3 1/2 Hours of Sunshine
Christopher Smith’s San Francisco-based Om Records came to life at an interesting time for electronic dance music. In 1995, the “electronica” movement, spearheaded mostly by British acts, was at its apex; in ‘95 and ‘96 you couldn’t crack open an American music mag without finding an electronica rundown, subgenre by subgenre. But, as with nearly every media-created sensation, by the time it was verging on mass acceptance, most of the best electronica records had already been released.
It was like a beloved cult indie band getting signed by a major label just in time for its declining years, but on a much larger scale. You could argue that the scene never recovered.
Onto that scene came Smith and Om, with a fresh, soulful take on house music and, more importantly, a fresh lease on the independent label philosophy. Om never really had to recover, but it has survived—a decade is light years in electronica time. And this three-disc set provides solid evidence of why Om is arguably the only American dance label to have made a lasting international impact during that time.
The label has always maintained a varied roster of artists, but with this in common: Om releases have always sounded crisp, clean, and smooth. While that immaculate production can leave a lot of electroncia sounding vapid, for Om it’s always been infused with a natural warmth. Listening to any of these 39 tracks, made by artists from various locales, it’s not difficult to picture the sun rising over the Golden Gate Bridge on a balmy day. Perhaps no other label has more effectively and seamlessly blended jazz and electronic music. It’s that warmth; that effortless, soulful feel, that is Om’s signature more than anything else. It makes the best of these tracks outstanding and the most mundane of them sound at the very least genuine and pleasant.
Each of Om:10‘s three discs gets its own heading. There’s one for house and one for downtempo; these feature some rare and unreleased tracks. The third disc is reserved for “classics”, regardless of subgenre. It would be interesting to know how the artists themselves feel about the categorization, but the format works pretty well for getting a fix on the label’s strengths and weaknesses. The best part is that it’s wide open for picking among the discs and making your own micro-compilations.
As such, the “house” disc is the most consistently engaging, from Chuck Love’s sweet “Soul Symphony” to Colette’s “What Will She Do for Love” (which has to be a favorite of Madonna—just listen) to the highlight, Kaskade’s epic, blissed-out “Everything”. The continuous mix works well, and the only dud here is Rithma’s awkward “Let’s Get Sick”.
In contrast, you might find yourself reaching for the “Next” button more than once on the “downtempo” disc. Nothing here is bad, but the tracks struggle to form a collective identity. Starting out with Kaskade’s very slick R&B cut “Yeah Right” doesn’t help; you have to get to King Kooba’s soothing, spaced-out “Static Society” before things really feel downtempo. You get some brooding lounge-jazz from Colossus and some crickets (!) from Rithma (one of several artists to appear on multiple discs), but the only revelation is Greenskeepers’ excellent “Back in the Wild”—Fender Rhodes; Leslie’d, mope-rock-sounding vocals; and smooth harmonies combine for what you just have to call Beach Boys-trip-hop.
Is the “classics” label on disc three a bit presumptuous? This isn’t exactly FFRR or Trax! we’re talking about here. Still, there are some very good cuts. Anyone familiar with Mark Farina’s Mushroom Jazz series, basically Om’s bread-and-butter, will immediately recognize Blue Boy’s downbeat, scat-happy “Remember Me”. And this disc’s midsection is pretty timeless: You get Kaskade’s bassline-disguised-as-house-anthem “What I Say”, Farina’s melancholy “Dream Machine”, and Om’s biggest hook ever in Ming & FS’s unforgettable “Madhattan Bound”. That track and the overlooked People Under the Stairs provide Om:10‘s only nod toward hip-hop, a bit disappointing given the Deep Concentration series helped put the label on the map.
By the time you get to Terra Diva’s glistening slow-groover “Lethal”—so good it makes you look past another Isaac Hayes “Walk on By” sample—you’re convinced that, yeah, Om is pretty special. Of course you could complain that no definitive Om collection would omit Kaskade’s “Right Time”. And you could say that the label has never been, musically, exactly groundbreaking or risky. Or you could claim that the best, most concise Om collection remains 2003’s superlative United Nations of Future Music Volume 01. You’d be right on all those counts. But with so much good music on hand (and at under $20 US), you’d be better off just enjoying.
// Notes from the Road
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