Music for the Backbar
Has house music really been around that long? So long, that is, that labels are releasing mix compilations for people who are too old to go to clubbing any more? That’s the whole idea behind bargrooves, the dozen-volume-strong mix series curated by Londoner Ben Sowton and licensed by Ultra from his own Seamless label.
The idea is to give listeners a more sophisticated, hook-filled take on progressive house—a reflection of the fact that big city bars have become sort of house music havens for aging ravers and clubgoers. The two-disc Manhattan entry in the bargrooves series is, as befits its namesake, immediately upbeat, vibrant, colorful, and metrosexual. Sowton and guest NYC-based DJ team Mateo & Matos give you plenty of deep, soulful house. Though the selections are immaculate and the mixing is seamless, the overall effect is underwhelming. Sometimes zeroing in on a specific sound or atmosphere can be suffocating, and bargrooves Manhattan‘s uniformity ultimately works against it. There’s a lack of dynamics and, by the time you’re a third of the way through each disc, you’re not all that excited about what’s coming next because you know it’s not going to be that much different from what came before.
The majority of tracks on both discs are vocal tracks, with earnest R&B and soul singers crooning and pleading away. The beats are sturdy, gently rolling deep house; the kick drum and hi-hat are way up in the mix while the bass lines are disco and jazz-inspired, many with a Latin flair. Arrangements are embellished with jazzy elements like piano, horns, and, on Eddie Matos’ “Set You Free”, the most cheesy synth-guitar preset you can imagine.
Certainly some tracks work better than others. The closest either disc comes to hitting a peak is in the middle of Sowton’s mix. Ross Couch’s “Feel It” rides a very funky bass line and actually has a breakdown. Fresh&Low’s “Controls the Sound” is basically UK garage, with a potent electro rhythm and fresh strings, percussion, and vocal samples. Is that even a 303 on bass? Veteran producer Physics keeps the heat on with the driving, sexy “Hush Hush”. For a while there, bargrooves Manhattan sounds like it has an agenda other than simply being cool and breezy.
The lone highlight of Mateo & Matos’ disc is Bobby & Steve’s “In My Heart”, with a radio-worthy hook and some heartfelt vocals from Pete Simpson. But several other vocalists either over-emote or simply sound generic, cut from a standardized soul-jazz cloth. Though the lyrics on a track like Seawind Project’s “Free” are well-intentioned, lines like “No more hunger / No more dyin’ / All the colors of the rainbow shinin’” sound off-puttingly naïve in light of the current state of the world. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with optimism—when it’s served up free of platitudes.
bargrooves Manhattan will certainly sound great to a, um, bar full of sophisticated ex-clubgoers with a couple drinks in them. It captures the sound of smooth, soulful deep house—perhaps too well.