Last year's debut by The Streets, Original Pirate Material, triggered the kind of cross-genre enthusiasm that generally happens only a couple of times a year in the music world. Dance clubbers, hip-hoppers, and bedroom electro-collagists all embraced it, and the disc left many of us with a jones for Brit-speak MC-ing reminiscent of that first encounter, way back when, with French rapper MC Solaar.
Turns out we needn't wait until the next Streets release for a second fix. English duo Tom Dinsdale and Simon Franks, better known as the Audio Bullys, recently released their first full-lengther, Ego War, on Astralwerks, which throws as many elements into the audio Cuisinart as its predecessor with results almost as pleasing.
More club-oriented that Pirate Material, Ego War has been described as "hooligan house," dance music for dopers on the dole. Accordingly, a fair dose of chemically-enhanced Happy Mondays blood flows through the Bullys' veins. But that kind of description ignores the energy bursting from some of these tracks; from the bouncing day-in-the-life intro on "100 Million" to the thuggishly aggressive "We Don't Care" (which could be an anthem for the beer-swilling football fan in The Streets' "The Irony of It All"), there aren't a lot of opportunities to nod out here - at least until the record's second half, which thumps a bit too narcotically on the bass and includes the disposable "Hit the Ceiling," which for all I know has already become the soundtrack to a new batch of Mitsubishi car ads.
Speaking of soundtracks, the boys have a little fun with the anthem to the old S.W.A.T. series on "The Snow," where a handful of familiar chords wander back and forth through the staticky barrier separating the dance floor from the boob tube. "Way Too Long" puts an imaginative spin on a riff from Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives," placing it a little closer in geography and sentiment to The Specials, who are a major influence. The best bit of appropriation here, though, is "Face in a Cloud," which takes a very Tom Jones-y bit of an old Joe Cocker tune and sets it against super-heavy synths.
If lyricist Franks doesn't concoct quite as much imaginative wordplay as Mike Skinner does on Pirate Material, the diversity and imagination of the record's non-verbal elements compensates; that probably means it's a better record for partying than for sitting at home - but some of us could use a reason to get off the couch.
Sharp turn ahead: It may not sound appropriate to drift from British hip hop to Nashville songsmithery, but bear with me. Rodney Crowell's upcoming Fate's Right Hand (on Columbia, it was supposed to come out last month but got pushed back a few weeks) often wanders into rap's backyard. The title track, for instance, has Crowell chanting rather than singing, stringing together a long list of cultural free-associations - from Ken Starr to AIDS, Starbucks to dot-coms - in a feat that's most admirable for not coming off like Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."
The next track is the real keeper, though: "Earthbound" is a grateful exercise in reasons-to-live list-making that's as joyous as Woody Allen's famous collection of reasons-not-to-kill-myself was desperate. You've got to love a guy who can put the Dalai Lama at the same table with Charlie Brown. Later, in the pensive "Time to Go Inward," he takes the leveling mentality even further: "Jesus and Buddah and Krishna and Minnie Pearl knew / to do unto others the things you want done unto you."
Sonically, the disc comes with little of the varnish found on Crowell's more mainstream Nashville efforts. The lyrics' soul-searching is matched by grit and gravitas without becoming depressing; in fact, what could be a real navel-gazer of a disc winds up a kind of rallying cry for the discouraged and distracted, a late-summer New Year's resolution to blow off the cobwebs and revitalize both the personal and the political aspects of life. After airing his concerns and digging his heels in, Crowell closes the record with the optimistic "This Too Will Pass"; as a choir of amiable back-up singers chimes in to say goodbye, Crowell makes it clear that this is a song to be played over and over until November of 2004. His closing words?
"Good night, George." •