Editor's note: This review is a roundup of recent downtempo albums including Arkestra One's Self-Titled, Blue States' Man Mountain, Flunk's For Sleepyheads Only, King Kooba's Indian Summer and Mark Rae's Rae Road.
It's been over 11 years since Massive Attack released their (insert superlative) debut album, Blue Lines (Virgin Records, 1991). Blue Lines' combination of evolved hip-hop beats, lush orchestration, deep, deep basslines, soulful vocals crossed with infectious spoken-word raps, forays into reverberating dub and, in places, a truly epic sound ("Unfinished Sympathy"), makes it the place this conversation must begin.
If you want to get technical, you could argue that Massive Attack owe their reign as kings to friends and neighbors Smith & Mighty, whose disastrous recording contract buried their debut, Bass Is Maternal (Studio K7) produced before Blue Lines until K7 excavated it in 2000, 10 years late. That album, considered a Rosetta Stone of sorts, is, indeed, the blueprint for the sound popularized by Massive Attack and other followers.
Blue Lines' release introduced an entirely new vocabulary, and modern dance music (or whatever it was called in 1991) changed forever. British groups such as Portishead, Sneaker Pimps, Lamb, and those stateside, like Thievery Corporation, owe much to the Bristol trio whose visionary approach established a precedent and built an audience that allowed musicians to compose using non-traditional arrangements, incorporating vocalists and live musicians and also DJs. It sounds so obvious, now that there's "rap-rock" and "rap-metal" and "folk-tronica," and now that, regardless of the type of music, DJs are commonplace. But, at that time, only hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest were wading into experiments with using live instruments and sampling together.
Through the '90s and up to now, trip-hop, otherwise known as chill-out, or, as far as this review goes, downtempo, continued to change. Or, in some cases, stay the same. A few groups, including Massive Attack, managed to avoid repeating themselves with subsequent releases. But most up-and-comers were just trying to make their own version of Blue Lines.
After a decade of emulation and dilution, artists producing downtempo albums are fighting a losing battle to maintain their originality and their integrity. Downtempo, as a corner of the "electronica" scene, is outmoded. As soon as a type of music provides the soundtrack for endless adverts, boutique hotel elevators, and shopping trips to Urban Outfitters, its relevance, as far as advancing the art goes, is difficult to resuscitate.
But even though much of its vitality as a genre has passed, it should also be said that, when good, the music still remains totally listenable and enjoyable, sometimes danceable often just the right thing to put on.
Which brings us to this crop of recent recordings. From Mark Rae (taking a break from his Manchester duo Rae & Christian) and his re-embrace of a harder edged, hip-hop influence, to King Kooba and their interpretation of soulful house, slowed down and safe for daytime consumption, these are albums that, while not breaking too much ground, sound just fine. And, at least in a couple of cases, come highly recommended.
Mark Rae was in need of a comeback. Northern Sulphuric Soul, his first LP as Rae & Christian (with the aforementioned Steve Christian as producing partner), was excellent. They managed to interlace tight hip-hop-fueled beats and instrumental work with the balance of the album's tracks, built around strong vocal work from both well-chosen and unknown British singers, and, in spots, American rappers like Jeru the Damaja and Jungle Brothers. That album, coupled with their superior mix-CD, Blazing the Crop (DMC), revealed, with conviction, a gritty new formula born out of Manchester, England.
Expectations were high when their second album, Sleepwalking (K7), was released in 2001. It was a disaster. Within a genre not generally noted for its muscle, Sleepwalking is the 10-pound weakling getting his ass kicked on the beach every single day. The beats were limp and the vocal work wasted artists ranging from The Congos to The Pharcyde. It was soul music minus the soul.
With a couple of hits and one big miss behind him, there was no way to predict the results of Mark Rae's first solo outing. Rae Road (Grand Central) is definitely smoother (not necessarily a good thing) than Northern Sulphuric Soul, but it also appears that Rae's rediscovered the strengths that made his early work so promising. The album, comprising both instrumental and vocal pieces, finds his production tight and his beats taut. Tracks like "Lavish," an uptempo head-nodder featuring their ringer, Veba (who also appeared on Northern Sulphuric Soul), proves that he's back to fusing soul with hip-hop in a way that avoids the dire slow-jam.
King Kooba, a London duo known for their roots in jazz and funk, return with their fourth album, the enjoyable, extremely lightweight Indian Summer (Om). From the innocuous house of the title track to the shuffling beats interminged with a Middle Eastern-flavored groove and baritone sax on "A Man Like Andre," King Kooba aim to please. On some tracks they display a style reminiscent of Thievery Corporation, while on others, like "You Don't Know," they return to the "nu-jazz" and funk that shaped their early work. Indian Summer is atmospheric easy listening maybe too easy. But, to be fair, and as the title suggests, I imagine its impression and assessment would best be served by waiting until both winter skies and winter moods brighten.
As far as expectations and surprises go, Blue States' latest, Man Mountain (Eighteenth Street Lounge) represents the most unexpected stylistic leap. With his follow-up to the notable, lovely, melancholy Nothing Changes Under the Sun (Eighteenth Street Lounge, 2000), the man behind the moniker, Andy Dragazis, ditches almost all of the elements that formed his debut. Instead of working alone and making the most out of sampling and production that, in the best sense, was reminiscent of Portishead's eerie spy-movie sounds, he arrives, this time, without his turntables, but with a full band and new lead singer in tow.
