If you think you’ve never heard Dirty Vegas, you’re probably mistaken. “Days Go By,” the runaway hit from the band’s debut, nabbed a Grammy for Best Dance Single last year. It was injected into the American consciousness after appearing in a now-infamous Mitsubishi commercial—the one with the Kangol-ed b-girl popping and locking to its propulsive strains. The commercial was parodied on Dave Chapelle’s equally ubiquitous Comedy Central show, cementing the tune’s lofty perch in the pop-cultural soundscape and transfiguring Dirty Vegas’ unironically wistful club cut into a first-wave cultural artifact.
The London trio, comprised of producer Ben Harris, keyboardist Paul Harris, and vocalist/percussionist Steve Smith, finds itself in an unenviable position—having to fulfill the promise of a record they couldn’t have suspected would be so abruptly thrust under the unforgiving fluorescence of popular attention. Instead of succumbing to the dazzling glitz of lucrative commercial placement and trying to recreate the magic, Dirty Vegas’ members have taken the artistic high road by following their own muse, forgoing the throbbing electro-folk of their self-titled debut in favor of more organic orchestral pop.
The marriage of acoustic music with electronica is nothing new; Moby made the hybrid famous long before Dirty Vegas. But one never gets the sense the band is guilty of trendy genre-splicing—Smith sang for the rock band Higher Ground before going crunk, and his songs seem more like the confluence of two personally beloved styles than self-conscious postmodern reconstruction. Dirty Vegas’ debut began on the laptop and ended on the acoustic guitar; on One, the process is inverted—the songs were mostly composed on analog instruments before being garnished with digital fillips, and a live, eight-piece orchestra replaced synthetic strings. This goes a long way toward explaining how three club kids have turned out an album of sprawling, organic pop.
The pulsating synth rings of “Roses” blossom with deep waves of melodic bass and shimmery guitars as Smith sings in his honeyed mid-range: “The only thing worth living for is love.” “Home Again” marries an alt.folk/pop sensibility, aimed squarely into the void vacated by Toad the Wet Sprocket and its ilk—with crisp ’80s drums and synthetic digital squiggles, exuding a dewy-eyed sincerity. The weepy string suite “Human Love” is enlivened by sections of layered, driving crescendo, and acoustic ballad “Save Me Now” takes more than a couple pages from Bon Jovi’s Official Guide to Emoting. As it closes the album, you have to cycle back to the beginning to remember that One is an alleged club-banger.
Misleadingly named, Dirty Vegas is a group of tender souls unaligned with the prevailing cynicism of our age. One’s lyrics are its primary weakness, as they often slide into the cloying realms of Phil Collins’ Disney soundtracks. But these are perilous days; sometimes you need rose-tinted glasses to temporarily obscure the blood splattering everywhere. When so much music is so bleak, a little unlikely optimism might be a crucial palliative measure, rather than Pollyanna-ish head-burying, and it’s sanguinity that Dirty Vegas delivers in spades.