Album: Big Dog

Solid Nourishment (Jive)
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The Independent Culture

When Shaun Ryder emerged from the rubble of Happy Mondays with Black Grape in the mid-Nineties, it seemed like the most miraculous of pop comebacks, evidence of not just his creative regeneration but his ox-like constitution too. Others have been less lucky: apart from Keith Richards, it's hard to think of many musicians who share Ryder's cockroach-like imperviousness to the ravages of excessive drug indulgence – certainly not Paul "Kermit" Leveridge, his rapping partner in Black Grape and also, for that group's lifespan, his flatmate and drug buddy. It was like a modern-day version of the Icarus fable: for several years, Kermit accompanied Ryder deeper and deeper down the dark tunnel of smack and crack addiction, becoming by his own admission a "Grade A animal" open to any narcotic offer, until one day Leveridge found himself close to death with a drug-related bout of blood poisoning, lying in a hospital bed under the devastated gaze of his parents as his internal organs began shutting down.

By rights, he shouldn't have made it through, but somehow Kermit survived, and was chastened enough to make the life-changes necessary to ensure his future survival. Two years of detox and counselling later, he bumped into his old friend Ged Lynch, drummer in his pre-Grape hip-hop crew The Ruthless Rap Assassins, and tagged along to the studio to hear what Lynch was working on with guitarist Mark Jones and former Black Grape bassist Danny Williams. The next thing anybody knew, Kermit was fronting the band – adding the bark to Big Dog's bite – and they were all ensconced in a Welsh mountain cottage recording Solid Nourishment, an album that represents, in its own way, a comeback every bit as miraculous as Ryder's six years earlier.

The Big Dog sound is understandably close to Black Grape's, a rollicking, good-time blend of funk, rock, house and rap rooted in Sly Stone's original crossover blueprint, but with its hedonist celebrations tempered by Kermit's brush with mortality. Tracks such as "Boom" and "Natural Disaster" are salutary street-life warnings. The siren lure of fun and frolics is still present in the G-Funk synth whines, clipped guitar riffs, horn stabs, cool flutes, congas and chanted choruses, but beneath the tempting surface is a sense of dark foreboding.

It's this apprehension of danger that gives laddish cuts like "Genuinely Insincere" and "The Right Thing" their edge, though Kermit's natural cheekiness bubbles irrepressibly through tracks such as "Raise The Alarm" and the masturbation anthem "I Turn Me On" – the latter an infectious pastiche of the classic Giorgio Moroder/Donna Summer techno-disco sound. With Geno Washington duetting on one song, and the last track boasting a predatory heavy-metal menace, there's enough diversity here to suggest Big Dog might develop more promisingly than Black Grape did; but whatever route they take, it'll never be less than entertaining, and always true to Kermit's new hold on life: as he says, "I gotta be myself around myself".

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