (MC Alistair's flat ragga chatter on "R U Ready"). Why Devereaux and Hill chose to omit "It Ain't Enough," whose moody bass line and wordless, narcotized/ecstatic female vocal make it their finest track, is beyond me. Real artists, real songs, real albums? Real boring is more like it.

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