If there’s one thing likely to derail the music cognoscenti, it’s a band that defies easy categorization, and that resists attempts at neat compartmentalization. The idle press seeks out simple labels and radio, at least in this country, is formatted by genre, so that if you resist being pigeonholed you stand to lose any hope of airplay.
All of which may account for the relative anonymity of Death in Vegas.
Death in Vegas’s 1997 debut album,Dead Elvis, contained elements of punk, reggae, psychedelia and big beat, without staking a claim to any one of them. Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes, the duo who essentially comprise Death in Vegas, washed ashore on the back of club DJ sets, and since their album contained synthesized sound and heavy bass beats, found themselves thrown in the electronica bin, where they subsisted with little support or backing.
The beating heart of that first album was to be found in the middle order. The single Dirt, with its monster bass-line and glances towards rave culture, achieved a modicum of airplay back when bass-heavy artists such as the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim slipped briefly into the mainstream. The two tracks following, Rocco and Rekkit, offered devastating sonic assaults, a beautiful catastrophe of stuttering wah-wah guitar, and trippy intonation. The immediate sense was of a techno feast that even Hendrix may have enjoyed.
If the debut album glanced at various stylistic possibilities, the sophomore release The Contino Sessions offered a stark concentrated gaze, a long hard stare down the barrel of a gun. There was nothing dance-worthy or ecstatic about this. This was dark and menacing, a narcotic haze of bad intent, sounding exactly like a death in Vegas, a prophecy fulfilled. Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream) and Jim Reid (Jesus and Mary Chain) contributed unsavory voices, and most memorably, Iggy Pop stumbled across the album’s seedy landscape. “Aisha / We’ve only just met / And I think you ought to know / I’m a murderer”, beyond being the most startling couple of lines to open a song in recent memory, was the pivotal moment on a vision actualized, a vision toxic with debauched paranoia.
All of which makes Vegas’s new release, Scorpio Rising, considerably more disappointing. It features six (count ‘em, six) different guest vocalists, and it is not so much a step in the wrong direction as a step in far too many different directions at once. Unlike The Contino Sessions , the songs here have been tailored to meet the needs of each individual vocalist, lending to a sense of Fearless and Holmes as back-ups on their own album.
The title track, courtesy of Liam Gallagher, resembles Oasis given an upgrade, or Death in Vegas playing the Beatles. Gallagher carries the song, but fails to carry it far enough. Before we even get to that, Nicole Kuperas (Adult) takes vocal duties on “Hands around My Throat”, a song which, with its tinny electro-clash beat, not only reeks of self-gratifying topicality, but given its thematic matter, turns the previous album’s menace on its head by way of throw-away pastiche.
Sliding still further along the stylistic tightrope, there are two offerings from Hope Sandoval (lyrics and vocals on both “Killing Smile” and “Help Yourself”). Sandoval has performed such guest duties before, most notably on the Chemical Brothers’ “Asleep from Day”. Her recent solo album Bavarian Fruit Bread was perhaps the album she was always destined to record, freed from the psychedelic clutter of Mazzy Star. With that album she perfected a wistful, heavy-of-breath-and-heart vocal (her one-note stock in trade), perhaps rendering anything else she might offer superfluous.
Shifting gears once more is Paul Weller’s contribution, a cover of Gene Clark’s “So You Say You Lost Your Baby” (originally recorded in 1967). Once again, it’s a cut that would feel more at home on a Weller solo album, a swinging urban blues that bears not the slightest resemblance to the tracks preceding it (“Natja”, which actually sounds like a Death in Vegas song) and following (“Diving Horses”, which is not entirely without charm or beauty, featuring Dot Allison).
Several of these tracks stand fairly well by themselves, but as a collection they are stylistically jarring, lacking any semblance of cohesion. In the past, the Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, and Death in Vegas themselves have all solved the problem of guest vocalists more successfully. It’s unfortunate here, because Vegas’s own vision is compelling enough. On this occasion however, the songs are too much at the service of the vocalists, and in turn, it has done a disservice to the ideas they were supposed to bring to fruition.