He changed the color of his sound, too. From the very blue, very interior, Nothing Changes... to the warmth of Man Mountain, an album that almost emits its own light, Dragazis was obviously ready to explore new territory. Whether fans of his first album, myself included, were ready for this change is another story. It's taken a season to make my peace with Man Mountain, to hear it for what it is, not what Blue States, the one-man-show, was.
"Metro Sound," a song that Air must wish they'd written and recorded, kicks it off, bathing the listener in a wash of twinkling acoustic guitars, ethereal strings and fortifying organ. From there, it just runs, gleefully and with inspiration. I was looking for some darkness, and this guy deals one sunny hand after another. "What We've Won" introduces another key component, Tahita "Ty" Bulmer, and her confident, sultry vocals. On the tracks she contributes to (about half of the album's 12 songs) she rides atop the rolling soundscapes like a partner, not an afterthought.
Man Mountain reaches its apex with "Season Song," a track driven by rolling drums, a funky, crunchy, guitar lick, and uplifting horns and strings. A triangle rings brightly, and it becomes clear that "Season Song" would have fit perfectly on one of David Axelrod's late-'60s triumphs, Songs of Innocence or Songs of Experience. (If you've ever wondered where DJ Shadow or Shadow disciple Nobody got their samples, check out these two albums, or David Axelrod: 1968-1970 An Anthology.)
Thievery Corporation, a band whose CDs are now integral components of the "Hipster Wannabe Kit," cannot anymore be thanked for their music. What they can, however, be acknowledged for is their taste. Once again, as with Blue States and Broadway Project, they've managed, on their homegrown label, Eighteenth Street Lounge, to release another artist whose work is more interesting than their own.
Matthew Timoney, a 28-year-old registered nurse from London, records as Arkestra One, and produced one of the nice surprises of 2002. His self-titled debut, recorded in Notting Hill, is a collection of dreamy, bossa-influenced instrumental tracks coupled with excellent vocal contributions from Brazilian singer (moonlighting from her band, Smoke City) Nina Miranda. Timoney has crafted an album that's evocative, satisfying, and, at times, moody in the best way.
While "Man From the Audience" fuses reverberating keyboards and found-sound samples from evangelical television broadcasts, and echoes early DJ Cam, most of the album's 11 songs reflect the resurgent Brazilian sound of artists like Bebel Gilberto, with whom Nina Miranda has also recorded, and the late producer Suba. The album's standout track is the haunting, beautiful "Shine," elevated by Miranda's rich vocals and saturated by strings, piano and yearning.
With downtempo, much as with painting, the palette from which these producers draw is pretty standard. It's what they do with their chosen elements, and how they manipulate them, that set apart the artists from the hacks. Most labels, looking to capitalize on the public's embrace of electronic music a warming fueled by its ubiquitous presence in television adverts are happy to have a Bob Ross in their stable, producing inoffensive, paint-by-numbers "art." It's those who strive to stretch the form that come along rarely and who deserve acknowledgment. Timoney, as Arkestra One, has done something few of his contemporaries have been able to: produce something memorable.
The finest release of this group is another debut, For Sleepyheads Only (Guidance), delivered by Norwegian trio Flunk. From mid-tempo soundscapes blessed with substantive beats and muscular instrumental arrangements, to effective sometimes superior explorations into delicate combinations of analog and digital sounds, For Sleepyheads Only is, for those fans of the genre thirsting for something novel, a sure thing.
Beginning enthusiastically with "I Love Music," which interlaces live guitar with electronic effects, strings, beats, and the looped refrain "I love music," spoken by a sampled American voice, Flunk are, in essence, telling you, the listener, that they're here to play. "Play" as in playful, but also, "play" as in they're a band with substance, a band capable of taking you somewhere new.
This is immediately proven by their risky decision, almost straightaway, to cover New Order's classic "Blue Monday." Now acoustic-based and void of the thumping electronics that marked the original, "Blue Monday" has been transformed by Flunk and their singer, Björk sound-alike Anja Oyen Vister, into a quiet, mournful, ballad. It's an outstanding surprise and, even if it were the album's only worthwhile song, would be enough to say go.
Songs such as "Miss World," with its fusion of acoustic guitars, strings, whispered vocals echoing Massive Attack's Robert del Naja, and Anja Oyen Vister's backing, register like distant, airy, cousins of Massive Attack's signature density.
From dubbed-out to delicate, Flunk are never too precious. They switch up their tempo and, on several tracks, even leave the vocals behind. But the band works best when they have their charm, Anja Oyen Vister, leading the way.
All of the aforementioned albums work fine as ambiance. But For Sleepyheads Only resonates more deeply than the rest. With this work, Flunk have proven that, beyond Massive Attack and Portishead, there are other downtempo artists, including themselves and Arkestra One, who are worth listening for above the din of the average.
Note: Arkestra One's Self-Titled (Eighteenth Street Lounge) gets a "6" rating, Blue States' Man Mountain (Eighteenth Street Lounge) gets a "6," Flunk's For Sleepyheads Only (Guidance) gets a "6," King Kooba's Indian Summer (Om Records) gets a "5" and Mark Rae's Rae Road (Grand Central Records) earns a "5" as well.