By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
By Hilary Hughes
By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
If MJ Cole manages to keep his pop instincts intact, True Steppers, a duo featuring former junglist Jonny L and his partner, Andy Lysandrou, positively bathe in cheap, for-the-moment gimmickry. If robotic disco puts a smile on your face, check out the group's debut, True Stepping (BMG import), which has vocoders on almost every track, used to greatest effect on the Posh Spice-guested "Out of Your Mind," and in the melodic "Sunshine," which may be the warmest, funniest tribute Roger Troutman will ever get. Fans of "real" music will hate these guys.
Apparently Mark Hill and Pete Devereux, a/k/a Artful Dodger UK, have more than their fair share of haters (the adjectives "limp" and "candy floss" show up in a couple reviews), but as 2step's most chart-proven act, that's probably inevitable. All last year, while this movement was still a mystery to me, I kept seeing "Artful Dodger Remix" plastered on various dance comps, and now I know why. Their album, Its All About the Stragglers (London import), contains three of the genre's best singles. "Movin' Too Fast" has the same nimble touch (thanks to some pitched-up church bells) occasionally heard in freestyle; "Woman Trouble" and "Re-rewind" (both also included on AD's U.S. DJ-mix album Rewind) are showcases for Robbie Craig and 2step's first pinup boy, Craig David, two classic r&b-style vocalists. (David's solo album, Born to Do Itset for a U.S. summer release on Atlanticis excellent when the 2step rhythms nudge out the mid-tempo, streamlined r&b flavors. Otherwise, he comes across as a less libidinous R. Kelly.)
Thankfully, AD's album isn't all about the singles, thoughalmost every track is expertly arranged and written. Like Madonna on Music, Artful Dodger pretend that disco was something someone invented yesterday, and in the process bypass "genre" altogether. (I suspect we'll see "Artful Dodger Remix" stamped over a Madonna single before the year's over.)
I haven't touched on 2step's fashion/lifestyle/drugs element (designer suits, "posing," and a lot of Baby Duck-sipping, I'm told), or on any number of cool one-shots by people like Sweet Female Attitude ("Flowers") and Neesha ("What's It Gonna Be"), names that won't likely survive, even as footnotes to Shanks & Bigfootnotes. At the same time, I'm not all that partial to some of the genre's more earnest strains. Wookie, a protégé of Soul II Soul's Jazzie B, has been called the scene's "saviour" in the Britpress, but most of his self-titled release (Soul II Soul import) is basically Seal with a perkier beat (though to be fair, Wookie does do a dynamite cut-and-paste job of Soul II Soul's "Back to Life" in "What's Going On").
2step is also enduring an inevitable swing toward a "deeper, darker" aesthetic. Sound of the Pirates (Locked Out import), a compilation mixed by Zed Bias, pushes this angle: The basslines aren't as warm, the rhythms have less sparkly Detroit funk finesse, and the whole sound verges on the premise that dissonance equals "more challenging" (and is thus superior). And yet the poppiest 2step's challenging enough, certainly if you're the type who pays close attention to how beats are structured. A friend of mine, who hears rhythms better than anyone I know, finally heard an Artful Dodger tune the other day and remarked, "It's hardly 2step at all. The kick drum's all over the place, and everything else seems really off." He couldn't even believe it was in 4/4.