By reveling in pastiche, London electronic duo Groove Armada lives up to expectations on their fifth studio album, Soundboy Rock, and exceeds them by genre-hopping and idea-grabbing so effectively that the overall effect is occasionally transcendent. The group is no longer the poor man's Fatboy Slim or the pensioner's Jaxx. The music they make isn't ambitious enough for such comparisons, and they are not, and never will be, groundbreaking formal experimenters. Instead, they are exceedingly competent craftsmen, and here they demonstrate that they're capable of channeling convincing, if not very inspiring, takes on a baker's dozen of dance music genres and trends in quick and dirty succession. In a way, they're best compared to the session vocalists who sing most of the hooks on this record: reliable and relatively anonymous. No notes are out of place, and few choices glare as mistakes, though the exclamation of "Funk you too!" on the otherwise reasonably funky single "The Girls Say" might qualify. There's also very little to set the soul ablaze, though "Lightsonic," which adheres to the reggae vocals and sweeping electro-house synth-rush formula the group established with their 2001 hit "Superstylin," is a standout. The death-defying verve with which it defies the law of diminishing returns is, in its subtle way, astonishing.
Elsewhere, there are several quite competent trip-hoppy ballads, particularly "What's Your Version," which features an effectively dry vocal and a grandiosely multitracked arrangement. "See What You Get" is another variation on the mid-'90s British soul theme, with a Brit-poppy vocal that somehow makes both genres sound fresh. And "Paris" stacks some classic Chicago house key progressions atop a kicky live-sounding drum track and a reasonably personable, if far from memorable, vocal about how "I gave you my love." If the vocals were more anonymous and tracky, the end result might be more effective; sometimes dance tracks shouldn't pretend to be pop songs. It's nevertheless an extremely solid slab of inner-city blues—the kind of music that works perfectly as the soundtrack for rainy-day breakups.
Given Groove Armada's stubborn refusal to innovate, judging their records on their merits means evaluating the crispness of their execution. And from its shiny production to its predictably madcap yet still entertaining attitude toward genre, Soundboy Rock is, despite its somewhat shallow concepts, an accomplished album—one that manages to be familiar without being boring. Though it fails to inspire, it also, happily, fails to annoy.