Itaal Shur? I expect it rings a faint bell. He recently won a Grammy for penning “Smooth” on that ludicrously popular Carlos Santana record. That was probably the highest-profile event in the New York based producer-songwriter’s career to date. In fact, it was almost certainly the first time that his name impinged on the general pop audience’s consciousness. Shur, though, has been winning friends for some time, quietly gathering plaudits for his contributions to the classier end of the Dance and Neo-Soul scene since the mid-‘90s.
Remember “Ascension” off the first Maxwell album? That was Shur’s tune—and it was a highlight in a set full of good music. Then there was his soulful re-working of “My Funny Valentine”, which stayed in DJs’ boxes far longer than is usual and became something of an anthem in the UK. He recorded it in 1997, for some strange reason giving himself the title Big Muff—each to his own, I suppose. Since then he has cropped up as re-mixer on a number of tasty club cuts, most notably for the sublime Naked Music NYC outfit. 2001 sees him working for Body and Soul’s Francois K on the great man’s legendary Wave label.
Bearing all that in mind I was expecting some slightly experimental but deeply mellow House—particularly as the silky vocals of Naked’s sometime Diva, Lisa Shaw, crop up on a couple of songs. I was wrong.Ten Hits to Bliss is pure Disco. Toughened up for today’s bass-hungry dance floors, yes, but the vibe is still so ‘70s as to occasionally get perilously close to pastiche. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a superior example of the retro-sound and full of those deft little touches we have come to expect from anything on Wave. However, I must confess to a certain disappointment that the subtler side of Shur’s work has been dropped in favour of an all out party affair.
As such it is as bright and shiny as a glitter ball and very reminiscent of the French nu-Disco maestro, Bob Sinclar. Yet though much more consistent than Sinclar’s last outing, “Champs Elysees”, it lacks the outstanding track to really set it apart from the whole filter-Disco explosion of the past two years. For example, there is no “Darlin” or “I Feel for You” which lifted Sinclar’s work to new heights. What Milk and Honey have is huge verve and a bounce that will not let you sit still. The production is as clean and fresh as you would expect and the whole thing has the correct, barely updated, Gallery/Studio 54 feel. Still, given the talent involved, a little stretching out might have been expected.
The music, arrangements and instrumentation are a mile ahead of the actual songwriting, which never moves beyond the functional. This won’t matter when heard out but can grate a bit on a home system. A song like “Funkything” would have sounded fairly silly in 1979—in 2001 the lyrics are irredeemably kitsch. Nevertheless, the synth strings, Nile Rogers-ish guitar and a crisp use of percussion save the day. That is the case for all ten “blissful” cuts—if the lyrics don’t intrude too much, if the vocal style stops just this side of corny then the kicking beats and speaker-busting bass triumph.
Each number would sit happily in, and add luster to, any House/Garage/Disco night. DJs like Joey Negro or Bobby and Steve thrive on stuff like this. I am sure the whole thing sounds fantastic in New York’s remaining soulful dance clubs. Away from the smoke-machines, there is just enough panache and variety to hold the interest as a complete experience in its own right, although sameness—that perennial problem for dance CDs—does manifest itself. Happily, after the initially engaging but rapidly irksome froth of the opening tracks, the funkiness of “Juice”, the wicked instrumental “Darkside” and the Latin-Tribal beats of “Rain” make up a strong middle section to the album and add a significant depth that the more obvious vocal cuts lack.
Of the fizzy, more frivolous items, the pick is “You, Me and the Music”, which has all the anthemic, escapist joyousness of Disco in its essence. The use of “real” musicians, a pleasant feature throughout, is telling and, though it is hardly groundbreaking, captures perfectly the abandon that club culture can and should strive for. The others come close but are a little too knowing to really convince. Shades of what might have been are apparent in the excellent closing tracks “Touch” and “High”. These, while still from the same Moulton-like mould, have a wistful quality which is almost poignant. Great strings and piano inject a classiness into “Touch” that its vocodered vocals can’t quite diminish—another victory for production over content.
Once the party is in full swing or to create that club mood just before you go out—these are the two occasions when a set like this comes into its own. Also it goes without saying that anyone who likes Chic, Earth, Wind and Fire or West End records’ entire output will feel pretty much at home. Shur/Milk and Honey have delivered a decent album of well-crafted, happy music with no great pretensions. This project may not do much to further Shur’s reputation as a songsmith. It will enhance his stature as arranger and all-round craftsman.
And, old hat though it might be, there are times, when the melody begins to connect and the bass finally drops, that you remember that few sounds can match the hedonistic rush of Disco (nu or old). The aptly named “High” is a good example and closes the album sweatily but with a smile on its face. Which is as it should be. Nothing here moves dance music in any new direction, it just does what it sets out to do. Shur will make more profound music than that on offer here. Profundity is not everything.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.