Bright, sunny, late ‘80s/early ‘90s-referencing nu-jazz is not exactly at the top of the international hip list right now. You remember “acid jazz”, that bland update of smooth jazz that, because it was created with lots of digital instruments and found its way onto some hip labels, was treated as an honorary subgenre of electronica. Well, “nu-jazz” and “nu-soul” are acid jazz’s stylistic successors, with semantics applying just as much as a true paradigm shift. Translated, this means that in many cases, it’s different name but only slightly less schmaltzy, malty-smooth game. Call it elevator music for the young and sophisticated.
A tag like that would probably offend King Britt, a multi-faceted talent whose substantial output has sometimes been given the “nu-” tag, and rightly so. Croatian duo Eddy Meets Yannah also are entitled to take exception. Yes, Once in a While, their second album, features jazzy singing, arrangements, and chord structures. Yes, there are some lush keyboard pads. Sure, a sense of ‘80s/‘90s “dance pop” lingers around many tracks. And, of course, soul, hip-hop, and stutter-step rhythms or “broken beat” are hallmarks. But producer/singer/songwriter/arranger Yannah Valdevit and producer/arranger/DJ Eddy Ramich execute this sound with such style, sharpness, and quality that it generally functions as a singular entity, rising above the genre-associated shortcomings. Most of the time, Once in a While is as charming as the meet-cute name of the act that recorded it.
The album’s best tracks practically demand a martini, a good sound system, and a place in the sun. First off, the highly-jazzy title track swings along at midtempo, held in place by an electro rhythm and those plush keyboards, Valdevit’s dynamic yet easy-on-the-ears voice harmonizing with its overdubbed self. Add the snappy chorus and this sure beats a vitamin C!
But don’t be fooled into thinking Eddy Meets Yannah are going to serve you the same Cosmopolitan ten times in a row, because “Badfairy” goes all moody and sultry. With creeping strings and brooding vocals by “legendary” crooner Earl Zinger, it hits the soft spot between heart and head in much the same way as Massive Attack’s recent Terry Callier collaboration. “Solid Ground” establishes a chunky, soca/reggaeton feel that shows up on several subsequent tracks. The production, choc-full of nifty little noises; the Far-Eastern strings, and Valdevit’s one-part-sass-two-parts-catchy chorus all are signs that this would be a potential bit hit in the hands of, say, Gwen Stefani.
Ditto album standout “Losing Wings”. The lush harmonies. The soulful chorus that infiltrates your brain cells. The laid-back, socially conscious rapping by Capitol A, which never threatens to overwhelm. Go back 17 years in a time machine and this is a classic En Vogue smash. “Losing Wings” is complemented nicely by the sweet, sunny dance-pop of “Baby’s Got It’s Own Way”, sort of an update on those ‘80s “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”, I’m-so-proud-of-my-man songs. Again, the inventive production, featuring what sounds like an asthmatic synth, lends it all a distinctly contemporary feel. “Takin’ Future Tenderly” is another modern throwback, squishy synths and head-bopping rhythm and melody included.
Alas, not even Valdevit’s and Ramich’s considerable talents and ear for a tune can keep Once in a While from slipping into some decidedly contemporary bad habits. At times, the duo’s distinct production style may be too distinct, with the same syncopated rhythms and electronic drum sounds dominating most tracks. This drawback becomes more pronounced in the album’s latter half, which includes fewer standout songs. Even the best songs tend to go on a little longer than necessary. And, at 16 tracks, Once in a While is a bit bloated. A pair of lackluster instrumentals, for example, could have been excised.
These shortcoming only mean that Once in a While is a very good album instead of a great one. Lots of jazzy, electronic-leaning female-male duos are out there these days, but unlike most, this one’s merits extend beyond providing a hip soundtrack for coffee and cocktail sipping. Why doesn’t one of Gwen’s or Christina Aguilera’s or Rhianna’s people give Eddy and Yannah a call?!? Better yet, why don’t Eddy and Yannah get the airplay and hits for themselves?!? A more fitting title for an album as cool and satisfying as this would have been More Often.