Dodgy - Free Peace Sweet

DEAR OLD Dodgy, still head-in-the-clouds hippies passing out the cosmic love vibes, still dreaming of being at Glastonbury when the year's gonna be shaped by what happens on (and off) stage at Knebworth, still... well, just Dodgy, really.

You've got to feel for them. After all, it's not as if they even seem particularly happy with their middling lot in the Britpop hierarchy (acolytes of Weller and the Scream; Top 20 regulars, and, most niggling of all, known to some simply as mentors of The Bluetones). Why else would two-thirds of the band have swapped their beloved shag-pile kaftan cuts in preference for peroxide scrag-tops?

So what is the message in the bottle? On first listen it's hard to tell. Not that 'Free Peace Sweet' - let's not dally on the title - holds any particular secrets. In fact it sounds like an exact DNA progression from both their debut and last year's cloyingly upbeat 'Homegrown', right down to the sleeve artwork of a fully-grown tree (a nod to 'Grand Old English Oak Tree' from 'The Dodgy Album') and final track, erm, 'Homegrown', which does everything to convince us that in Dodgy's universe there's no problem that a healthy voyage into the country in a hash-fuelled camper van wouldn't cure. The problem is that, from Dodgy, none of this feels remotely like enough. There's plenty of Who-flashback rifferama to remind us of the quantum assault of 'Lovebirds' and 'Summer Fayre' (best evidenced by the marvellous, stinging 'In A Room'); some quasi-militant social comment in the fine, if clumsily-titled 'UK RIP' - a nod to Nigel's days as a Crass fan - and enough schmaltzy tunefulness to keep Dodgy in radio sessions for life.

And the musicianship (c'mon, it's the height of Noelrock, we're allowed to discuss these things) is faultless; from Mathew's John Belushi-joins-Led-Zep-drum-thumping past Andy's ever-spiralling sonic solos right through to Nigel's way with a belting, heart-stopping beauty of a choon. It's just... Dodgy gush wildly about music spanning from the Beasties to Dr John, to Crosby, Stills & Nash, and yet they still end up making an album that, fine as it is, never threatens to be anything other than a superior example of Bandus Britpopus; big on the guitar-crunch choruses and sugar-sweet harmonies and low on the deep, dark thrills they know they're capable of.

Oh irony. When Dodgy alone were espousing the joys of The Who, Hendrix and Sly Stone in the dark days of '92 they were written off in some quarters as dope-fixated retro-heads, and ignored accordingly. Now they're having their reference points pilfered daily, from right in front of their eyes, and consequently being made to sound just the tiniest bit gauche.

Let's face it. If you didn't know that Dodgy were the most gloriously eclectic dope'n'enthusiasm addled band, wouldn't the mini-Who operetta 'Jack The Lad' and 'Long Life' sound just the teensiest bit ludicrous? And the saccharine brassy arrangements that proliferate throughout seem just a little naff?

Hard to tell, really. Because if 'Free Peace Sweet' was the work of one of the genre's less imaginative ensembles (Ash, Gene, T'Uproar for three), it would sound fine indeed. But from Dodgy it sounds like a group treading water, and one far too keen to write a stream of commercial pop songs - which Nigel can do in his sleep, after all - just to keep the record company accountant off their back.

Time for the three of them to leave on a jet plane to Marakech, armed only with a case of Metaxa, a kilo of skunk and a boxful of compilation tapes on a quest for the Holy Grail of Dodgy, methinks.

A fine pop album then. But not a great Dodgy album.


Paul Moody