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Dub Narcotic Sound System - Degenerate Introduction

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Artist: Dub Narcotic Sound System

Album: Degenerate Introduction

Label: K

Review date: Apr. 22, 2004

The Lounge is really more like a basement, a narrow and cramped space underneath the burrito joint down our block. The beer costs precisely, puzzlingly, $2.37, straight out of an ice cooler. They built a stage in there and scattered a handful of scuffed but functional instruments for anyone who wants to use them. The result is a free-for-all freeform karaoke. At any one time the duties might be shared by local students, drunk white-collars, and occasionally someone in some metal band; thanks to Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, the cowbell has become the most highly contested station. All that’s really needed for a jam is one person who can hold down a beat, that the beat be somewhere in the sulphurous air between blues and funk, and that nobody knocks anything over. Even at its best, the resultant funk is still too slack to enjoy with anything more mobile than a smirk. It’s an experiment like mixing those three crayons from different corners of the box, halfheartedly hoping that you’ll come up with an unspeakably beautiful color. Or at least something weird. But the color you get is brown. Maybe a little brackish green in there, but pretty much just brown.

And so it is with the Dub Narcotic Sound System, who at this point have been around long enough to make things just utterly confusing: is this a joke? Frontman and K Records’ honcho Calvin Johnson must still be sticking smug to the limitations-as-strengths philosophy, because there isn’t a glimmer of sheen on this one. He keeps his deep brass voice to a mutter for most of the album, fires off some slurs against Bush Cabinet members, drops a mission statement in "Joint Joint": “Are we searchin’ for the perfect beat? Hell no! We don’t need perfection just a knockin’ rhythm section that will move our feet in a dance-floorly direction. Don’t need no fancy clubs...” It just might be the most thought out moment on the album.

But while Johnson’s old band Beat Happening found a snaggletoothed beauty in slack pop, when it comes to dancing, the same ideas about artless charm don’t really fly. You gotta make us wanna. The beats are froggy and that keyboard sounds like a twelve year old just took his birthday present out of the box. The flatulent sloth all comes off so rude that it seems as if Johnson’s exhortations to dance spring from an impulse not populist, but fascist. Hey, there’s always room for that, don’t get me wrong. But nobody actually goes to the Lounge, it’s just a place at which you end up on your way—or, more likely, coming back from—somewhere else.

Over the last twenty years, Johnson has helped change perspectives on the potential of pop music, demonstrating that the removal of certain pretenses—or, instead, the addition of other pretenses—can get to the core of pop: something mythical, unsophisticated and profound. Dub Narcotic Sound System, in theory, takes his ideas one obvious step farther: dub is what you get when modern musicmaking technology is introduced to 'unsophisticated'

people, who provide an innovative perspective on its capabilities. But

what we have here is the inverse of dub. It seems the new rhythmic wave

that came through indie a few years back swept this band into a regressive pout, which is understandable because they were here first. But maybe the best way to remind people of that is not to devolve into something more appropriately named Dub Narcotic Sound Check.

By Greg Bloom

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