[22 January 2004]
You’ll often find me in the virtual pages of PopMatters carping on about this or that album released overseas that was introduced shamefully late to the American marketplace, or never introduced at all except as a fabulously overpriced, connoisseurs-only import. But in the case of the London-based DJ duo called the Karminsky Experience Inc., who are just now making their stateside debut nearly seven years after releasing their first record, it’s hard for me to work up much of a protest. Here’s a couple of guys, after all, who site Roy Budd as one of their biggest influences. “Who?” my American readers ask. Exactly. Even when they were putting out retro-hipster easy listening compilations featuring the likes of Burt Bacharach and Brigitte Bardot, there was always something about the sensibilities of Martin Dingle and James Munns that remained peculiarly English (Budd, by the way, was a British film composer big in the ‘70s, best-known for his work on Get Carter). Even their names—Dingle and Munns—sound like a London accounting firm.
English or not, however, the release of the first full-length collection of Karminsky originals has been worth the wait for fans on both sides of the pond. Dingle and Munns share a love of retro exotica and dub/trip-hop beats with their American counterparts Thievery Corporation—whose Eighteenth Street Lounge label is giving The Power of Suggestion its U.S. release—but they bring to this basic palette of bachelor pad sounds a sensibility at once cheekier and more cinematic, making for one of the most diverse, entertaining downtempo albums in recent memory.
The album starts out with the sounds of an airport before slowly fading into the lovely, melting strings and vibraphone of “Departures”—a nod to ambient pioneer Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, perhaps, or an ironic acknowledgement of the song’s Muzak-y vibe. The next track, “Assignment Istanbul”, is more typical of the Karminsky sound, an expert blend of cinematic strings, Middle Eastern percussion, and propulsive, chase-music rhythms played at a jazzy, syncopated tempo. Then comes the title track, and with it our first overt introduction to Dingle’s and Munns’ abundant sense of humor, as they set spoken-word samples of a hypnotist’s spiel against a groove-heavy, space-jazz backdrop. “How do you feel?” a voice repeatedly asks, until an innocent, Dorothy-like voice finally answers: “Fine, thank you”. “Thank you, young lady” the voice replies. “We’ll get back to removing the needles in just a few moments”.
Having lulled us, pursued us, and hypnotized us, the Karminskys then proceed to seduce us, with a sultry assist from Beat Girl, who has an unfortunate stage name but a wonderfully breathy, bedroomy voice that murmurs through the exotic “Belly Disco” like a harem girl glimpsed through the columns of a pasha’s palace. Beat Girl’s kittenish croons also enliven the next track, “A Little Happening”, though the focus here is on the silly, Seussian beat poetry of Mike Flowers: “Take a color like red / Or a color like blue instead / Take a note like C / Or a letter like U”. Dingle and Munns give Flowers’s finger-popping verses an appropriately cool cat, jazzy backdrop, but both they and he are more interesting on “The Wayward Camel”, an irresistible romp that sets Beat Girl’s vampy ululations and Flowers’ surreal story of a snowbound camel to a bossa nova beat and Middle Eastern strings.
In between these tracks, we get another spacey, retro-futurist jazz instrumental called “Introducing Louis Pachini”, which shows off the Karminskys knack for creating great, atmospheric theme music for non-existent spy thrillers, a talent they share with fellow English “invisible-soundtrack” producers like David Holmes and Tim “Love” Lee. “The Hip Sheik” has a similar soundtracky quality to it, repeating as it does a few simple motifs that one could imagine serving as transitional music as our hero, perhaps an Arabian double agent sent to infiltrate an evil terrorist operation, ducks out the back exit of some top secret international spy agency headquarters and hops on his motorbike to zip off through the streets of Damascus.
After more Arabian-influenced music, a brooding transitional piece called “A Curious Observer”, we come to the album’s oldest track, and arguably still its best, “Exploration”, which American downtempo fans will recognize from Thievery Corporation’s contribution to the DJ-Kicks series. Over an insistently funky bassline, played by Gary Crockett of the legendary acid jazz pioneers James Taylor Quartet, synth and sitar drones swirl in and out of each other hypnotically as the unassuming voice of an astronaut explains, “That’s the reason we’re exploring; you never know what you’ll find on an exploration”. This is space age groove music at its finest; it’s hard to fault the Karminskys for never topping it, even though they originally released “Exploration” more than four years ago.
The album’s closing tracks nicely summarize the duo’s two sides; where “Behind the Bamboo Curtain” is all dreamy atmosphere, sitars, chimes, and tablas, “Something for Madeleine” ends things on a sweetly soulful note thanks to a jazzy trip-hop beat, trumpet, organ, and a slouching, drunken string section. Both tracks, like the rest of The Power of Suggestion, positively ooze cool, in a way that’s still unmistakably British but this time, hopefully, a little more accessible to American audiences. Fans of Thievery Corporation and their downtempo brethren now have a new corporation to invest in—Karminsky Experience, Inc.