Ben Watt hasn’t Done It All, but he’s sure come close. He’s a talented multi-instrumentalist and accomplished singer-songwriter-producer. He’s arranged an album for orchestra and choir. He’s had international platinum albums with Everything But the Girl, his pop duo featuring singer/girlfriend Tracey Thorn. His Lazy Dog sets in Notting Hill, London established him as an A-list DJ. He’s a critically-acclaimed author. And he’s the boss of one of the UK’s hippest young dance labels, Buzzin’ Fly. Thank God he doesn’t want to act!
If anyone’s earned the right to sound off, it’s the soft-spoken, modest Watt, who’s had to endure more than his share of misfortune and critical bashing over the years. But he comes across a little curmudgeonly in the liner notes to this, his second mix set culled mostly from Buzzin’ Fly’s catalog. “The modern relentless pumping DJ set bores me,” he says, before proclaiming, “I’m sick of ironic disco and sick of mindless funky house.” Ok, whatever, Ben.
Watt aims to “get back to the meaning of house… utilising sounds from the history of house.” His context is post-September 11th New York; but, given recent events, his desire to provide “...a kind of route to a new life. Something to cling onto” is especially poignant when applied to his native England. Fittingly, Volume 2 is subtitled “Replentishing Music for the Modern Soul”. And the hour-plus mix is indeed the type of dance music that’s just as easy to sprawl out on the couch and relax to as it is to dance to.
The easygoing grooves of Volume 2 could never be described as relentless or pumping, despite the 4/4 rhythm throughout. And none of the sincere, intelligent selections are ironic or mindless. By and large, they’re not all that funky, either, and that presents more of a problem.
Watt fully attains his admirable goal on two occasions. One is DJ T’s “Time Out”, an absolutely ace; an old-school acid throwback with filtered, breathy vocal samples, an urgent, hi-NRG synth sequence, and those sparkling handclaps. It evokes a time when all house music was new and exciting, and made you want to listen as well as dance, just to see what came next. The other is Lumière featuring Big J’s “Goodbye Illusions”, which winds down the mix. Heartbreaking vocals are underscored by heartbreaking synths; just a couple chords is all it takes to achieve the perfect happy-sad balance. In the naïve way that it’s resigned and somehow optimistic at the same time, “Goodbye Illusions” is right up there with Sterling Void’s classic “It’s Allright”. Yep, it’s that good.
Watt does achieve a sense of building energy on the tracks that surround the “Time Out” peak. Justin Martin’s ominous “Le Boom” is a fresh, forceful take on electro, and Watt’s own “Pop a Cap in Yo’ Ass” successfully meshes spoken-word vocals with another old-school-inspired groove. But Volume 2‘s climax is too long coming, and is over too quickly. Everything else showcases Watt’s ear for a clean, immaculately-conceived track, but glides by too easily. Suftan Rouge’s “El Wahrania” and Alex S & DJ Jazzy’s “Senti Sabi” add some ethnic color, but are ultimately swept up in Watt’s sonic sigh. Unity’s “I Love You” sounds like third-rate EBTG, complete with Thorn-aping vocals. Surely Watt could’ve gotten the real deal?
As a continuous mix that establishes and then slightly modulates a specific mood, Volume 2 is a marvel. It’s also evidence that Buzzin’ Fly has some real talent on its roster. But, in his singular vision, Watt risks straightjacketing himself. Sometimes a little relentless pumping’s just what the doctor ordered.