Gimme Two Steps

Here come the hotsteppers: U.K. two-step garage production duo Artful Dodger

Here come the hotsteppers: U.K. two-step garage production duo Artful Dodger

Who doesn't love a rhetorical question? For instance: Does two-step garage, the dance-music substyle that's been running London clubland for the past two-and-a-half years, have a fighting chance at making it in America? Such a query is basically prognostication masquerading as boosterism--the implied answer being something like, "Americans are idiots who don't understand true dance music in all its subgeneric/subcultural glory," or "Of course it will--it's just so good!"

Of course, dance subgenres tend to thrive just fine outside the American public's eye. But in this case, the question has some validity, mainly because (to simplify things considerably) two-step garage is basically England's answer to an enormously popular American style, namely post-Timbaland R&B, a wrinkle in pop's sonic fabric that was itself heavily influenced by British drum 'n' bass's booming basslines and kinetic breakbeat mutations. The difference, as these things tend to go, is that the most radical U.S. R&B hits, like Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody" or Nicole's "Make It Hot," still cleave to recognizable song forms. Most two-step tracks fit comfortably into dance music's school of abstract impressionism. Not only is the beat splintered, but the vocals frequently sound like they've been diced by an army of Iron Chefs, then stitched back together in not quite the right order.

That description might lead you to expect these vivisected voices to sound alien, but they're often downright cuddly. Given a connecting thread, they're even pop-friendly. And none is more so than Craig David's crooned chorus on Artful Dodger's two-step-for-beginners anthem, "Re-Rewind." So who knows? In an era when compilations like Totally Hits and the Now series enter Billboard at No. 1, the first official American two-step garage showcase, the Artful Dodger-mixed Re-Rewind (London/Sire), might even get some stateside love, particularly if its title song crosses over to R&B radio the way it obviously wishes to.

Re-Rewind doesn't just stop with its title track, either. Its other highlights include Artful Dodger's sound-alike followup, "It Ain't Enough," whose wordless, narcotized/ecstatic female vocal and moody bassline I prefer to the original; and the Wideboys' remix of United Groove Collective's "Glad You Came to Me," which surrounds an urban sensitive/tuff-girl vocal (à la Lisa Lisa on "I Wonder If I Take You Home") with fuzz-bass bombs, narcoleptic organs, and jaunty snare pops and high-hat programming.

The CD's problem, though, is that it's probably the most uneven of the handful of two-step comps I've checked out this year. Too many strained vocalists here attempt to prove how "legitimate" two-step has become, starting at the beginning, with Artful Dodger and Robbie Craig's "Woman Trouble." The compilation only picks up any real momentum in its second half.

Even a cursory comparison to the Ministry of Sound label's Dodger-mixed import Rewind: The Sound of UK Garage shows what's lacking on the American version. Though both have nearly the same cover, not to mention title, the import not only has two CDs but a sense of historical perspective that Re-Rewind would have done well to emulate. (The closest it comes is a so-so remix of Baby D's old-school rave anthem "Let Me Be Your Fantasy.") The British album, on the other hand, contains classics like Doolally's skanking "Straight From the Heart" and Kristine Blonde's "Loveshy"--a giddy pop record Britney would give her left implant to have gurgled. It's also got a better mix, with hotter treble and deeper bass helping (it sounds great on my PC's puny speakers as I write this). Rewind: The Sound of UK Garage is probably the most comprehensive introduction to the sound in all its subcultural/subgeneric glory. Too bad America seems to have been deemed unready for it.