[14 September 2004]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Forty years ago, “It has a good beat and you can dance to it” was the highest praise a piece of pop music could receive. Now that pop has been micromanaged into subgenres, nooks, crannies, and Political and Personal and Artistic Statements, the famous American Bandstand phrase seems more like consolation, if not derision.
What if “Johnny B. Goode” had been set to the tune (to use the term loosely) of “Venus in Furs”, or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had had accompaniment akin to, say, Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates”, or even the Beatles’ own “Across the Universe”? Popular music has gone some amazing places, for sure. But never underestimate the value of a good ol’ backbeat.
This lesson clearly isn’t lost on Brits Tony Free and Merlin Garnett, aka Harlem Zip Code. They’ve been releasing 12” vinyl for years, and debut album Colour World Soul has an effin’ great beat, and you can’t not dance to it. As for philosophy when you’re having this much fun, who cares?
Colour World Soul takes in a multitude of dance-oriented genres, generally residing in the neighborhood of “house”. Soul, though, is the operative word. Free and Garnett don’t care about pan-culturalism (although their music is universal), vintage gear (although they use it), or even hit singles (although they might well score some). They just want their audience to shake their booties, and have fun doing it. And, man, are they good at what they do.
There’s a small European school devoted to this aesthetic. Daft Punk, Basement Jaxx, and Cassius all belong. But while those acts, especially of late, come across like they’re trying too hard, Colour World Soul feels effortless.
“Fling Up Your Wig” is as much fun as doing just that—in the middle of a packed dancefloor. Buoyed by a weightless feel; percussion, vocodered come-ons, some ragga style toasting, it has just enough chord changes to qualify as a hook. It’s solidly on the cool, sophisticated side of camp. Deee-Lite may have gotten on to something like this if their heads hadn’t gone up their arses.
In case you’re wondering whether Colour World Soul is going to be one of those fun but flighty dance records, “Cohiba” blows the house down with a solid 4/4, electro-throbs, and Mali-style percussion. It’s like the frenetic final 30 seconds of Doves’ “There Goes the Fear”, only extended for six minutes and with a backbeat. Irresistible.
Harlem Zip Code offer up such a spoil of riches in these first two cuts that some of what comes after is (only slightly) anti-climactic. The title track and “Angelpoise”, for example, can’t completely hold your attention, despite some ultra-funky rhythm guitar from Chris Dawkins. Free and Garnett are sharp enough to vary the tempo a bit, though: a pair of stellar R&B-influenced tracks, “Give Me the Truth” and “Feels Like Heaven”, feature soulful vocals from Beverly T and Sharon McKoy, respectively. A lil’ hip-hop here, a lil’ garage there—it’s all good.
The masterstroke, however, is “Sugar Burn”. Mixing up all the best elements of P-Funk, Boys Own, and the entire history of Casablanca Records, it’s so funky you’ll dance to it 10 times before you realize it actually adheres to verse-chorus-verse. And the bassline that bassline! If Free and Garnett haven’t lured Bernard Edwards back from the dead, at the very least they’ve bottled his spirit and loosed its essence upon the studio.
Ever the gentlemen, they’ve even included a jazzy, lounge-tastic comedown. “Where Will You Go” gets all Herb Alpert on you—and he’s the man who gave you Biggie’s “Hypnotize”, remember! Cap it off with the “hidden” blue room headtrip “Proctol”, and your Harlem Zip Code experience is complete.
Rate it a solid 93 out of 98.