Saturday, 19 January 2013

Artful Dodger - It's All About the Stragglers (2000) Review

If you're British, but you have only a vague idea of what UK Garage is, there's a good chance it's because of Artful Dodger. Their string of Top Ten charting singles from 1999-2001 managed for the first time to bring this underground club sound firmly into the pop world and give it an accessible flavour, downplaying the dark and the choppy tone favoured by others in favour of keeping the R'n'B influence to the forefront, and polishing the arrangements and production to a very high level. The two men behind the name in 2000 were Mark Hill and Pete Devereux, and It's All About the Stragglers was their only album, released at the end of 2000 just as the mood of the scene was beginning to shift in favour of what would eventually become grime.

Within months bands like Oxide and Neutrino and So Solid Crew would be turning into little more than punchlines, causing the wider public image of UK Garage to suffer as the sound became associated with idiotic rapping, juvenile production standards and violence at gigs. However before this decline could take place, the raw and angrier rap-focused sound of the newer acts were very much in favour following Oxide and Neutrino's success at giving the scene only its second UK No. 1 with "Bound 4 Da Reload". While Artful Dodger's biggest hits were less than a year behind them at the initial release of this album in November 2000, the response to this album was fairly muted from the mainstream radio DJs and critics, as they already sounded slightly dated and they had not shown a great deal of range over the course of their single releases.

I was fond of the band at the time but my reaction to the album was actually pretty similar. There are some great songs on this disc, and opener "Think About Me" really gets it off to a great start with arguably the best lyrics and smoothest bassline of the whole album, backed up by beautiful strings and piano. The singers, most of them great and including Craig David, Robbie Craig and Michelle Escoffery amongst them, fit in very well without feeling forced and they are not reduced to gimmicks. The only real weak point amongst the guests is rapper MC Alistair on the rather uninspiring "R U Ready" which musically isn't bad but is let down by the lyrics and Alistair's mediocre flow. The excellent Dreem Teem collaboration "It Ain't Enough" from the album's 2001 re-released edition re-uses part of Alistair's vocal from this song, but somehow it sounds much better in its new context, following on from the female vocal sample in the verses and in a more intense dance track. The re-release also spruces up "Twentyfourseven" into a much brighter pop track and puts ex-All Saint Melanie Blatt on vocals, which makes it more radio-friendly but otherwise adds little appeal as Blatt's singing isn't particularly exciting away from her ex-bandmates.

The problem is that the album falls into the trap of being a good collection of songs without having an album-length journey to take the listener on. The quality of the vocal tracks is high but they all feel like they're cut from the same mould - smooth, sing-along and slightly jazzy - and it's hard not to feel as if some aspect of the Garage scene's more aggressive undertone might have been welcome on one or two tracks at least. Their first big hit "Re-Rewind" actually has some of this character, with a darker tone to its under the rap and even a half-time beat for the first chorus that to my modern ears immediately reminds me of dubstep, but this is in the context of an otherwise fairly jazzy song and it doesn't reappear on the other tracks. Garage contemporaries MJ Cole and Wookie managed to bring some of this diversity into their artist albums from 2000, giving them slightly more character albeit possibly at the expense of overall consistency. I think that this is a large part of why, while a lot of people of a certain age remember Artful Dodger's hits, they never received the same critical praise that either of those artists managed at the time.

As it turned out, none of the big names from the garage boom actually managed to maintain that level of success after it had passed. Artful Dodger were not an exception and the duo split in 2001, leaving Mark Hill with the name, and his activity was limited for the next ten years. Recently, coinciding with the rise of the Future Garage movement, Hill has resurfaced under the name Artful and is making music again, with a modernised sound but still a focus on the brighter and soulful aspects of Garage. He is releasing a new EP of tracks next week, which I'm sure I will discuss after its release - but I must say given that I've been wanting more of this music for a long time now, I'm looking forward to seeing what he's got for us.

Top tracks: Think About Me, Woman Trouble and Movin' Too Fast, with It Ain't Enough also standing out on the 2001 version.

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