Burn out or fade away, just don’t release an overproduced and often dull electronic jazz-soul album. Drum and bass pioneers 4hero take the path Neil Young failed to mention in their first release in six years. The London-based duo’s Play with the Changes occasionally works when the right vocalist is found. More often, songs straddle the line between background restaurant music and soul-lite. There are countless downtempo and acid-jazz outfits that create a forgettable jazz café sound, but it is most disappointing when it comes from such prolific innovators. Even worse is that 4hero has shown that it can integrate its acid-jazz yearnings into its early drum and base framework. Dennis “Dego” McFarlane and Mark “Marc Mac” Clair added onto the existing neo-soul sound with the breakbeat/downtempo gem Creating Patterns. The Mercury Prize-winning duo successfully updated Minnie Ripperton’s “Les Fleur”, and finally gave Jill Scott the instrumental backing she needs but rarely gets on “Another Day”.
Like its last release, Play with the Changes starts strong with “Morning Child”, which kicks off with a Curtis Mayfield-like groove that works surprisingly well with the almost too-smooth vocals of Carina Andersson. Female jazz vocals often require a distinct edge, akin to Nina Simone or Billie Holliday, but Anderson, who helped make 4hero’s “Les Fleur” a hit, makes it work. The former jungle duo isn’t so lucky with “Take My Time”, featuring Jack Davey. The funky breakbeat works, but without a signature vocalist it becomes more of a cooling down than a soul workout. The collaboration with Face on “Look Inside” is a throwback to 4hero’s early house. Unfortunately, the early ‘90s sound triggers a tinge of nostalgia that is quickly swallowed up by its staleness. If anything, the album suffers from not enough weak vocals. There needs to be a gender balance. Not that “Give In” isn’t testosterone drenched, but Darien Brockington and Phonte, of Little Brother, help offset the album’s syrupy sweet female vocals. It sounds like a lost b-side from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, and that translates to an a-side soul classic. This transitions well into “Play with the Changes”, partly because the album’s title track features Larry Mizell, who wrote and produced for Marvin Gaye and the Jackson Five.
Things begin to go stale around midway through when the female vocalists all seem to run together. Nothing is offensive, nor is it anything to turn up, either. For instance, Brazilian Bembe Segue’s performance becomes null once the beat becomes obnoxious three minutes through the song. Roy Ayers and Sun Ra’s influence is heard, but the songs still fail to groove. There is a little bounce, but nothing to stay with you after the songs are over. The same goes for the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman.” Nothing is added or tweaked, and what is left is a sly doppelganger to the original space-funk hit.
The last highlight on the album unsurprisingly features downtempo goddess Ursula Rucker. Finally, an edge is shown in the previous 4hero collaborator’s storytelling of spiritual rebirth on “Awakening”. The strings complement her perfectly, so the flow doesn’t unravel into a so-called deep poetry jam. Rucker sounds like she actually feels the soul. It’s something more in the voice that makes the listener take a break from dinner or cocktail and wonder what brought the music from the background to the forefront. There should be no worries that 4hero won’t recapture the momentum and groove it has displayed throughout the last 15 years. But until that time, fans will have to get by with the duo’s recently released The Remix Album for jazzy, deep soul with an electronic breakbeat that’s truly worth your attention.