There’s something about smooth house that wears on me. I like house music of all shapes and colors, but in general I have found that the smoother the house gets, the harder it becomes to hold my interest for long periods of time. I love some of the Naked Music artists, but an entire album by any of them gets repetitive. You got the sultry R&B vocal, the loping bassline, and the fairly deep but essentially innocuous beat—it’s a winning, if predictable, formula.
Kaskade—AKA Ryan Raddon—rose to prominence in the early ‘00s after a decade spent building his reputation in the wilds of Salt Lake City, Utah. He moved to the Bay Area and got a job in the A&R department of San Francisco’s Om Records. After submitting tracks anonymously as Kaskade to the Om slush pile, he was discovered with the track “What I Say” and quickly rose to prominence when this track was featured on Mark Grant’s Sound Design Volume 2. He was later invited to mix the third volume in the Sounds of Om series, as well as the fourth volume of Om’s San Francisco Sessions.
But there are lots of good DJs who can’t produce a decent track to save their lives, so the question remains, is Kaskade any good on his own? Like a lot of notable house producers, the only recognizable signature in his sound is clarity, or, to put it another way, the absence of any difficult or challenging sonic textures that could interfere with digestion. If it were ice cream, it would be vanilla.
Which may sound like an indictment, but never forget that vanilla is far and away the most popular flavor of ice cream. Sometimes you want a big dish of smooth and creamy vanilla ice cream.
The album’s lead single, “Steppin’ Out”, is a great track, perhaps one of the best house tunes I’ve heard in quite a while. It’s got one of those melodies that just seems too obvious, too easy, too poppy the first time you hear it but it grows on you. The flanged acoustic guitar loop that carries the minor key hook throughout the song is one of those hooks you can’t seem to forget. If this isn’t a hit, it deserves to be.
The rest of the album is hit or miss. Kaskade understands that a good album, just like a good DJ set, needs modulation. You need to keep your audience engaged by varying the elements and changing the tempo every now and again. Sure enough, after “Steppin’ Out”, there’s a downtempo track called “Maybe”. It’s got an interesting trip-hop beat, but the pasteurized adult contemporary vocals by Becky Williams, along with some uninspired, canned orchestral flourishes, don’t do much to endear the song to me.
But, if you don’t like the slow jams, there’s a deep house track right after, “I Like the Way” featuring Collette on vocals. This pattern holds for the majority of the album, with the uptempo house numbers being accompanied by the more lackadaisical soul numbers. I’ve said previously that I don’t much care for the nu-skool tech-soul stuff, and I still don’t see anything very spectacular about tracks like the Sade-by-numbers “Honesty” or the stately New Jack Swing pastiche “Soundtrack to the Soul”. On the other hand, “Everything” is one of the best fusions I’ve yet heard of the ‘80s electro vibe with smooth house textures (hell, it may be the only fusion between those two disparate genres I’ve ever heard).
The real highlight of the album is the final track, “Let You Go”, which is good enough to make you wonder whether or not it belongs on a different, and far more consistent, album. I don’t know who Amanda is (only one name was given in the liner notes) but she’s a dead ringer for Kate Bush. The lyrics themselves aren’t exactly notable, but when taken as a whole the song is just a spectacularly successful piece of work. It’s smooth, but also notably subtle, with very slight keyboard flourishes moving around in your stereo headphones and just a hint of some sly guitar in the far background. Whereas the majority of the album’s tracks are competently executed, this one bespeaks a musical talent far beyond anything else on display here. I predict this will land on quite a few downtempo compilations before all is said and done.
On the basis of a few notable tracks, I have to say that I’m looking forward to see what the future holds for Kaskade. There’s the chance that he’ll continue down the road of producing efficiently nondescript smooth house singles for the duration of his career. But the more fascinating possibility exists that he will act on the potential revealed in tracks like “Steppin’ Out”, and especially “Let You Go”, and grow into an artistic force to be reckoned with.
// Notes from the Road
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