[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
GENIUS LOVES COMPANY
THERE ARE MOMENTS when a particular act seems the incarnation of all that is rock'n'roll. And it's not always a rock'n'roll band. Think Public Enemy in the late 1980s, for instance. Or Eminem four years ago. Or The Prodigy in the mid-1990s. Not a guitar nor a drumkit in earshot; just the crackling, electrified sensation of revolt.
Between their second LP and their third, the Prodigy were peerless. Music For The Jilted Generation is perhaps the only great protest album to feature almost no lyrics. Concerning itself with nothing more vital than the right to rave, it was nonetheless a monstrous act of musical insurrection, which still replicates for the listener the effect of being wired involuntarily to the National Grid.
1997's The Fat Of the Land was poppier, but no flimsier for that. It made a star of Keith Flint, who scared the cotton socks off both kiddiewinks and their parents, looming and leering out of a concrete tunnel like Punko The Clown and bellowing, “I'm the Firestarter!” Flint was the face of The Prodigy; but the music was created entirely by one Liam Howlett, an auteur among breakbeat hacks, who had emerged from the head-banging Essex hardcore techno scene (a kind of heavy metal for dance kids.)
Seven years is a long time between albums. It gives everybody else the chance to pick up your ideas and run with them. Howlett has received precious little credit in the recent electroclash movement, which is essentially his “electronic punk” concept rebranded, encompassing Fischerspooner, Peaches and, arguably, Sugababes on their hit, Freak Like Me. He needed to come back with something very special indeed to set himself apart from the pack. Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned isn't it.
Howlett hasn't lost his skill, nor his energy. What does seem to have gone by the mixing board is his wild originality. Outgunned is a spirited electroclash album. But neither its elements nor its assembly have the startling, galvanising quality that marked out the Prodigy of old. The only surprise in opening with a loop of near-Eastern vocals is that a producer of Howlett's pedigree should opt for such a cliché. The same goes for robotically sleazy female rapping, vocoder samples and early Human League-ish synth lines.
Shoot Down may be the best thing Liam Gallagher's appeared on in nearly a decade, but that tells you more about Oasis than The Prodigy. And it sounds an awful lot like what The Chemicals Brothers were up to three albums ago. Howlett's merely taking his turn at stirring the same pot.
Better news from that lickety-split ragamuffin Brit rapper, Dizzee Rascal, who won the Mercury prize with his first LP, Boy In The Corner. The follow-up, Showtime, is just as bright, cutting and dissonant an amalgam of playground jargon and shrewd observation. While half of pop charges boldly forward to the 1980s, Dizzee is aiming for something genuinely new.
Fans of the late Ray Charles - which should by rights mean anyone in better shape than Ray - can safely disregard his final album, a collection of standard duets entitled Genius Loves Company. Sadly, on this soulless, supper-club outing, the sentiment is not returned. Even the handful who deserved to share Charles's studio time have made a poor show of it.
All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission. Really.