!K7, the respected German electronic label, must have been casting out for new ideas, because the one behind their new CD is rather unusual. The label brought together some US and European producers, paired them with a crop of young Cuban musicians, mixed them up and scored a mix album with the adversarial (if somewhat unsurprising) title Revolution. While attempting to introduce a new audience to an overlooked country’s musicianship qualifies as an admirable idea, it’s just unfortunate, in this instance, we’re served a second-hand, watered-down representation of a potentially thrilling cultural crossover.
The talent the label corralled on production is rather impressive. The most well-known name is Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), but Guy Sigsworth (Bjork, Madonna), Marius De Vries (Bjork, Massive Attack), Cameron McVey/Stan Kybert (Massive Attack, Portishead) and Rich File (Unkle) hop aboard to help out these Cuban musicians. Coming mostly from the world of 90s British-influenced electronica, these guys bring a recognizable, slightly old-fashioned structural integrity to their work. The songs found on Revolution may have the accoutrements of Latin, today’s popular hip-hop vocals or even reggaeton flavours, but the production values seem almost ascetic compared to some modern dance music. The lines are clean.
One of the problems with allocating each producer two songs is that, despite the jumbling of the track order, the album feels somewhat limited. It makes you think you’re dealing with less than a true mix, something closer to a promo disc. Luckily, most of the time the music varies enough you can go with it. Two tracks by the Los Angeles producer Poet Name Life, though placed back to back, each have a distinctive character. But both of File’s songs—“Lies” and “In Time”—employ the same technique of starting sparse/slow/balladic and swelling minutely over a Matthew Dear-style darkfield machine-drum tick. The limp closer, in particular, fails to transcend second-rate chillout-compilation purgatory.
Still, these producers are generally confidently in control. Cook, in particular, turns out a couple of fascinating and nuanced tracks with his characteristic-clean professionalism. “Shelter”, which features “Lateef the Truth Speaker”, recalls “Song for Shelter” from Fatboy Slim’s 2000 release Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars but with greater musical complexity. Here, the Cuban musicians prove their worth, with a complex and appealing accompaniment of intersecting brass. Roisin Murphy scores a highlight with her contribution. With Marius DeVries’ relaxed, jazz-infused lounge production, Murphy turns melancholy rather than sexual, and it’s the right move.
Too often, though, the material here sounds second-hand, like an Englishman’s interpretation of Latin music. Guy Sigsworth two tracks and Cook’s “Siente Mi Ritmo” may be too tame to capture that characteristic Latin fire. And Poet Name Life’s “Me”, which features a Spanish rap from Orishas, moves uncomfortably close to reggaeton without recreating that genre’s occasional charm. In the end, listeners should hear from these Cuban artists first-hand. Somehow, in the wash, the spirit of this revolution has been almost completely drained.