It would be easy to overintellectualize electronic-based music and the array of its technologically driven hybrids emerging these days. But in the case of Big Beat, the new rock-based, techno-driven sound from Britain, critics have often taken a different tack. Fatboy Slim, the first of the Big Beaters to really drop a bomb on these fair shores, with “The Rockafeller Skank,” has had his music described as “a night out with cheap poppers” or something to that effect. Translation: It’s the ultimate party musicwhich is how the music press, especially the Brits, have treated Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. Their music came out of the dance-club scene, which doesn’t provoke much analysis.
Intellectual approaches are reserved for the sparser, more abstract techno beat artists, your Photeks and Plastikmans, who embrace technology as a tool for approaching existential emptiness. Presumably, they can’t party; it’s too cold in their secret underground radiation-proof sound labs. Their stance is one of ambiguous futurism rather than “God lets us live one more night, and, damn, ain’t this club great?” The Big Beaters, on the other hand, embrace DJ culture, mixing fat sounds pirated from album rock. Big Beat almost always sounds a little corny to the pure heads because it wants to be rock music so desperately.
Along come the Lo Fidelity Allstars with a sampled “Stick ’em up, motherfucker.” They’re Skint-label soul brothers to Fatboy, with the look of a band rather than silhouettes behind decks, a real, live bassist, and an entirely different take on the Big Beat sound. They are more like a rock ‘n’ roll group than either Fatboy or the Chemical Brothers, operating on a similar sonic plane but sampling funk more than either of them. While the technically masterful Chemicals have built a career out of making a new version of “Tomorrow Never Knows” palatable for sneaker-and-anorak-clad clubbers as well as the headphoned housebound, Lo Fi seems to be putting some dissatisfaction, menace, and sense of the tragic in this “party” musickind of in the way punks injected the street dirt into the veins of glam rock. Lo Fi produces a hybrid of funk, punk, Big Beat and DJ techno, house, and hiphop, which would suggest to any discerning listener…well, just plain hideous results. Rather, the band’s debut album, How to Operate With a Blown Mind, comes at you like a boogie-friendly sound collage, sometimes clichéd but sometimes full of desperation and attitude. Sigh of relief: I was expecting Pop Will Eat Itself. Lo Fi is more unhinged, more comfortable tagging itself as an art terrorist than a party host. But there isn’t much of a diatribe. The politics mainly serve to dress up the funk.
“Blisters on My Brain” is pop music mainly because the song has a discernible chorus”Disco machine gun”that approximates its rhythms. “Battle Flag,” a winner of a single, remixes Sub Pop group Pigeonhed to satisfying results: Insistent beats do most of the talking, apart from “Tell me, is it time to get down on your motherfuckin’ knees?” and “Got a revolution behind my eyes/We got to get up and organize.” It’s not quite a powerful moment; but its hardcore attitude doesn’t pander; it just colors the beat.
Some tracks are sprawling, psycho-funk freakouts. “Kool Roc Bass” twists and pounds for seven-plus minutes. The title track serves up ’70s funk samples, distorted synth bass lines, vocoder babble, agitprop, poetry recitations, and mind-boggling production in one hearty sonic meal. When the sample of a funk drum-and-horn section breaks in after three minutes of unintelligible vocoder ranting in “Lazer Sheep Dip Funk,” I’m picturing myself hitting the dance floor three drinks into the night and forgetting my reputation. The funk is frivolous but that insistent.
The French band Daft Punk has already made the punk-rock dance album of the decade, Homework. But Lo Fi has gone beyond the basic Roland 303 bass lines, sequencer, and drum-machine building blocks. It has unhooked the kitchen sink to facilitate an extended house session that never runs out of ideas or repeats itself. The strings and synth washes walk us out gracefully or tastelessly; it’s hard to be sure. How to Operate is a densely multitracked record that swells and crests within nasty epics. Every square inch of sonic headroom is full at all times.
“Vision Incision” becomes something entirely new about halfway through, with beats, diva vocal samples, and inverted keyboards piling up. Sometimes, Lo Fi puts out too much to process. At first, “Will I Get Out of Jail?” sounds like an homage to the Bristol triangle, but soon we realize it’s another mind-melding, directionless collage by Lo Fi. The front man, who goes by the name of Wrekked Train (and who was recently reported to have resigned from the band) singsrather, mumblesin a gritty, intense style that brings to mind an inner-city U.K. b-boy dishing a brand of artistic dissatisfaction and vitriol on a par with Colin Newman.
Wrekked Train’s off-the-cuff, back-alley sneer carries Lo Fi to a higher level and gives it a persona, whereas DJs come up blank. His rough timbres contrast with what could otherwise degenerate into a yucky techno funk soup on “Kasparov’s Revenge.” The title track features Train at his extreme, mumbling like a thug or Medway Delta poet and rootsman Billy Childish. “The streets are paved with fears,” he grumbles; the wind and the traffic howl behind him. It’s the most abstract moment on the record. “I Used to Fall in Love” is more like a sloppy Radiohead rock track, not driven by beats. A sad drunk muses over a distorted guitar-and-organ thing that slips and slides dramatically.
“Nighttime Story” sounds like Spacemen 3, dreamy and druggy. An edgy Englishman wonders about “audio psychosis building from the speakers’ corners” until a ghostly female voice comes in on top of a solid retro organ sample. Maybe it’s a little self-referential, but it tells us exactly where Lo Fi is after its sudden rise to fameprobably utterly unsatisfied, alienated, not even willing to entertain the idea of partying its way out the door.CP
Lo Fidelity Allstars play the Black Cat Wednesday, March 10, with Thunderball.