I did an informal poll among some of my friends: I played them two songs off Audio Bullys’ new CD, Generation, asking them to rate each on a scale from 1 to 5. Here’s a roughly aggregated response. Over 80% of those surveyed gave “Shot You Down” a 4 or 5 out of five. Over two thirds of them gave “I’m in Love” a 4 or 5. It’s a shame that, compared to those hard-hitting singles, most of the rest of the album comes across as little more than filler.
Audio Bullys, the English duo of producer Tom Dinsdale and MC Simon Franks, received a mixed, but generally positive, review for their 2003 debut, Ego War. A typical critical response was that Audio Bullys were an interesting, if not fully formed, a group with a few incendiary singles, slamming production, and lyrics that are simplistic and disappointing. All of this holds true returning to that album after three years. The evocation of gritty street life, a direct descendent and pale imitator of Mike Skinner’s acutely observed cockney-rap, found a new voice in the pairing with bullish electro-garage beats; the result was at its best thrilling, but at its worst, plodded irreconcilably.
So what has changed on the group’s follow-up, Generation? Let’s start with those two 4 or 5 star songs. In their different ways, these are both excellent tracks and worth seeking out, either via iTunes or whatever other program you generally use. “Shot You Down” is the classic sample-based commercial dance track – we get the acoustic, slow introduction; the gunshot-signal of a breakdown; the addictive recycled bass beat. Halfway through, the bass drops out and the sample is all alone again. In this case, it’s Nancy Sinatra singing “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), recently familiar from Kill Bill. And the recycled bass – it’s a kind of watered-down version of Paul Johnson’s 1999 song, “Get Get Down”. By-the-numbers, perhaps, but it gets the job done, jump-starting the album with a literal bang. “I’m In Love”, on the other hand, is pure pop through and through. Dropping the thug attitude, Franks almost captures the giddy exuberance of the Beatles’ “She Loves You”, singing rather than rapping most of the time, “Love, keep on working your magic”. At the same time, Dinsdale ditches the attitude too, so we get a sweeping Europop synth two-step. It’s sweet, simple and works perfectly.
The bad news is, most of the rest of the album is passable. In general, most of the songs on Generation stick to the not-always-successful formula Audio Bullys developed on Ego War. On “Keep on Moving” we get Franks’ slow exposition of his gritty childhood (“Since the day I’ve spoken my home was broken / So when the door was open I was out and smoking”) over a sample of “Midnite Cruiser” by Steely Dan; the effect is not tough but just irrelevant. “All Sing Along” implores the listener to “all sing along when I sing”, but there is no melody for us to sing. “Made Like That” reduces the otherwise impressive Roots Manuva to the eighths-only delivery characteristic of Franks’ own.
What nobody seems to realize, Franks and Dinsdale included, is that the Audio Bullys are best when they are being pure pop sans-attitude, and that doesn’t matter whether it is dance-pop or radio-pop. Because most of the time they choose attitude over melody or innovation, Generation slips into would-have, could-have territory. The two songs where we can forget this bullying persona are far and away the album’s best.
Audio Bullys, then, have made an awkward in-between album. Neither dedicated to the dancefloor or the radio, it is mostly stuffed with half- tracks; either the bass-line is foot-shufflingly aggressive but the lyrics laughable, or the melody has been replaced with simple repeated calls (“sing along”, “I won’t let you down”). Before iTunes, Generation could have been a hit, with two better-than-solid singles and a Lock, Stock-esque likeable thug attitude. But today, all I can really recommend is that you download “Shot You Down” and “I’m In Love”, and pass on the rest.