Andy Caldwell’s Universal Truth supports an argument I’ve been advancing for quite some time now. Yet, as with most people like me who think they have the answers to the world’s unasked questions, the argument has gone mostly unnoticed. The argument is simply this: conventional genre classifications should be used as compasses, not roadmaps.
In other, less cryptic terms, musical genres are great for pointing you in the right direction, like when you’re craving “jazz” but you’re not sure which artist you want to listen to. It’s not a bad way to organize a catalogue either. Problems arise, however, when we believe our own hype, when we breathe life into the concepts we initially constructed out of sheer convenience. Suddenly, “rock” and “jazz” are no longer categories for browsing; they represent distinct characteristics that we use to judge the merits of the music itself. From there, our arbitrary classifications become the criteria, as in, “I don’t like country music.” An entire sector of music is off limits to me now, simply because of semantics. And that’s a shame, because there are talented and wonderful artists in every genre.
Madonna told us music makes people come together. I too dream of a music utopia, based on the idea that great music, no matter its maker or style, belongs in one category: “great music”.
That’s what makes Andy Caldwell so appealing. Caldwell was once a concert trumpeter and piano player, but decided to turn his attention to becoming a DJ and writing songs. It looks like he made the right decision. This San Francisco Bay Area musician has been fusing musical styles and genres for years, not only as a member of the four-piece electronic band Soulstice, but also as a celebrated and accomplished producer. More than 10 years since his first track (“Superfunkidiculous”) was released, Caldwell has maintained a high level of respect and keeps a relentless touring schedule. He has even composed music for TV shows like Six Feet Under and, one of my favorites, Boston Public.
Although Caldwell is a big name on the club scene, and is well known in the “house” and “electronic” music categories, his latest offering resists easy classification. One retail CD website included Universal Truth in the “miscellaneous” category, as well as “rock”, “pop”, “electronica”, “R&B”, and “trip-hop”. As diverse as it is, the album also goes beyond stereotypes, so anyone looking for a “typical” house record—or any other generic label—should listen to this 12-song release with an open mind. The title, Universal Truth, is perfect, as this album illustrates that music utopia I mentioned earlier. Maybe, just maybe, music could be the “universal truth” that sets us all free.
Featuring vocals by Gina René, Amma, Lisa Shaw, Omega, and Latrice Barnett, Caldwell brings his truth in grand fashion. The first track, “Runaway”, opens the album with blazing guitars, swirling sound effects, and luscious vocals. It’s the funkiest thing this side of disco, with some Eurythmics mixed in for good measure. Adding claps to the rhythm section might have been too obvious—but “Runaway” announces the party, forcing anyone in a three-mile radius out of their seats and onto a dance floor. If there’s no dance floor nearby, you’ll either get construction guru Bob Villa to help you install one or you’ll drive to one.
The next number, “Pushin’”, shares the same vibe, this time with traces of A Taste of Honey and Lipps, Inc. Just as the lyrics go, “I could fight it, but I won’t”, anyone listening to this song will feel the same way. Why fight something so enjoyable? The guitar, the bubbling bassline, the keyboards—everything works in harmony. Track eight, “The Stars”, shares these traits, although it’s not up to the same standard as the first two tracks.
It’s amazing how these 12 songs, as a unit, manage to sustain a steady dance vibe while still offering enough surprises to keep the set from sounding stale. Musically interesting and well executed, it’s barely noticeable that most of the songs last about five minutes. If he’d wanted to, Caldwell could have turned on the drum machine, added some vocals and breaks, and collected the kudos. Instead, the selections go the extra mile to keep things lively. Take, for instance, the awesome track “Warrior”. The vocals are smoldering, delivered in a husky tone with a hint of the late Laura Branigan (I admit it—I heard Warrior and thought of Gloria). But the surprising thing about “Warrior” is how the leisurely hook integrates so well with the music. When the lead vocal sings, “Show me the way,” it’s as if she’s calling on the Warrior-DJ-god to do his thing. Not only does the DJ oblige, he takes over beautifully until the next verse.
On “The Real” and “Universal Truth”, Caldwell lets his tracks build momentum before bringing in vocals. A full minute goes by before the lead vocal kicks in on “The Real”. Although it’s slow to start, “The Real” gets funky real quick. Likewise, “Universal Truth” ushers in the vocals after about 45 seconds and, in a fresh twist, doesn’t even mention universal or truth in its chorus, opting instead for, “And I would, and I would and I would / You know that I’ve waited so long for you”. The chorus wasn’t meant to operate by its lonesome; it works in conjunction with the story told in the verses.
Similarly, in track nine, “The Question”, nobody’s singing the title of the song in the choruses. Instead, the questions are actually stated, such as, “I wanna know if you think my dreams have become real”. “The Question” is a slower number than the other songs, which departs slightly from the straight dance tracks, but the contrast presents a welcome change that works for the greater good of the entire project. Many of the songs on this collection have appeared elsewhere, on other compilations. The success of the set is at least partially due to the wisdom of its song selection.
But the best, as they say, was saved for last, in “I Can’t Wait”, an acoustic-styled masterpiece. Without an outright rhythm section, the guitar strumming substitutes for the beat. Stripped to the essentials, this song sounds perfect for an EP of remixes. It’s a tie between “I Can’t Wait” and “Don’t Hold Back” for best song honors.
For lovers of conventional house music, go straight to “Brand New Day”. It’s fast, it’s furious, and it will make you sweat. With these lyrics, “Just got to let it go, and I know that I’ll find my way”, this song fits right in with what appears to be the album’s subtle theme. There’s a general sense of finding something, traveling, and searching, like in the song titles “Runaway”, “Pushin’”, and “Don’t Hold Back”. It’s also symbolized by titles like “Brand New Day” and “The Stars”. The searching in these songs brings us right back to the album title, suggesting that the effort as whole is a search for universal truth. And there we are, full circle.
All of these songs are good; most are exceptional. Audiophiles will be also be happy to know there is a June 12, 2006 vinyl release for Universal Truth. Going forward into the summer months here in the United States, Universal Truth deserves heavy rotation at the clubs, on the beaches, and in my dream car with the top down and the wind in my face. I don’t have my dream car yet, but I’ll still pump the volume on this album. And that’s the truth.