If trendy cosmopolitan cafés weren’t around to showcase them, albums like Memento wouldn’t have a reason to exist. If music is the soundtrack to people’s lives, it’s tough to imagine Memento soundtracking anything other than a power lunch or awkward first date—except maybe a Stephen Soderbergh knockoff.
A Frenchman of Guinean ancestry, Soel (real name Pascal Ohsè) takes old school jazz, hip-hop, and vintage soul, combines them, and refines the result until it’s bereft of anything that resembles an edge. What’s left is an immaculately-produced and vaguely ethnic exercise in downtempo good taste that allows even grumpy suburban Grandpas to feel a bit hip. In 2000, Ohsè and fellow producer Ludovic Navarre perfected this sound with Tourist, released under the name St. Germain, which became an unexpected hit for Blue Note. Navarre also contributed to Memento, which is being distributed in the US by Warner Brothers after nearly two years of European release.
Warner Brothers is hoping lightning strikes twice. Sure enough, folks who liked Tourist will dig Memento, too. But if bands were automobiles, Soel would be an Acura: solid, good-looking, tough not to like—but also a bit pedestrian and giving off a slight air of an impostor when compared with the BMWs and Mercedes it competes with. In this case, the BMWs and Mercedes are trip-hop records that Ninja Tune/Shadow put out years ago.
“Le Vicomte” is an update of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”. “Shining Pains” gets a funky, be-bop inspired groove going, a’la Mr. Scruff or Up, Bustle and Out. Next is “My Singing Soul”, a blaxploitation-style Barry White/Isaac Hayes rip. All the elements are there: deep-throated come-ons, spurts of wah-wah guitar, seductive basslines, strings. Yet it’s less than authentic, too clean. “Black Women” takes the curious step of using the same slinky music as a backdrop for lines like “Black women / I wanna create a beautiful world for you / A world where black women can bathe / Naked and unashamed in gentle streams.” Is this supposed to be socially conscious, or soft-core porn? “The Earth Mother” continues the hokey shenanigans by adding tablas.
Memento then takes an intriguing, almost shocking turn. “in this world” is a complete rip of Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”, right down to the wailing female vocals and chime-like percussion line that provides the song’s backbone. Only, the heartwrenching vulnerability of “Sympathy” has been replaced by a generic acid-jazz rhythm and “what’s wrong with the world?” platitudes. Before you can even get over the Déjà Vu, “The Way U R” puts exactly the same spin on “Blue Lines” from the same Massive Attack album! Fool me once, etc, etc….
Not until the last track, “We Have Died Already”, does Memento deliver the substance that it’s been straining for. And that’s only because it samples proto-rap heavyweights Last Poets. The ideas behind Memento have worked before (see Cinematic Orchestra and David Holmes, among others), but Soel’s transparent commercial ambitions are tough to digest, as easy as they may go down.