Hammock House: Africa Caribe
US: 17 May 2011
UK: 6 Jun 2011
Beware! This Hammock House: Africa Caribe album is on Fania Records, but it’s not a Fania compilation any more than Moby’s Play was a gospel compilation. New York DJ Joe Claussell has remixed, remodeled, re-recorded, and in some cases rendered unrecognizable 11 old Fania songs. One disc is a 70+ minute live mix, the other disc is nine songs presented as “singles”. Claussell has used Fania’s original multi-track tapes and his own cast of musicians to create a Joe Claussell album. So if you’re gonna enjoy Hammock House, you’ve gotta enjoy Claussell’s musical sensibility, and therein lies the problem with this album. Claussell’s own music just isn’t that good.
I should specify. Claussell’s mixing, recording, and percussion-playing are all fine, and those are all musical skills. Rather, his compositions aren’t that good. Specifically, the one wholly original Claussell composition, “Undeniable Love”, is something I never wanna hear again. It’s a lite-jazz-sounding bit of audio tissue whose highlight is an annoying “soaring” “guitar” solo played by an electronic keyboard. The Tracey-Thorny singer murmurs about her “ambivalence”, which songwriting scholars agree is one of the worst words you can use in song. (Show-don’t-tell and whatnot.) In fact, there’s no legitimate reason for “Undeniable Love” to be wasting space on this album.
Fortunately for listeners, Claussell has provided extensive liner notes and he explains the song’s inclusion: “to give this project a legitimate sense of today, of something new and something now that fits into the idea of Hammock House.” And then he explains how he and his brother José had to change the song’s rhythm from hip-hop to “Latin-flavored”, so that it would complement the other songs.
Yeah, two things about that: needing to change the song’s rhythm should have been a good clue that it doesn’t belong here. And there’s nothing about “Undeniable Love” that sounds “new” or “now”. Smooth jazz radio from the ‘80s on would’ve lapped it up.
Two other Hammock House songs basically qualify as original Claussell joints. His remixes of Ray Barretto’s 1962 “Exodus” and Eddie Palmieri’s 1978 “Mi Congo Te Llama Medley” have very little to do with the originals, and plenty to do with ponderous three-chord jazz vamps. (“I’m not crazy about this song in particular,” writes Claussell of the original “Exodus”.) Hardly remixes, they’re new performances that use elements of the originals.
Overdubbed instrumentation pops up on all the other songs, too, and sometimes it’s decent. The Claussell brothers’ percussion fits right in, and even when a part is obviously new, the sonic difference doesn’t really matter. Plenty of old Fania stuff sounds weirdly overdubbed anyway, with elements popping out of the mix; that’s part of its charm.
Problem is, none of Claussell’s additions improve upon the original music. Sometimes his stuff even detracts. Celia Cruz’s 1965 “Changó” is, in Claussell’s words, “very minimal: just some 6/8-groove percussion with Celia singing/chanting over it.” He’s right. It sounds great! Sort of like some mysterious Yoruba ritual come to life. (It’s certainly better than her songs on Strut’s recent Fania Records compilation.) But when Claussell gets jazz pianist Bennett Paster to class it up with some portentous soloing, the whole thing moves into supper club territory. It’s the DJ/piano equivalent of William Shatner hamming up “Mr. Tambourine Man”.
Obviously, this is what remixers do—they change stuff around and make it sound different. But—and I say this not as a Fania fan, but as a listener with common sense—the resulting music should also be good. On Claussell’s “Cosmic Arts Version” (ick) of “Changó”, the good stuff comes from Cruz’s original version, and Claussell’s additions mostly get in the way. The song sounds decent in spite of him. It’d sound a whole lot better without.
There is some good music on Hammock House, and Joe Claussell’s even responsible for some of it. “Lucumí” somehow manages to tighten up its source material, Palmieri’s ‘78 “Lucumí, Macumba, Voodoo”, while making it longer. Claussell gives the song’s instrumental freakout more noise and echo. And the three Mongo Santamaría tunes sound great no matter how Claussell smooths out their rhythms, which may just prove the indestructibility of Mongo Santamaría tunes.
Claussell has long been prominent in NYC’s house music scene, but he has strange notions of what the kids are listening to these days. “How many kids… now even know what Fania was?” he asks in the liner notes. “Maybe some of them might hear this and get turned on.” I dunno; at times Hammock House resembles one of those Grammy-winning Herbie Hancock tribute albums, or deep house night at Body&SOUL, or even the suede-chested tones of Chuck Mangione, but how many kids are getting turned on by that stuff? (Besides all the Destroyer fans, I mean.) Straight-up Fania albums are crisper, noisier, and way more exciting, and they have cooler album covers too.
Not that Claussell should have released a bunch of straight-up Fania songs. But that’s what I’d rather listen to, and I know plenty of kids who’d agree.
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