Various Artists: The Sound of Rhythm & Culture

[22 November 2010]

By Dylan Nelson

PopMatters PopLocal Features Editor

Rhythm & Culture is a downbeat label based in Washington D.C. It was founded in part by Eighteenth Street Lounge co-founder Farid Nouri and, like that venerable D.C. institution, it incorporates artists from all over the world into its paradoxical mission to combine the groovy and the smooth. The sound of Rhythm & Culture, then, is a kind of fusion without any clear components—a slick, luxurious and, above all, laid-back jam. Dub basslines, trance beats, Latin rhythms, and a variety pack of other international ingredients are thrown together into an eclectic and sometimes haphazard stew.

The Sound of Rhythm & Culture is a new compilation from Farid and his colleague Thomas Blondet, who is also a staple of the D.C. electronic scene. Just over half the album’s tracks involve those two as producers or collaborators. It accordingly has a very cohesive feel, although it is hard to tell if such unity is a result of the artists’ intents or the relatively homogenous nature of the music itself. For despite the label’s renowned eclecticism, a lot of these tracks sound pretty much the same. The typical atmosphere and tone is exotic, languid and highly polished. That’s not to say it’s dull or flat. Truth be told, the combination of international sounds wrenched free from their contexts and semi-underground electronic beats just makes me think of the word ‘gyrate’, with all its suggestive and vaguely absurd connotations.

What makes you feel stupid, though, is sometimes what makes you dance. Even if the production gives you second thoughts, there’s ultimately no denying the groove on tracks like “Freedom” and “2 Sips & Magic”. On the latter, an earthy, snaking bassline keeps time with a tambourine as reeds, strings and flutes merge and diverge in reverberating patterns. It’s a texture that’s hard to describe, and The Sound of Rhythm & Culture, at its best, offers up such inimitable and fantastic flavors. There’s no questioning Blondet’s and Farid’s skills at the turntable, and no reason to doubt a night on the dance floor at the Eighteenth Street Lounge with either of them would be anything less than an ecstatic marathon.

Put this record on in your living room, though, and you might find yourself a bit underwhelmed, especially the first time through. It’s too long, for one thing. Many of the songs feature tedious vocalists. The production that’s not utterly ingenious is borderline trite. Above all, the compilation falls short in its most essential quality: atmosphere. “Balearic Express”, for example, may be a high-caliber piece of up-tempo pep, but it’s hard to imagine it as compulsory listening for any reason. “What if everything in your life was going right? / Imagine having fun and feeling young and loving everyone”, sings Sarah Vertino. The image is two-dimensional, to say the least, as is, unfortunately, the beat the accompanies it. The songs on this compilation that fall short of the undeniable DJ panache of “2 Sips & Magic” and “Samba Soul” are like outlandish clothes covered in cheap sequins—they may catch your eye, but they usually stay on the rack.

The Sound of Rhythm & Culture is one more glimpse into the club scene, or at least one of the club scenes, in Washington D.C. It may be a bit superfluous. There is no lack of ways a curious West-coaster or Midwesterner can sneak a peek at a city so outspoken about its musical individuality, especially considering that anyone with a handful of Thomas Blondet or Thievery Corporation mixes would get basically the same impression. What is that impression exactly? Well, it’s kind of funky, kind of groovy, kind of exotic. It’s the kind of thing you might gyrate to…

Am I the only one who feels a little silly just thinking about it?

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