It's not a bad way to break into the music biz: a couple friends run into each other at an airport, they decide to get together in the studio, they record one song, less than a week later it debuts on Radio One and goes on to become a top 20 hit in the UK, they sell the song to a car manufacturer to be used in a popular TV commercial, thousands of Internet denizens ask, "Who sings that song?", the friends put together an album, and upon its debut in the United States and Canada, it sells like hotcakes. Not a bad plan at all.
The group I'm talking about is Dirty Vegas, and their eponymous debut album is set to become one of the Summer Albums of 2002. When I say "summer album", I mean music that's lightweight, bouncy, happy, shallow, devoid of any originality . . . just pleasurable, disposable pop. Like Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun". Like that teen from-out-of-nowhere sensation Avril Lavigne. Or like that nauseating, but catchy, Eminem song "Without Me". Frivolous fare, but stuff that's catchy enough to prevent you from switching the radio or television off, and Dirty Vegas's current radio hit "Days Go By" fits nicely into this category. The question is, does the rest of the album hold up, or is it nothing but soundalikes such as "Days Go By 2: The Worsening", "Revenge of Days Go By", and "Beyond the Valley of Days Go By"?
If you haven't heard "Days Go By" on the radio yet, you've probably heard it on those Mitsubishi Eclipse commercials. And I have to admit, it's a very good song, one of the better pop singles to chart lately. It has that cookie-cutter, thumpy club beat, but is underscored by another layer of Latin-styled percussion and a simple, five-note bassline. The vocals by singer/songwriter Steve Smith are several notches above the usual Eurotrash techno, tinged with darkness and regret, as he plaintively sings, "You / Still a whisper on my lips / A feeling on my fingertips / Is pulling at my skin . . . Days go by and still I think of you / Days when I couldn't live my life without you." There's a hint of vocoder in Smith's vocals, but not of the overkill variety that we've heard by joke acts like Eiffel 65, Willa Ford, or Cher; here the effect is applied lightly, and doesn't distract from the song. "Days Go By" is one song I won't mind hearing from loud car stereos that drive by on my street this summer. It's a rare hit single that actually deserves to be a hit.
But back to the rest of the album: is it as good? Yes, and no. It has its moments, as Smith, multi-instrumentalist Ben Harris, and DJ Paul Harris combine house music with more traditional guitar instrumentation, much in the same way as David Gray did on his White Ladder album. Unfortunately, as Dirty Vegas goes on, the band starts to sound as if David Gray had a bratty, attention-starved little brother manning the turntables, and the techno is pushed so far in front in the mix that there are times when the feeling is totally lost. Nothing can kill an album faster than the relentless, redundant drum machine of dance music. It's like they started off with a basic track, and someone said, "Hey, you know what'll work?" THUMP, THUMP, THUMP . . . at its worst, Dirty Vegas is as generic as Crystal Method: not bad, but completely unoriginal. If the band trimmed 15 minutes off the album (especially the bland "Throwing Shapes", "7AM", and the techno wankfest "The Brazilian"), the album would be infinitely better.
Despite the repetitive dance beat, I have to emphasize, there is good stuff here. "I Should Know" perfectly combines acoustic guitar and dance, as Smith sings in a voice that's startlingly close to sounding like Michael Stipe. "Ghosts" and the pleasant "Alive" are good, light synth-pop, and "Lost Not Found" has a great bassline that rivals Daft Punk. The languid "Candles" gives the listener a respite from the relentless thumping, and is a much better electronic imitation of The Verve than the Chemical Brothers' "The Test". The song then segues into "All Or Nothing", another beautiful guitar-techno blend. The most interesting moment on the album is the cool, chill-out vibe of "Simple Things Part 2", where Smith beautifully croons (he really does have a great voice), "It's the simple things that make you smile," before seamlessly interjecting lines from Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2". It doesn't make much sense; it comes off as just a burst of spontaneity during recording, but it works. Don't ask me why.
Another thing I really like about the album is its artwork, by photorealist stalwart Richard Phillips, whose renditions of several close-ups of models' faces (including one creepy 1970s sideburns guy), adds a touch of stylish gloss to the album. It looks great, but it's also in keeping with the been-there-done-that feel of the album, since Phillips' striking images were used previously on Luna's 1999 album The Days of Our Nights. Still, art direction on albums is rapidly becoming a lost art (I blame CD jewel cases), and this CD has the best artwork I've seen since the great work done on Pulp's We Love Life album from 2001.
I recently read a description of Phillips' paintings as being "big, flat, simple and empty." Those words could very well be used to describe the sound of Dirty Vegas; pleasing, accessible, but ordinary and lacking depth. There are times where the sound they're trying to perfect is well-executed, but they often let their ambition get the best of them and veer off into boring techno tangents. I'm still surprised at how much I like this album (they deserve better than the one-hit-wonder tag that they're going to have forced upon them in six months), but I have the feeling Dirty Vegas can be even better, and learn to combine elements of acoustic and electronic more consistently, in the same way other bands like Super Furry Animals, Doves, and Departure Lounge have done recently. All it takes to hear their potential is the acoustic version of "Days Go By" at the end of the album. Follow the advice of your own lyrics, guys: it's the simple things that make you smile.