‘Skank rock’ mavericks' third album suggests something has gone very wrong down at the Brain Farm.
There was a moment in the late '90s when Brighton in South East England was the fulcrum of a new wave of British dance music. Sadly, much of what came to be known as Big Beat was simply watered down dance music for students, and its signature sound rapidly became a formula.
Through this mire of mediocrity, Lo Fidelity Allstars -- a bunch of punked-up white B-boys with a Funkadelic fetish -- cut a magnificent, swaggering path. Their 1998 debut How to Operate with a Blown Mind was a dirty, belching, unhinged masterpiece. Over a soup of cut-and-paste, hip-hop breaks, acid house, funk, rock, and noise distortion, deranged vocalist Dave 'The Wrekked Train' Randall spat stream-of-consciousness poetry slathered in millennial angst and drug-fueled, tower-block paranoia.
Blown Mind was angry, literate and culturally self-aware, and the band became known for the furious energy of their live gigs, famously setting fire to their turntables at one London date. The Lo Fi's seemed to embody the spirit of the squat parties and Sussex Downs raves that characterized the Brighton scene of the time. They were the Sex Pistols with sequencers, leading the charge for a generation bent on having a riot of its own.
Then in December 1998, the Lo Fi’s were almost derailed when the Wrekked Train quit on the eve of their biggest ever UK tour. The band survived the tour, which led to further adventures stateside, and in an unlikely twist, the single "Battleflag" became a huge hit on US college radio. In 1999 they were the biggest British act in America, selling 400,000 albums. Their next release, 2002’s Don’t Be Afraid of Love, was a tribute to the band's love of P-funk, soul, and rare groove on which the Lo Fi's drafted in guest singers including Jamie Lidell and Bootsy Collins. While it was clear they would never be the same band, the defiance of their cheeky survival anthem "Lo Fi's in Ibiza" showed the attitude was still intact.
Northern Stomp is the first Lo Fi's release since a Best of compilation in 2007 and unsurprisingly, they sound like refugees from a scene long turned sour. The opening title track is a vitriolic assault on their adopted hometown of Brighton: "I know a town and it needs destroying," a Lo Fi sings over a doleful piano phrase, "Come join the fun, we can knock it down and start again." They even have a go at students: "Dad's cash makes yours an easy life," they huff, pledging to return to their northern roots.
Having got this off their chests, the band bound into "I Know I'm a King", a lukewarm serving of disco house garnished with a chipmunk falsetto vocal. "Your Midnight", with its shuffling, spiraling rhythms and loping bass, sounds like a quaint throwback to the Baggy scene of early '90s Manchester. The squeaks, bleeps and rocked-up beats are all present and correct, but this is Lo Fi's by numbers.
Things improve with "The Good Times", an enjoyable romp through blue-eyed Motown soul, but then we're treated to another burning-our-bridges anthem in the form of "Weather 2", a bizarre, dirge-like torchsong that whines: "It’s been so long since I felt home in this shit-hole."
Expectations rise as Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli picks up the mic for "Southside Lowdown", a stab at swampy, raucous Southern boogie, but it's effortful and contrived, and even Dulli can’t pull it off. Then quality control takes another dive. "As Good As Dead" is execrable, an aptly-titled folly based around some sub-Shaun Ryder growling and a clumsy staccato beat. The cobbled-together crudity of the programming is perplexing, as the track shambles along like a wounded thing pleading to be put out of its misery.
"On My Mind" is a crass, day-glo parody of Stereo MC's, while "Smash and Grab World" is scrappy, vapid pop. Finally, closer "Valentine Boast" is a late rally, an Avalanches-like confection of epic sunset soul that lays the record to rest with a sweet, swooning fade out, complete with sampled fireworks.
Northern Stomp was a chance for Lo Fidelty Allstars to inject some of their inspired mischief into the current malaise facing the UK dance scene. Instead, they've succeeded in making a record that sounds much more dated than their late '90s debut. Here the Lo Fi's sound like a band trying to move on, feeling their way into a new space and working it out in public. But even the more promising moments on this ill-conceived, self-indulgent record somehow fail to cohere or convince.
"The good times are hanging by a thread", warn the Lo Fi's on "Good Times". They better believe it.