[18 January 2006]
It’s a well-established fact that the adjective “tasteful”, when associated with dance music, usually implies dead-boring. Usually, deep house and trip-hop that aspire to a more cosmopolitan flavor come across as almost featureless, with every element of interest having been scrubbed away and annihilated. Making the music sound more “mature” results in something that—for lack of a better metaphor—usually sounds as if it’s had the edges sanded off; too bland for any but the least discerning palettes. I know that Naked Music has its fans, but a little goes a long way.
So, based on the cover art and promotional materials, I steeled myself for the worst when I placed Affirmation in the CD player. It might be a sign that I’m growing soft in my old age, or it may simply be that I was in the right mood, but I quite liked what I heard. Solu Music aren’t doing anything new, but the result is satisfyingly distinctive. There’s some passion and verve here, and more than a little masterful musicianship, and that is enough to lift the proceedings out from the torpid shadow of similar enterprises.
After a brief introduction, the album begins with “Brites”, a funky house track that brings to mind a more mellow Deep Dish, or perhaps a jazz-oriented Masters At Work (two touchstones that carry throughout the entire album, actually). The track itself isn’t very elaborate, at first, but while it begins simply enough it soon grows in complexity, introducing multiple elements, including funk guitar, flute, orchestral punctuations and Hammond organ. When the track winds down some five-and-a-half minutes later, the complex melodic patterns have transformed what could have been a schematic deep house track into something much more involved and engaging.
Vocalist Kai Martin comes forward with “Can’t Help Myself”, a slightly more uptempo track that could probably do well as a single. Instead of the wispy baby-doll voices favored by so many deep house vocalists (the likes of which usually drive me absolutely bonkers), Martin’s voice is full-bodied and confident, with more than a hint of the inimitable Chaka Khan in its delivery. The downtempo “Marcello” begins like any number of otherwise inconspicuous chill tracks, but blossoms at the chorus into something much more interesting. The intricate melodic elements and dynamic vocals create a classic kind of pop tension so often missing from downtempo tracks, most of which readily mistake turgid, overly-similar songwriting for the kind of tension-filled, meditative quietude that artists like Sade conjure with such deceptive ease.
Solu Music also aren’t afraid of instilling their tracks with a bit more kick than might otherwise be expected from deep house. Tracks like “It Ain’t Love” succeed on the basis of the fact that they are just energetic enough to draw a fine line between smooth, sultry deep house and slightly more frenetic Latin-influenced garage. Again, it doesn’t hurt that the group never loses sight of the kind of pop hooks that can make or break this kind of house.
While the formula is a winning one, it still has trouble maintaining momentum over 12 tracks. Thankfully, they know enough to keep the mix diverse, allowing an acoustic pop tune like “Sweet Thing” to serve as breathing room between otherwise similar house tracks. For those who might have come to believe that “grown up” house music was a surefire recipe for boredom, Affirmation will come as a welcome surprise. It is hardly a perfect album—those who dislike the genre in general will probably find little to change their minds—but those whose affection for deep house is often tempered by the unimaginative songwriting and limited musicianship of those involved will find a rare treat.