Nine years later, the British band returns with a millennial update of their horn-and-drum laden sound. Deep Down & Dirty adds a few twists to the old formula, but there’s something constricted about the record — it’s as if the decibel levels have been lopped off on the top and bottom, eliminating the high treble and low bass. The music sounds squeezed, funneled into a tube that’s too small to reveal the full spectrum. One of the causes stems from the songwriting itself: the songs on Deep Down move along at a speed just ahead of mid-tempo on the head-bob meter, and enough of them doing it, one after another, becomes a little boring by album’s end. (The band does have the good sense to only ask 51 minutes of your time, so the welcome back isn’t entirely worn out.) Rob Birch’s deadpan, half-rapped/half-spoken vocals — never the MC’s strongest suit — too often sink into blandness.
Deep Down & Dirty isn’t a bad album though. High expectations, stoked by the nearly decade-long break between albums, make it harder to separate the new album’s strengths from its flaws. (It’s instructive to compare the MC’s only intervening record, last year’s DJ Kicks mix for the long-running Studio K7! series, with their latest. Incorporating three of their own tracks into a 25 song mélange of funk, hip-hop, and electronica, the band composed an hour-long suite filled with the kind of surprising, dynamic shifts that could have benefited and informed the new album.) To the album’s credit, there’s nothing grasping about it; without abandoning Connected‘s stylish template, the MC’s avoid sounding either dated or like they’re bandwagon-jumping. The melodic range may be limited, but the clean, classic production keeps the music solidly out of time. The opening cut, once again the title track, is also once again the strongest of the album’s songs; where much of the album seems hesitant, intent on not getting too worked up, there’s nothing tentative about “Deep Down & Dirty”.
“Running” attempts to keep the pace up, but the faster rhythm doesn’t necessarily add much overall energy; “Graffiti (Part 1)” and “(Part 2)” provide an interestingly matched pair, the latter a dubbed-up version of the conga-driven first part; a piano rounds out the empty spaces on many of these tracks, and takes the lead for a bouncy “Sofisticated” (sic). The album slows down considerably for the last couple of tracks, which tend to fade into the background. Without disparaging Deep Down & Dirty more than its due, it’s not the start-to-finish killer that the Stereo MC’s might very possibly have in them. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait nine more years to find out for sure.