Starting from Scratch...

Baby Fox are a PoMo pop trio with a trippy, skanking, feelgood summer vibe. Phil Johnson can hardly contain himself...

It's not often that you hear a record that almost makes you crash your car, but with "Curly Locks" by Baby Fox it was very nearly death on the roads for me. Pushing an unknown promo cassette into the stereo normally occupied by Island's "The Story of Jamaican Music", where Junior Byles's original version of the song is pretty near the best cut in a four-decker set of continuous glory, the unsuspected appearance of another, strikingly different, treatment was so immediately wonderful that I briefly lost control and had to pull up sharpish to avoid mishap. In retrospect, the pairing of the gorgeous original melody with an inspired sample of the string section's chorus from Ella Fitzgerald's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" was what did it, the unlikely conjunction producing pulsating waves of pure pleasure unsuited to sensible driving.

Trip-hoppy, dub-happy, Portishead-with-a-sense-of-humour, Deee-lite transplanted to the Holloway Road and made to undergo a rigorous education in popular culture, with compulsory seminars in Post-Modernism, Baby Fox is a dream of a pop group. They're not only clever enough to put a self- conscious spin on dance music's debt to reggae and soul, but they're smart enough to keep a dumb smile on their face while they do it.

Produced by Lee 'Scratch' Perry in 1974, the original "Curly Locks" is a righteous rasta lament, the singer wondering whether his girl will still love him now that he's a dreadlocks. In the Baby Fox version, the genders have been reversed and numerous liberties have been taken with the theme. At one point the melody even segues into another Lee Perry greatest hit, Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves", and the verities of the Byles version are deconstructed into a spliff-'em-up rap with sundry water-pipe sound effects. But, whenever that Fitzgerald sample returns, it's skanking heaven again, perhaps the most perfect feelgood refrain yet to be achieved by sample-deck music. The rest of the album, which is surprisingly varied, is almost as good, and full of strange, entrancing images culled from disparate sources: a touch of eastern mysticism here, a Marc Bolan cover version there, collages of spoken word samples, dub beats and animal noises (part of the album was recorded in a cottage in Herefordshire) throughout.

Despite the brilliance of "Curly Locks", the three-person collective of Baby Fox was somewhat wary of releasing it as the first single from their album, A Normal Family, preferring to go with the more unworldly "Jonny Lipshake". "Straight away we were thinking, 'I'm not too sure about that, because when you do a version you want it to sit in with the rest, and not want to pull it out'," says Dwight Clarke, who, along with Christine Ann Leach and Alex Gray, comprises Baby Fox. "We were worried that it wasn't totally representative of what we do, and therefore thought we'd better go with something more unusual," he says. " 'Jonny Lipshake' was just finished," says Christine, "and as it was very fresh we decided to go with that." "I'd nicked the original Ella record off my dad, says Dwight, "and it was just one of those albums that I really loved. I can't remember how we first thought of it but we kept saying 'Wow, that would be so good!', but first of all it seemed almost too abstract."

"The point at which we got the mix of 'Curly Locks', which cracked it, was way into the night," Alex says. "We'd abandoned the whole thing because we started arguing and it wasn't happening. My ears were completely shot, the whole thing had developed a life of its own, and we just started again and probably aimed at the rawest, crudest sound we could get."

"Afterwards," says Dwight, "when we'd virtually done it, we'd been working on it for so long that we'd forgotten the original, and when we listened to it for the first time we were saying, 'Wow! It's so faithful.' We'd thought it was completely, utterly different." "Curly Locks" is scheduled to be the group's next single, and if the summer lasts, it could be a big hit.

"Jonny Lipshake", however, is iconoclastic enough to satisfy all but the most jaded of dance-music sensibilities. It opens with a scratch from a Don Cherry album (no music, just a scratch), followed by a chant improvised by Christine in imitation of Cherry. Then a narrative of sorts takes over, full of echoes of kung-fu movies, drunken-master moves and the shade of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode". "It's whole cinematic things we're thinking of," says Dwight, who has directed videos for Blur and other Britpop luminaries, and who superintends the group's visual frames of reference. "The scratch from the original Don Cherry record was just to create a really dirty, gritty kind of feel, a sort of image in our minds," says Alex. "I had these ancient mellotron samples and it was like a new toy for me, and that's where that grungy flute sound comes from."

The three partners first met up years ago as students in the suburban wasteland of affluent Surrey, where they formed a weekend posse at impromptu parties. Dwight went on to study fine art at Hornsey, Christine to record with William Orbit as part of Strange Cargo, and Alex - the only trained musician of thethree - to record remixes with DJ Bob Jones. The mix of personalities is just about perfect: Christine sings in a sighing, sexy manner, like a trip-hop goddess; Dwight has the necessary visual suss and off-the-wall ideas; and Alex is sufficiently musical to tie all the disparate bits together. "It's often a bit magical when we're working," says Christine. "We know each other so well that we can kind of read into what we're doing, so that the process has got its own secret language."

"The whole album was a bit self-satisfying because it was all done for ourselves, really," says Alex. "I really love the dark side of things!" says Dwight. "Like Samuel Beckett." At this point the others begin to get a bit fidgety. "We definitely have quite different philosophies," says Christine, "but nevertheless, as a group, we have a similar philosophy, even though saying that might make Dwight sick." Alex, perhaps the glue that binds them together, smiles hopefully.

n 'A Normal Family' by Baby Fox is released on Malawi Records.

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