Rhythm & Blighty

Melisma Manchester? Not Bloody Likely.

As are parts of the Sugababes's second album, Angels With Dirty Faces, though its purview, including a near-reggae track called "No Man, No Cry," is very Euro. As the group says in an interview for iwanttoworkinmusic.com (not making it up): "It's fairly similar to the first; a bit of r&b, anything you can move to really." Daniel Bedingfield could have given the same answer about his debut album. His big single is pure garage, jacked-up and ecstatic, but Gotta Get Thru This gives the genre a workout—stretching it from cinematic melodrama to bona fide pop-rock. The album sounds like the direct output of a lifetime spent in the pub, spinning 45s through the spectrum. Did we mention the low melisma content?

The critically acceptable face of garage in the U.K. is Ms. Dynamite, winner of the 2002 Mercury Prize, much cooler than a Grammy but not as cool as the Nobel. A Little Deeper, due out here on Interscope, became even more relevant after a spate of recent gun killings spurred MP Kim Howells to denounce gangsta rap lyrics as partially responsible for the violence. (OK—the evil hip-hop lyrics thing? Thatwe made up.) The crisis is presaged in Ms. Dynamite's first album hit, "It Takes More": "If it's not too complex, tell me how many Africans died for the baguettes on your Rolex?" Originally a ruff 'n' tuff garage MC, Dynamite has "gone all Lauryn Hill-y," say the devotees. A Little Deeperis roughly American hip-hop shot through with bits of garage and reggae. The only American woman adduced here is Queen Latifah, a figure miles from current r&b. It isn't just the womanist politics—the chorus of "Dy-Na-Mi-Tee" is a direct paraphrase of Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." and the overall goody-goody vibe is reminiscent of those early Latifah records that nobody ever listened to. Melisma? Not in this yard, friend.

Though Bedingfield and Dynamite are truly English blends, Abs is weirder and lighter, and possibly more illustrative. After the breakup in 2001 of ultra-lite boy band 5ive (yeah, England did that first, too), singer Richard "Abs" Breen was signed to BMG by American Idol's evil Simon Cowell. Abs has triangulated his Euro worldview by doing covers of Monie Love and Dead or Alive, but his first single, "What You Got," which he says has a "real reggae vibe," skanks like a karaoke machine on the "Jimmy Cliff, 90 BPM" setting. Abs sings a teen-dating/consumerism paean lifted from Born to Do It, and then delivers an odd one-two punch. The chorus is sung by the whitest squadron in Britannia, more Mitch Miller than garage, and then, as the romantic negotiations peter out, Abs starts to let loose with this chant: "No pop, no style! I strictly roots!" The cultural dissonance is vaguely hallucinatory. Not that he's gotta be Burning Spear, but it's a bit like Dolly Parton saying, "Holler back, West Side!" Totally charming, in other words, and blissfully unaware of the genre's rules, as all good pop should be. It's a typical British r&b experience, like being at the pub on the far side of three pints, hearing Cilla Black, Althea & Donna, and Kylie all smearing into each other and knowing, somehow, that you couldn't possibly be anywhere else.

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