By David Browne
June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Even the staunchest supporters of electronica would have a hard time proclaiming it the hottest and heaviest of genres. Its very coolness — the rigidity of its rhythms, the paucity of human voices — is part of its allure. Now comes the electronica offshoot two-step, which seeks to change that perception in ways that earlier, vocal-swabbed derivatives like jungle and house never quite did.

Not to be confused with the similarly named country-music dance style, two-step is so called because it puts the emphasis on every second (rather than fourth) beat, making it technically faster than other club beats. Drifting atop those rhythms, which are rooted in the skittery hiss of drum-and-bass, are singers crooning about heartache, desire, and enticement, all to genuine melodies (or, at least, fragments of them). In other words, two-step is more pop than most techno allows itself to be. No wonder it became a sensation in Britain last summer, to the point where even Posh Spice made a cameo on a two-step hit. Now, as has been reported, come ‘N Sync. Their hard-stomping (if bizarrely defensive) new single, ”Pop,” may be a predictably watered-down take on the genre, but give them points for effort: Thanks to the two-step influence, ”Pop” makes ”Bye Bye Bye” sound like a polka.

Even with such a high-profile American pop act exploiting it, can two-step be destined for similar conquest in this country? So far, the discs shipped to these shores (like DJ-producer MJ Cole’s recent Sincere album) have been underwhelming. Their beats seem designed for the most refined club on the block — New Age dance music. Two new anthologies, one from the label that brought us Moby’s Play, paint an even more vivid picture of the supposed future of electronica.

Composed of two British DJ-producers, Pete Devereux and Mark Hill, Artful Dodger isn’t a band in the traditional rock sense. Even so, It’s All About the Stragglers (to be released in the States next month, but currently available as a British import) is surprisingly conventional. Using live singers instead of samples, Artful Dodger are song-and-dance men, with an emphasis on song. ”Think About Me,” featuring vocalist Michelle Escoffery, is such straight-ahead R&B that it could be a Destiny’s Child experiment in electronica. Here and there, Devereux and Hill perk up the tracks with jittery flourishes, like the computer whirs on ”Re-Rewind,” which features British two-step poster boy Craig David name-checking himself over a delicious poppin’-popcorn beat. On that and other cuts, Stragglers is lighter and softer than much American R&B, and poptronica tracks like ”Please Don’t Turn Me On” and ”Twentyfourseven” inject sexual tension into a genre that’s long been celibate.

David’s ”Re-Rewind” also appears on Vital 2Step, V2’s entry into the two-step almost-craze. But unlike the Artful Dodger album, this multi-act anthology alternates between singer-dominated pop and intergalactic instrumentals. The latter, with their rhythmic karate moves and tuneful oscillations, are engaging but rarely compelling. One of the best, Second Protocol’s ”Basslick,” yearns to be a techno update of that old Chariots of Fire theme. On the vocal cuts, however, Vital 2Step lives up to its boastful title. Nadine featuring Capital T’s ”I Feel for You” (not the Prince/Chaka Khan hit) soars like a diva should. T-Tree’s ”Don’t Give a ****” smoothly integrates two-step beats, rapping, and an especially dismissive singer, while Capital T featuring Rhalia’s ”Ooh Don’t You Want Me” is a near-orgasmic flirt. And Richie Dan’s ”Call It Fate” demonstrates how well reggae singing can blend with two-step. (Shaggy, are you listening?)

As with the Artful Dodger disc, Vital 2Step goes down so easily that it leaves one wondering what precisely is so new about two-step. Both albums are dominated by perfectly passable dance-diva pop sung by perfectly passable frontpeople, male and female. (An anonymous bunch, they bring to mind the singers who suddenly appeared on records by loose-knit ”bands” like Soul II Soul and then went on the dole.) The vocalists personify a style of music that isn’t particularly exotic and that, for all its U.K. origins, feels more American than British. For that reason alone, two-step may flourish here in the way jungle, drum-and-bass, and other electronica offspring didn’t. It may win the battle AND the war, but you wish the battles were a little more hair-raising. It’s All About the Stragglers and Vital 2Step Grade: Both B