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London Elektricity 

Billion Dollar Gravy

Wednesday, May 28 2003
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Listening to London Elektricity's new LP, Billion Dollar Gravy, it's hard to believe that drum 'n' bass was ever considered dark, dangerous stuff. If Soundmurderer's recent mix CD, Wired for Sound, recalls the rough-and-tumble roots of the genre, West Londoner Tony Colman (his former partner, Chris Goss, left London Elektricity to concentrate on running the Hospital Records imprint) shows just how far the music has drifted from that brooding, dystopian mid-'90s style. The act's music -- jazzy and melodic, accented with strings, stand-up bass, and muted horns -- is almost buoyantly optimistic.

Billion Dollar Gravy is lush, opulent, and oddly indolent: Spreading every creamy tune over gently rolling breaks, it's less interested in funk -- that lusty, unpredictable force -- than in prettified soul, taking the sunniest moments from '70s vibraphonist Roy Ayers and soul singer Bill Withers and polishing them to a powerful shine. But in this effort, Colman errs too often on the side of tastefulness, as though stowing his tracks -- each one a perfectly cut gem of innumerable facets and interior angles -- beneath glass. Look, but don't touch. Sway, but don't break a sweat.

Not that there aren't many lovely moments on the album, like the mournfully descending violin and cello on the title track, or the demure horns on "Harlesden," or classic house vocalist Robert Owens' plaintive invocations on "My Dreams." But such moments only serve to point out the record's inevitable confusion. These are songs that want to glide slowly, like languid skiffs on still waters, but engineered to sync with jungle's triple-time rhythms, they're left spinning their propellers. When drum 'n' bass is just another rhythmic template -- like house music's "boompty-boompty" or hip hop's "boom-bip" -- it doesn't work; it succeeds only when it proceeds organically, animating its harmonic layers with complex polyrhythms, and vice versa. Too often, Colman's drum patterns seem like gaudy gold frames lending nothing to the canvas. What do such frenetic rhythms bring to otherwise idyllic tunes? For London Elektricity, that's the billion-dollar question.

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Philip Sherburne

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