Innovation is paramount to the electronic music aesthetic. Flow is nearly tantamount. Groove Armada achieves neither on their debut Vertigo. They never make an attempt at innovation and struggle unsuccessfully to create a flow. The album sounds like an electronic sampler offered by a modest MP3 site rather than a cohesive work. There are a number of strong tracks on the album, but their power is deluded by the insipidly formulaic pieces that surround them. The album’s opener, “Chicago” makes this point clearly. It begins with a rumbling sample stolen straight from the Chemical Brothers’ 1995-hit, “The Brother’s Gonna Work It Out.” It follows with wailing whistles and oscillating rushing from “Out of Control,” another, more recent Brothers track. If the Armada boys were looking to be taken seriously they made the wrong choice in samples. “The Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” played on MTV for god’s sake and the Chemical Brothers are a household name. Drawing from these recent cross-over hits casts doubt on the depth of Groove Armada’s electronic knowledge and opens them up for criticism as posers—an accusation the electronic community is especially sensitive to after all the recent “electronica”-as-the-next-big-discussions.
As “Chicago” continues, it only reinforces these impressions. The track goes on to directly sample or references several other popular electronic artists (Hawke and BT) as well as recycle several electronic cliches (oh-yeah voice loops and a slowed-pitch ending). The track could be read as a homage to old school if not for the newness of the hits it references. As it is, making “Chicago” the introductory track gives the impression Groove Armada are hacks too ignorant to know their thefts are obvious.
The Armada boys redeem themselves partially by the end of the album. But it is a slow process. The second track, “Whatever, Whenever” is a RZA knock off, complete with reverberated woo-voice samples, looped violins and jeep beats. MC M.A.D’s delivery and lyrics are no more original. The first hint of Armada’s capabilities appear on “Dusk, You & Me,” a dreamy, flowing piece similar in mood to Air’s work. But it achieves its feel through different instrumentation. A broken base and snare drum kick plots along with an echoing horn sample and melodic synthesizer riffs. The combination is mesmerizing.
However, the little bit of inertia Groove Armada established with “Dusk, You & Me” is halted by the next track, “Pre 63.” The piece opens with a droning horn melody, a flute loop, distorted wawa base hits and bongo beats. When the vocal sample comes in, it is immediately obvious that Armada’s latest theft is from artist Dimitri From Paris. Only the group is not talented enough to make Dimitri’s intense innovative instrumentation sound interesting and the track deteriorates into annoying repetition. Groove Armanda continue their crime spree by ripping off Fatboy Slim on “If Everybody Looked the Same.” By the sixth track, “Serve Chilled,” a pattern begins to appear. Armanda is best at producing trippy lounge house music of the type made famous by the Mind the Gap compilation series. “Serve Chilled” bobs along to a laid-back beat and breaks into a nice, bouncy conga drum rhythm just as it has built up momentum. The timing is impeccable.
The next track, “I See You Baby,” does a good job of not being bad, which is an improvement for Groove Armada, who up to this point were incapable of two good pieces together. “I See You Baby” is not original and eventually becomes boring, but thanks to Gram’ma Funk’s vocals it is funny. “I see you baby. I see you baby. I see you baby shaking that ass. Alright, don’t touch me,” she sings with wonder ironic attitude. It’s a look-doesn’t-mean touch sentiment that anyone who’s spent time on the dance floor understands.
Wisely, the Armada boys follow this with another, groove track. They even manage to be innovative for a moment—achieving the flow with a guitar loop, acid synchs, scratches and a mellow synthesizer melody. Losing no momentum, Groove transition into “At the River,” the highlight of the album. It’s no coincidence the most powerful track on Vertigo follows three other strong tracks. “At the River” continues the looping house/lounge flow established by the previous tracks and augments it with a wonderfully melodic ‘50s-type melody from the song “Old Cape Cod.”
“If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air / Quaint little villages here and there,” repeats the echoed vocal overtop a jazz horn and low bass tones. It’s hard not close your eyes and sway gently to the music.
“In My Bones,” which follows, is another strong track. It vies with “At the River” as the highlight of the album. It’s the first successful track on the LP over 130 BPM. The tech-house ditty chops along to wonderful electro blips and metallic beats. The piece’s only shortcoming is the lame vocal loop: “House music in my bones.” Vertigo ends on a weak note. On “Inside My Mind,” singer, Sophie Barker swoons off-key banal-isms backed by uninspired instrumentation. And, Fatboy Slim outdoes Groove in his remix of “I See You Baby,” poignantly illustrating the Armada boys inadequacies.
As a debut, Vertigo is average. Groove Armada is not yet talented enough to pull of the eclectic album they are attempting. It would have been better if they had replaced the hip-hop jingles and big-beat ditties with house tracks, as these are obviously their talents. The album wouldn’t have been innovative, but it would have had a consistent flow. One out of two isn’t bad, though. I guess then Vertigo wouldn’t have had the mass appeal Groove Armada is apparently looking for.