[8 August 2004]
You have heard Cottonbelly before. Even if the name means nothing to you, I can promise you that you have heard his very distinctive production work numerous times. Even if his secret identity of Stuart Matthewman doesn’t ring a bell, that doesn’t mean anything. You’ve still heard his music. Trust me, this is not a bet you want to make.
Matthewman is perhaps more famous as the programmer and multi-instrumentalist behind one of the most popular worldwide soul phenoms of the last two decades, Sade. Of the forty million albums that Sade has sold across the planet, Matthewman’s distinctively crisp, dub-influenced programming has been the backbone of every single one. He’s also played guitar and saxophone on these records. He’s partially responsible for the career of another nu-soul giant, Maxwell. To top it all off, he’s also the studio mastermind behind Sweetback, the acclaimed new jazz group that moonlights as Sade’s own backup band. So, chances are that even if you’d never heard of Matthewman or Cottonbelly, you have heard Sade at some point, and if you’ve heard Sade, you probably have a good idea of what to expect here.
The same brand of sultry and cosmopolitan jazz-influenced dub soul that makes Sade such a distinctive presence on the pop charts also dominates Cottonbelly’s solo work. If anything, perhaps the beats are slightly more aggressive than you would expect to hear on a Sade record, but that is perhaps a slight distinction.
Sade herself makes an appearance here, in the form of Cottonbelly’s remix of 2000’s “By Your Side”. Whereas the original was mournful and melancholy, Matthewman takes the mellow guitar work and gentle hip-hop of the original and replaces it with a more combative afrobeat rhythm. It flips the mood of the song on its ear, from an elegy to a defiant statement of purpose. It’s sexy and confident where the original was sultry and sad, and it’s a masterful example of the remixer’s art.
Cottonbelly’s own tracks drift consistently towards the realm of smooth dub. The album begins with “Edge Test 1”, which is also the earliest track on this album, dating from 1993. If the technique sounds a tad primitive in comparison to some of the later tracks on display, that hardly subtracts from the appeal. 1994’s “Real Inspiration” adds a dash of ominous soul instrumentation to the already melancholy dub soundscape.
His remix of Noiseshaper’s 2002 track “The Only Redeemer” places his early dub experiments in continuity with a more fully-formed, house-influenced style. However, whereas many of his ealier beats are deep and rich, this track reflects the style circa ‘02, with a crisp and lean two-step influenced shuffle. Reggae legend Gregory Isaac’s “Night Nurse”, from 1997, is transformed into an epic slab of dark dub with the help of Indian tabla rhythms and subtly swooping synths.
The most recent remix on the disc, Sky-Fi and Manjit’s “Take Me Away”, sees a fully mature evolution of Matthewman’s style. While still very much a dub track, “Take Me Away” also has a much more nuanced breakbeat underneath, adding a degree of rhythmic sophistication to an already distinctive sound and continuing the evolution from ‘02’s “The Only Redeemer”.
Maxwell’s “Luxury” is one of the disc’s standout remixes. Matthewman places a darkly frenetic, techno-influenced break over a dubby bass rumble, with faint orchestral flourishes alongside Maxwell’s oddly distant alto. It’s a deeply subtle piece of work. However, the album’s best mix would probably have to be the Ananda Project’s “I Hear You Dreaming”, which takes the Ananda Project’s already Afro-centric house sound and places it atop a bed of pulsating African percussion with just the hint of a jazzy snare riding atop.
The album finishes with a trio of Matthewman’s own productions from the mid-‘90s. While “Intense Dub” is another slow-cooked dub in the same vein as “Real Inspiration”, “Speechless” is a surprisingly smooth jazz workout, with only a faint taste of reggae. The sly, strong beat is the real star here, underlying a deceptively intense rhythm that is sure to make this a favorite among the nu-jazz set. The album ends with “Give Thanks and Praise”, an uncharacteristically melodic dub track that places Matthewman’s jazzy guitar and melodica work alongside the more ominous reggae beats that fuel the majority of his production.
X Amounts of Niceness amounts to a compelling look at the back pages of one of the pop world’s more underrated talents. There’s nothing here that will knock your proverbial socks off, but that’s the point. The pleasure of listening to Cottonbelly, as with Sade, is the pleasure of allowing unassuming virtuosity to creep into the perimeter of your awareness quite subtly, like a thief in the night.