Who would have imagined that four sisters and a pal from the South Bronx would emerge as one of the most dynamic bands that New York could offer at the top of the ’80s? (Or that they would pop up again in 1987…) Mixing a solid combination of dub, chant and beat, ESG — simply drums, bass and vocals — virtually stole the cosmic show with their first release, a six-song EP with a live side and a phenomenal studio side recorded under the hand of British producer Martin Hannett.
Renee, Valerie and Marie Scroggins — who all sing and play percussion in the group (which also contains bassist Leroy Glover) — are outsiders to the main musical community that appreciates them. While most contemporary dance music, rap and funk relies on machines and samples, the Scroggins have the real thing down cold, live. Accenting their tight-but-loose adept polyrhythms with a light guitar and sturdy, loping bass, they have a stark, wonderful power.
Their second EP, produced by 99 Records shopowner and label head Ed Bahlman, is not quite as crisp as the debut, but no less enjoyable, a brilliant synthesis of rhythm and restraint. To say the following album stayed in a similar vein and improved little over live shows of the same material would be to damn a fine record with faint praise. ESG offers bouncy funk instead of funk pretensions and elegant simplicity in place of mere primitivism.
As they tried to work it and earn it in the ’90s, the low-profile group made a few concessions, exhibiting more awareness of current musical trends. Unfortunately, the newer material tries too hard in comparison to the easy, unique tracks that made them darlings of the downtown crowd a decade earlier. Both ESG and ESG Live! include the original sparse and spacey studio versions of “UFO” and “Moody” produced by Hannett.
The self-titled 1991 album pulls together bits from the previous releases, including “Erase You,” a spiral of staggered rhythms, with someone barking like a dog, that tells the engaging story of a guy gone bad. The five-song Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills 12-inch returns the group to longer dance tracks, with the same echoey percussion and vocals neatly placed under a soft layer of new wavy guitar. (The title refers to the long line of artists — TLC, Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane, Wu-Tang Clan, even indie-rockers Unrest — who have used ESG’s loose loops, and the group’s occasional compensation problems.)
Recorded at New York’s Club USA and New Jersey’s WFMU, ESG Live! draws attention to Renee Scroggins’ voice, which goes from a cool, insistent meow to warm, soulful and beat-aware within individual songs. But the record includes some bad new material. A slick guitar solo by David Miles dominates “You and Me”; “A New Day” is awkward contemporary R&B where the beats don’t match up with the singing. The lone new studio track, “Dance a Lick,” includes a dreadful rap that no amount of the sisters’ stupendous playing can redeem.