It’s no small feat to be one of the leading house music labels in Chicago, the city that invented the sound and still cranks out more head-bobbing dance floor anthems than perhaps anywhere else in the States. But the Afterhours label can reasonably claim such a title thanks to a roster of artists that includes such legendary DJ/producers as Roy Davis, Jr. and Ralphi Rosario, as well as a healthy crop of talented up-and-comers like DJ Heather, Johnny Fiasco and DJ Mea. So when Afterhours releases a new compilation, Sessions Vol. 3, showcasing what are presumably some of their best tracks, househeads’ expectations are running high.
Well, lower your expectations. Sessions Vol. 3 has its moments, to be sure, and it will certainly please fans of that classic struttin’, testifyin’ Chicago sound. But there’s surprisingly little here that sounds fresh, although the few tracks that do suggest that the best of Chicago house’s future lies in the hands of the new kids on the block, not the godfathers of yore.
Sessions Vol. 3 is a double CD set—disc one is an unmixed collection, and disc two is a fairly by-the-numbers dancefloor-friendly mix from longtime Chicago DJ Ron Carroll. Disc one leads off with its best song, “Everything”, a collaboration between producer/songwriter Spero Pagos and one of Chicago’s many rising-star female DJs, Mea, who lends some sexy, breathy vocals to the track. Much of the credit for the track’s success, however, probably goes to Miguel Migs of San Francisco’s red-hot Naked Music label, who remixed this version. I haven’t heard the original, so I can’t compare, but to my ear “Everything”‘s fat, buttery basslines and jazzy, atmospheric keyboards owe a lot to Migs. However much he contributed to the track’s sound, the fact that the Afterhours folks chose it to lead off their latest compilation tells you something about how the center of gravity in the house scene has shifted westward in the last few years.
Disc one’s other highlights are mostly DJ tracks, rather than the more traditionally-structured, vocal-driven songs that are more characteristic of the Chicago sound. Johnny Fiasco’s “Elementary 101” lives up to its name with its by-the-book hand-clap and high-hat loops, but a funky electric piano riff and bouncy bassline rescue the track from banality and build it into a real dancefloor-packer. Irving Project’s “Believe” has a similar no-frills vibe, but it weaves a nice, soulful vocal into its propulsive mix, finding a catchy middle ground between Chicago house’s over-the-top disco-diva histrionics and progressive house’s four-on-the-floor minimalism that’s all too rarely explored. Beyond that, the pickings are slim. Ralphi Rosario’s “You Used to Hold Me” and “Take Me Up” are both so full of gay disco cliches that they sound almost like self-parody; Roy Davis Jr.‘s “Always There” is interesting, but only in a Stevie Wonder-like, jazz-soul-pastiche-that-doesn’t-quite-work kind of way; and Rick Garcia’s “Fly Away” is just plain boring. None of these house giants is really living up to his past glories here.
Disc two basically presents more of the same, the only difference being that here, Ron Carroll provides a continuous mix. The self-titled “Minister of Sound” (any resemblance to a famous club in London is purely coincidental, I’m sure), Carroll starts things off with two of his own gospelly tracks, “My Way” and “Work It Out”, which are fun but fairly conventional bits of hallelujah house. Things get better well into the mix, when Carroll finally gets away from the screaming divas and cliched vocal loops (do we really need another house track that has some strident Martin Luther King sound-alike proclaiming “House music!” over and over?) and throws down a great Ralphi Rosario track called “Wanna Give it Up”, featuring the incomparable Linda Clifford doing a witty talking vocal over a simple funky disco shuffle. Clifford’s sly laugh, and the track’s unusually sparse instrumentation, remind you what so many of the other tracks on this compilation are lacking—personality. It’s the collection’s only throwback number that really gets a groove on.
But even if Sessions Vol. 3 is a disappointment, house fans can take some solace in the fact that the collection’s best moments all come courtesy of relative newcomers. Where many of the collection’s biggest names seem mired in the cliches of Chicago house’s past, artists like Mea, Miguel Migs, Johnny Fiasco, and (E)motion Detectors—whose bubbly, progressive “Steps” closes Ron Carroll’s set on a good note—are pushing the music in some interesting new directions. Maybe by the release of the next Afterhours compilation, their fresh new sounds will outweigh the label’s tired nods towards the good old days.