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Bis and Vitamin C

By Matt Ashare

AUGUST 30, 1999:  In a 1979 concert review of the then largely unknown leftist British punk group Gang of Four, critic Greil Marcus reported that he'd discovered "the most exciting" band he'd seen since the Sex Pistols. It wasn't Gang of Four's political stance that impressed Marcus that night -- he'd find plenty of opportunity to address that in detail over the next few years -- but something more immediate, more physical. As he put it in that review, which originally ran in New West and was later reprinted in a collection of his writings titled Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, "It was the pure drama of their music and the way they held the stage that made the difference."

It's interesting that Marcus, a critic who's spent much of his career searching the dustbin of rock history for lost connections and hidden parallels ("Finding that essence rare," as Gang of Four would call it), chose the word "drama" 20 years ago. Because there's a deceptively upbeat slick little dance tune on the latest CD by the young Scottish indie-pop trio Bis -- an album that happens to have been produced by former Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill -- in which singer/keyboardist Amanda Mackinnon (a/k/a Manda Rin) answers singer/guitarist "Sci-fi" Steven Clark's rather gloomy reflections on the state of contemporary music with a rousing call for "Action and drama."

This isn't the first time Bis have weighed in with a critique of modern rock: "This is funded by a major, but shabbily packaged to look cool" went one of the more pointed verses in "This Is Fake D.I.Y.," on the group's 1995 debut EP. And the trio started mixing their punkish guitars with new-wave synth-pop for ironic effect early on as well. But on the new Social Dancing (Grand Royal/Capitol), Bis's most accomplished and satisfying recording to date, sleek techno grooves have pushed the punk aside in favor of buoyant hooks that bring to mind everything from B-52's bushfires to Chumbawamba tubthumping, from classic Blondie to contemporary trip-hoppers. And Clark's wake-up calls to rock have intensified. "Loud music's not going to die," he reassures us in "Action and Drama." "It just has no direction/We need a plan of action." He's also careful to point out that he's no "techno disco lover." But, much like Gang of Four, who loathed disco commodification so much that they were essentially sentenced by the court of poetic justice to live out the latter half of their career as a serious disco band, Bis haven't arrived in Eurodisney discoland as mere mercenaries or with tongues entirely in cheek. (Rin, for example, sounds quite sincere when she chirps, "Give me '80s Madonna," and she does go to the trouble of rhyming it with "Give me Bananarama.") They're genuinely out to have a good time. And if there's a message or musical moral in Social Dancing, it's that when it rains on your parade, there's still fun to be had in crashing someone else's party.

When it comes to being where the action is, though, Bis simply can't compete with a fresh new drama queen who goes by the name of Vitamin C. The artist formerly known as Colleen Fitzpatrick was a Hairspray-extra-turned-Deborah-Harry- impersonator in the marginal grunge-lite band Eve's Plum before she opted to exercise her right to reach for the stars by recording what amounts to a survey of the hottest sounds of the late '90s. The sample-fortified Vitamin C (Elektra; in stores this Tuesday) opens with a Caribbean-tinged California daydream à la Sugar Ray's "Fly" and goes on to include such essentials as a groovy, organ-laced Smash Mouth-style nugget, some soft-rock 'n' strum Jewelry, a Britney-worthy piece of high-school-yearbook kiddie corn titled "Graduation (Friends Forever)," and a couple of scratch 'n' sniff empowerment ditties that, given Fitzpatrick's current moniker, we might as well just call Daily Supplement Spice. If Social Dancing is a guilty pleasure, then Vitamin C is death row on Fantasy Island, and I do mean that in the very best possible sense. Oh, and Vitamin C gets extra credit for sampling the Clash's "Magnificent Seven" with all the subtlety of a Puff Daddy, if only because it serves as a reminder that Gang of Four weren't the only leftist punk revolutionaries who appreciated the liberating possibilities of the dance floor.


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