X-Press 2 released their first LP, the sublime Muzikizm, in 2001. They had been around for a few years before that, releasing singles throughout the mid-‘90s that seemed perfectly tailor-made for those heady, million-dollar days of jet-setting superstar DJs and globe-spanning superclubs. The sound was smooth and the hooks were undeniable. They were funky enough to fit on Skint records, alongside folks like Fatboy Slim and Dave Clarke, but crafty enough to get radio play as well (maybe not in America, but oh well). You might remember the track “Lazy”, which featured some wonderfully self-deprecating vocals by David Byrne. It was huge.
In terms of big-budget, pop-inflected house music—the kind you could equally expect to hear blaring from car radios and across Ibiza beaches—they were as good as you could get. It’s telling that at the time there were a few critics who thought the album itself was something of a throwback to the early ‘90s and the glory days of progressive house (that is, the early trip-hop inflected proto-trance they played at Renaissance back when Sasha & Digweed were still wet behind the ears). But it sounded great then, and it still sounds pretty good.
Of course, X-Press 2 have actually been around since the “good old days”. The group consists of Ashley Beedle, Rocky and Diesel, all veterans of the electronic scene going back to the late ‘80s. Beedle formed the legendary Black Science Orchestra in the early ‘90s, an offshoot of which became the Ballistic Brothers, of which Rocky & Diesel were members. They began producing as a trio in 1993 with the release of “Say What”, and continued releasing singles until the release of Muzikizm at the beginning of this decade. By the time their first album dropped, they were already an institution in the fast-paced world of dance music. But somewhere along the line, I guess, things changed. Because as much as I was anticipating their follow up to Muzikizm, I’ve been sorely disappointed by Makeshift Feelgood.
Listening to Makeshift Feelgood reminds me of the best records the trio has recorded in the past, but not necessarily in a good way. I am reminded because the best moments here are simply nowhere near as good as the highlights off Muzikizm, and the lowlights are just not very good at all. Mostly, however, I wished that I was listening to Muzikizm again.
The album starts with “Give It”, which never really coheres despite its ambition. Vocalist Kurt Wagner (of Lambchop) provides a gospel-influenced call-and-response shout over a gradually building house beat, but the climax, when it eventually arrives, just isn’t that climactic. Perhaps one of the remixes makes better use of the raw material? It segues into the frankly abominable “Witchi Tai To” featuring the Polyphonic Spree’s Tim De Laughter delivering a falsetto reading of Jim Pepper’s Native American chant. Nothing in this song gels in the least: the beats are innocuous and the bassline strangely impotent, but the melody brings to mind nothing so much as a poor man’s Cocteau Twins. 1980s refugees Kissing the Pink appear on four tracks, sharing co-writing duties with X-Press 2—almost half the album! “Enjoy the Ride” is harmless enough, if not very memorable, but “Light My Soul” succeeds in summoning up some of the louche atmosphere of Muzikizm’s“I Want You Back”. They actually improve slightly with “The Answer”, a fairly catchy minor-key number, and send the album off fairly well with “The Last Man”, which is (shall we say) extremely reminiscent of “Lazy”. Does it count as plagiarism if you’re stealing from yourself?
The album’s best moments come towards the middle. “Fellow Cutie” is the only track here that lacks a vocalist, and it actually manages to pick up some of the slack from the album’s disastrous first-third. It reminds me of early Underworld, perhaps one of the darker tracks stuck in the middle of Dubnobasswithmyheadman. “Don’t Make Me Wait” is a cover of the Peech Boys classic house track (and when I say classic, I mean 1981), but with vocal contributions by original Peech singer Bernard Fowler. (Interestingly, Fowler has apparently spent the last couple decades singing backup for the Rolling Stones—an odd career trajectory for one of the founding fathers of house, to be sure.)
For better or for worse, the album’s best song is “Kill 100”, with vocals by the Music’s Rob Harvey. I say “for better or for worse” because, while it’s a great song, it’s also built off a direct sample from Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (which, speak of the devil, Underworld also sampled, almost ten years ago, on “King of Snake”). In dance music terms, dropping the synth rush from “I Feel Love” into your song is a bit like nicking the guitar riff from “Satisfaction”: guaranteed to please, but nevertheless a bit cheap at this late date. And really, that’s the main thrust of the track: it starts quiet, building to the chorus, which explodes with Giorgio Moroder’s famous riff crashing over the speakers. If you’ve got to bring in Moroder to salvage your album, well . . .
Ashley Beedle and X-Press 2 are responsible for some of the most memorable moments in dance music history. At this point in their careers, they could easily have sat back on their laurels and watched the world pass them by, and I guess it’s to their favor that they choose not to do this. But the few winning moments on Makeshift Feelgood simply can’t overcome the stinkers, or the overall feeling of malaise that permeates the entire project. This sounds pretty tired.