Dirty Vegas: One

Dirty Vegas

Legend has it that when Radiohead released Kid A, they insisted that the record execs at their label listen to the entire product for the first time while taking a mountain drive. They understood how much context affects first impressions. How many times is a song’s impact influenced by the state of mind of the listener or the environment in which he or she first takes in the song? This is true of everyone — even critics. Anyone claiming otherwise is lying.

I bring this up because the first time I heard Dirty Vegas, I was in a cabin in rural Japan on a rainy afternoon, hanging out with a group of friends who I knew I wouldn’t get to see again for a long time. Someone put on Dirty Vegas’ self-titled debut, and while I chatted with my friends for one of the last times, I found myself entranced by the music. It captured the melancholy of the clouds overhead, the contentment of a lazy afternoon, the bittersweet imminence of my departure, and the perfection of being at the right place at the right time with the right people. It truly was one of those rare, perfect moments.

Here’s how most of you heard Dirty Vegas for the first time-in the commercial break during whatever TV show you were watching, with the “uhn-ts, uhn-ts” dance beat of their hit “Days Go By” playing over images of attractive people driving their Mitsubishis. If that had been my first impression, it’s doubtful that I would have given Dirty Vegas a second thought.

It would have been easy to pass them off as another popular electronic band like Groove Armada, Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk or Fatboy Slim. When you think of those artists, you think of catchy hooks looped repeatedly. Dirty Vegas, however, actually writes songs structured around vocal verses and choruses. Over the dance beats, vocalist Steve Smith drops subdued, flowing melodies that are nearly hypnotic. It’s not all dance and electronica either. Their debut record boasted a couple of slow tempo tracks and effective use of acoustic guitars, none better than on the quiet, lovely rendition of “Days Go By” that lies hidden at the end of the album.

As great as their debut was, anyone who has seen Dirty Vegas live can attest to how much richer their songs sound in that setting. This isn’t a trio of producers or DJs who recreate the music note for note and beat for beat. They are a full-on rock band, with all the instrumentation that you’d expect from such a show. They just happen to play club music.

Dirty Vegas’ sophomore effort One is their attempt to capture that organic live sound on record. From a production standpoint, they succeed. The electronics sound much warmer, and the live instrumentation is easier to hear, making this a more sonically interesting record. You could even argue that this is the record that U2 might have made post-Pop had the fan reaction to that album not been so vehemently (and unfairly) negative. One can’t help but hear traces of Bono’s forgivably cheesy earnestness in the lead-off track “Roses”, where Smith sings repeatedly, “The only thing worth living for is love.”

Yes, this is about as un-edgy a record as you’ll hear all year, and thus it probably won’t appeal to finicky music lovers out there. Diehard technophiles are sure to call it sugary. Rock lovers may turn their noses at the preponderance of dance beats. Fans of the debut may also find it disappointing that all of the effort that went into the sound of One seems to have gone missing from the songwriting. At times, One feels more like a remake of their debut rather than a new release. Beats, samples and the structures of some songs are so similar to tracks from their last record that it’s almost disconcerting. Of course, whether you consider this a full-out rehash or simply a variation on a theme depends on how much you liked the band in the first place.

It’s hard not to be forgiving as you pump your fist to the current single “Walk Into the Sun” or the quick downbeats of a “A Million Ways”. “Given You Everything” is a guaranteed buck-up-and-get-over-the-ex anthem sure to help motivate the broken-hearted. And while the slower numbers don’t resonate as well on this record, the last track “Save Me Now” is a wonderful electronic equivalent to the rock power ballad.

What Dirty Vegas has really accomplished with this release is a completely unpretentious piece of work designed to move folks who want nothing more than something fun and catchy to listen to. And bless ’em for pulling it off because even the simplest pop can be botched. Turn on MTV and try to find an artist who isn’t feigning edge, from the mascara-wearing pop-punkers to the sensitive faux-metalers to the jail-baiting pop teen pin-ups. The kiddies may buy it, but those of us pushing 30 can smell the bullshit. Who says we need edge all the time anyway? Sometimes all we need is an all-inclusive good time, a social affair, a round of pints, and all the simple pleasures that we take for granted. For reminding us of that, Dirty Vegas’ One, despite its flaws, is still one of the more refreshing releases to come out this year.