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Dec 99

MOVEMENT – Layo and Bushwacka ‘Low Life’

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Revelations, even small ones, hit you unexpectedly. Mine comes about halfway through ‘Spooked’, the third track on Layo & Bushwacka’s Low Life, when, having explored some rather tasty crunchy electronic sounds, punishing bass and snappy breaks, the track suddenly pivots on a completely unexpected funk groove and is sent careening back in the direction from whence it came. Intelligent? Probably. Does it make me want to dance? Definitely.

In the world of dance music, the successful artist-based album is something of a holy grail, especially for those dance acts who make music you can, you know, dance to. Generally stabs at the form result in little more than compilation releases, or conversely towering follies of overreaching ambition. The successful attempts (Dig Your Own Hole, Remedy etc.) have generally been great party albums, but while the dance world has always talked about making ‘meaningful’ dance albums, the results have usually been dire. Leftfield came close to something that worked with Leftism, and were so afraid to try to repeat even that partial success that after a four year silence they went electro instead. So it is wonderfully refreshing to find Low Life, Layo & Bushwacka’s first full-length album, to be an artistic statement curiously light on pretension.

Layo & Bushwacka are part of emerging group of artists including BT and Hybrid who, in the wake of jungle’s current demise, are attempting to combine the rhythmic futurism of drum & bass with the sophisticated textures and melodies of techno, house and trance. Unlike their more trance-based peers though, the duo were originally purveyors of tek-house, an exquisitely produced but often generic sounding substyle drawing from both techno’s mechanistic preoccupations and house’s sensual pleasures. It’s a genre that yields excellent producers, but few significant artists.

As a result, the group’s use of breakbeats differs greatly from the almost rococo patterns of hyperventilating beats preferred by their peers: instead they keep their breaks simple, precise and brittle. They’re far more interested in constructing a groove, in reinforcing the all-important relationship between the bass and the beats (which are pleasingly inorganic and grainy, distinct from current jungle’s flat authenticity) and then discovering what works well on top. To use a jungle analogy, while artists like BT and Hybrid resemble Goldie and Omni Trio in their romantic ambition and grand, complex arrangements, Layo & Bushwacka remind me of Roni Size’s early best work. The focus is always on the effect of the breaks and the bass; the added melodic and textural detail merely reflects the emotional resonance of that minimalist grounding.

What Layo and B realise is that dance music’s power to emote has little to do with either conventional ‘musicality’ or the intelligence of the arrangements. So ‘Dead Man Walking’, for me the emotional center point of the album, consists of little more than sharp but simple breaks, floaty keyboards and the most boomy, reverberant bass heard since LFO or the early days of jungle. What makes me teary-eyed is the strange melancholy the duo produce through the warp and weave of these contrasting elements. The serene and sunny keyboards rub up against the aggressive beats to create a creeping sense of unease and mournfulness miles away from the bombast of current trance and jungle. Similarly, ‘Low Life’, the album’s only vocal track, begins with a startlingly sparkly disco-funk opening, but then quickly plunges into a twilight zone of wobbly bass and creepy atmospherics. The duo relegate Robert Owen’s mumbled vocals into the background and concentrate on the groove, ruining chances for any crossover pop success.

Could you accuse Layo & Bushwacka of being ‘too subtle’? ‘Tasteful’, even? Of course, and you’d be absolutely correct. The release these songs offer is guarded – no sweet refrains, no sudden bursting synthesiser lines that sound like the heavens opening up. The songs pivot on morphing bass lines rather than catchy samples. It’s easy to resent the album for being at once too commercial for genuine experimentation, and yet too clever to offer any visceral thrills. But the truth is that the ‘science’ in Layo & Bushwacka’s approach is about zeroing in on what makes all their influences great dance music, and then exploiting it. On the dance floor this stuff sounds even more relevatory than it does using headphones. And then the duo will throw in an odd ball, like the Freq. Nasty-meets-Basement Jaxx of ‘Bad Old Good Old Days’, or some explosive (and surprisingly catchy) techstep drum & bass in the form of ‘Perfect Storm’, and ‘tasteful’ no longer seems to apply.

Much like Basement Jaxx’s Remedy, Low Life fires most of its hard-hitters early (the speaker shredding funk-noir of ‘Spooked’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, complete with Bushwacka’s even more intense remix), and then starts playing around with different styles, dividing rather neatly between all-out breakbeat assault (‘Bad Old Good Old Days’, ‘Perfect Storm’, which is better techstep than most in the jungle community have been able to make since ’97, and the polyrhythmic closer ‘Ear Candy’) and softer, more soothing textures. They don’t always pull it off; ‘Kusekhaya’ is a pleasant but pointless stab at world music, and while I really enjoy ‘Brass’ with its dubby bass line and kitsch Rhodes keyboard licks, I disapprove of it on the grounds of its dangerous proximity to acid jazz.

‘Deep South’, though, is nine-minutes of slow-building deep house bliss. Layo & B manage to replicate house’s endless hypnotic pulse using breakbeats, ending up with something not too far from 2-step garage. But whereas 2-step is sparse and skeletal, ‘Deep South’ is a bath of sound, complete with bottomless bass, luscious keyboards, timestretched insectile percussion and a sexy trumpet solo. The duo cleverly combine this with some fantastic gospel samples (much more successfully than I found Moby’s heavy-handed approach to be), evoking sweltering summers in bayous overflowing with fecundity. It’s the kind of thing Larry Heard would be making if he hadn’t faded into insignificance.

Low Life probably wouldn’t be the best dance album of the year even if Basement Jaxx hadn’t made Remedy. It’s too diffuse and indistinctive artistically, and Layo & Bushwacka have some way to go before they escape the ‘Leftfield who occasionally go jungle’ tag. But to me, even more so than Remedy, it is a sign that dance music, like rock music, is all the more healthy for its lack of direction. That Low Life, which should be overworked and over the top, reveals itself to be beautiful, fun, and above all the most eminently listenable album of 99, is a minor revelation.

Tim Finney

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