Dirty Vegas, Jazzanova, and Playgroup

by Will Doig
Published on July 11, 2002, 12:00am | Comments

Dirty Vegas
Capitol Records

In Between
Ropeadope Records

DJ Kicks
!K7 Records

While some beat heads get all George Wallace when it comes to the mongrelization of electronica and rock, it's important to remember that some of the best music has come from genre-crossbreeding (Radiohead, certainly. The Dixie Chicks. Queen. Three waves of ska and Afro-just about anything). The hybrid's got heaps of potential if it's done right. If it's done wrong, you get Dirty Vegas.

Dirty Vegas' stab at guitar/dance beat fusion falls flat because neither their guitar nor their dance is all that interesting. They pile tepid rock chords onto a half-assed house beat and pray for alchemy, but most of the time neither one is strong enough to stand on its own. There are a few tracks that get one half right -- "I Should Know" would be decent but for the electronics, ditto "Simple Things Part 2" but for the guitar. But most of the songs miss their target on both ends, floundering somewhere in synthesizer demo mode. Trancey, ambient electronica gets buried under poorly scripted vocals that crush the background rather than melt into it. When the electronics do get their energy up, they're usually too generic to pass muster. It's clear that Dirty Vegas is going for the electro-rock tendencies of the Verve and the Pet Shop Boys, but they come off as sounding like they know a little about dance and a little about rock, but not a whole lot about either.

Not like Jazzanova. God knows what they're going for with their debut In Between, but damn if it isn't intriguing. Six Berliners (three DJs, three producers) bring their German engineering to an effort part jazz, part funk, part et cetera, taking standard jazz rhythms and splicing in breaks, beats and vocals, making the song perfect fare for the swanky club set. They've invited familiar faces to their ultralounge, including the queen of spoken word Ursula Rucker ("Keep Falling") and terminally hip soul junkie Vikter Duplaix of Philadelphia, who's contributions to the DJ Kicks series have nothing short of sonic honey. Duplaix's involvement here is strictly vocal, but the music reflects his own style anyway, making his presence seem natural and his slinking, subtle voice perfect for the downbeat jazz rhythm.

In Between crosses the line into fairly pretentious territory at times, but no more than outfits like D.C.'s Thievery Corporation, for instance. Like them, not only is Jazzanova a good enough outfit to make the haughtiness forgivable, but the overly cool tone would go perfectly with a martini and a boa, given the right environment.

Playgroup's latest release, also a gift to the DJ Kicks collection, tunes down the pretense and offers a heavy-on-the-irony package of fuzzy electro and samples. The alias of Trevor Jackson, Playgroup revels in dark synth and altered vocals, channeling the underground dance of the 1980s. The formula works for half a dozen songs or so, but begins to lose its charm somewhere around the point where Jackson begins sampling such lines as, "Let's get this party started quickly, right!" That's music that doesn't need revival, and an irony we can all do without.

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