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Prime Picks From Across the Pond

Singer-songwriters and tuneful dance music are just hitting American soil, but they've taken over England.

November 05, 2000|PHIL SUTCLIFFE | Phil Sutcliffe is a London-based writer and a contributing editor to Q magazine

Radiohead's Thom Yorke gave a sort of negative definition of his band's new album, "Kid A," and why it proved to be that rare entity-- a straight-up, straight-down cult No. 1 album on both sides of the Atlantic --when he remarked recently that while it was being recorded, "to me, all melodies were pure embarrassment."

However, millennial Brit rock hardly takes the same purist, or perhaps over-arty, line. Tunes, stories and direct but not dumb communication seem to have worked their way back to the top of the agenda.

For instance, a new sense of openness and respect for ideas characterizes the lively upsurge in British singer-songwriting. A whole bunch of these ruggedly vulnerable individuals with an itch to tell everyone what ails them are getting a hearing again--partly because members of the new school are quite happy to enhance their lyrical intensity with discreet electronics and dance inflections.

Fellow Mancunians David Gray and the Bruce Springsteen-worshiping Badly Drawn Boy (see story, Page 4) are already making themselves known in America--and London's Dido is 800,000 albums to the good while unremarked at home--but others will nestle in transatlantic obscurity for some time yet.

Tom McRae, probably a rockin' first as the son of two vicars, grew up in a tiny village, hated rural isolation and came to London to tell his somber tales on a self-titled album that will probably reach the States next spring.

Fond of the cello's heartstring tones, Kathryn Williams, indie-est of them all, still operates her one-woman label, Caw, from her living room in Newcastle. So far, she has been too wrapped up in making her elegantly emotional albums, "Dog Leap Stairs" and "Little Black Numbers," to bother with foreign distribution deals.

Completely different yet evincing a similar air of freshness is the latest wave of dance music, patriotically designated U.K. Garage (don't ask--antecedents reach back to New York's Paradise Garage club scene in the early '80s). The vital variant from much dance music is that this time it's got tunes.

Early this year, the wave burst out of Southampton, the seaport the old ocean liners sail from, with a single called "Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)" by two studio boffins called Artful Dodger who are unlovely and 30-ish but were fronted on that record by Craig David, handsome and 19. The genre's friendly, supple grooves crossed the age barrier in the U.K. with David's autumn solo album, "Born to Do It," becoming the fastest-selling debut ever--225,000 in its first week.

So, singer-songwriting and U.K. Garage: not the Beat Boom, but something to hang our hats on. It's rather strange that a year that has launched those somehow positive movements, whether furrow-browed or smiling, also saw a British commercial breakthrough for Limp Bizkit and Slipknot.

The American voice of gloom Goth and rap metal struck a chord with the multitude of lads who want to give the finger to everything--an honorable rock 'n' roll tradition, after all. But thus far no U.K. counterparts have emerged, which perhaps casts doubt on the depth of their appeal compared with the massive impact of, say, Nirvana.

On the other hand, an alarming European soft-rock revival has spread to the U.K. with results to make true rockers blush. Hence, the names of Toploader and Birth, impassioned purveyors of airy-fairy nonsense, will not be featured in this Letter From London's traditional list of recommendations to American ears--which starts right here with the young prince of U.K. Garage.

* Craig David: Still lives with his dear old mum, but turns the girls on something rotten. Writes his own songs and bends lyric to beat with a limber syncopation even TLC might appreciate--though the comparison does raise the question of whether there's an American-market vacancy for an artist so immersed in the idiom of new R&B (but then Ireland's Samantha Mumba seems to be doing well in a somewhat similar vein, with a single in the U.S. Top 5). But the immediate problem is to secure U.S. distribution, a task in which his U.K. indie label Wildstar seem to have been somewhat tardy. Meanwhile, he is available singing a track called "No More" on Guru's "Jazzmatazz" album, his illustrious companions including Isaac Hayes, Macy Gray and Angie Stone.

* David Gray: At 32, a fighter whose career took off from abject failure when his fourth album, "White Ladder," turned fierce reflections on his marital problems and other dark times to gold. Released two years ago on his own label, IHT--initial pressing, 6,000--it went huge in Ireland, persuading Eastwest to pick it up. It sold 300,000 in the U.K., and Gray became the first signing to Dave Matthews' ATO label in America, where, an indefatigable road worker unlike many British artists, Gray has toured 11 times already.

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