A little less than a decade ago -- if you believed the hype -- all the myriad subgenres spun off from disco and techno and united under the rubric "electronica" were poised to take over the pop-music world, tossing guitar-based songcraft forever into the dustbin of history. This never happened, of course, especially on this side of the Atlantic, but, like hip-hop, electronic dance music has made an impact not just as a form unto itself but through its influence on other forms. Two recent cases in point are Ego War, from British DJ and MC duo Audio Bullys, and Fire, from Detroit garage-rockers Electric Six. You may have to look for these albums in different sections at your local music store, but in both sound and hedonistic spirit, they're dance records.
In terms of other recent British club-culture crossovers, Ego War is something of a combination of the Streets' Original Pirate Material and Basement Jaxx's Rooty, if not nearly as grand a statement as either. In other words, it's British hip-hop with its heart on the dance floor. MC Simon Franks doesn't convey the literary depth or waves of detail that make the Streets' Mike Skinner so special, but he captures a subcultural vibe with a sure flow and a flair for ear-catching soundbites. As a rapper, he's no Jay-Z, but he sure beats the guy from Linkin Park. DJ Tom Dinsdale can't yet match the eclectic, Prince-like funk of Basement Jaxx, but club-ready tracks such as "100 Million" (which features parent-child give-and-take worthy of "Yakety Yak" or "Summertime Blues") and "Way Too Long" snap hard enough to get even the most committed wallflowers on the move.
Musically, Dinsdale cuts his techno beats and disco rhythms with hip-hop turntable scratches and scene-setting sound effects (an aerosol can spraying, dice being rolled, a woman approaching orgasm). Franks' rapped verses give way to awkward but endearing Happy Mondays-style sing-song choruses.
Thematically, Ego War is a slackers' tour of the casually lawless side of club culture, Franks shouting-out to his 24-hour party people: DJs, graffiti artists, drug sellers. The centerpiece is the single "We Don't Care," a sneering anthem that aims to be a hip-hop/techno update of "Anarchy in the U.K." and is pretty and vacant enough to almost pull it off.
Where Audio Bullys represent a culture, Electric Six comes across as a total put-on, a culture entirely unto themselves. Fire is a collection of totally lunatic dance anthems from a band as cheesy as Steppenwolf. But it's novelty music in the best possible sense -- with backbeats and bass lines that make the band's high concept a physical reality. Lead singer Dick Valentine is self-appointed "Dance Commander," the only garage-rock frontman in the known universe to vocalize his desire to "program beats." He's backed by a bassist named "Disco" and a guitarist named "the Rock-and-Roll Indian." Song titles are more than enough to convey the mood: "Nuclear War (on the Dance Floor)," "Getting Into the Jam," "Improper Dancing" (" out in the street").
If you think all this sounds too silly and forced to be worthwhile, I can sympathize, but you obviously haven't heard the band's single (originally released in 2001 when they were called the Wildbunch but finally a hit this year), "Danger! High Voltage," perhaps the most inexplicably giddy, irresistibly stoopid record of the year and the band's one moment of true brilliance. It's a song that suggests Electric Six might be the first band whose music is an extension of the mash-up phenomenon, because "Danger! High Voltage" is nothing if not an inspired assemblage of the good parts of other records, a Frankenstein's monster of a rock song whose genetic code I'd map something like this: Start with an '80s AOR song that people take for corny but that actually sounds really good, something like Foreigner's "Urgent." Give it a Chic-like disco remix that pushes its fluid bass lines and danceable beats to the fore. Replace the arena-rock vocals with snotty, enthusiastic, amateurish punk-rock screeches (inviting the White Stripes' Jack White to pitch in). Finally, for the victory lap, cap the record with some skronky saxophone, possibly cribbed from the Stooges' Fun House or X-Ray Spex's Germ-free Adolescents. Play the result enough and soon your pets will tire of hearing you ask if they wanna know how you keep starting fires.
If nothing else on Fire comes close to that, it's not for lack of effort: Some nifty surf-guitar leads to a plea to start a nuclear war at a "Gay Bar," and "Improper Dancing" and "I'm the Bomb" boast the best discofied guitar anyone's heard in 20 years. But my vote for runner-up is "Synthesizer," a utopian tribute to electronic dance music that comes off as the only heartfelt moment on the record. Fire may be a goof, but when it comes to their love of dance music, Electric Six are very much like the equally aloof Audio Bullys: They mean it, man. -- Chris Herrington
Grades (both records): A-
A Woman Alone with
the Blues Remembering
Tribute albums are a tricky proposition at best, especially when one artist exclusively covers another. Either you come away feeling it's blasphemous to even touch these classics or you get slavish, not very original interpretations. So it's a great relief to find that A Woman Alone with the Blues is an excellent release. Muldaur's talent for jazz singing, which she's never fully explored before, really surfaces here.
Muldaur delivers an earthiness and direct sensuality to the songs which Lee, with some of her pop-inspired arrangements, could only hint at. Though Lee's subtle delivery and ice-queen intimations of sex are classic, Muldaur lets it rip on this material. She does a few of the better-known Lee songs, like the ubiquitous "Fever," in a sizzling arrangement, but she also takes pains to cover lesser-known songs that Lee made her own. Once again, by mining her roots and interpreting the music that originally inspired her, Muldaur has come up with another winner. -- Lisa Lumb