Various Artists: Palace Lounge Presents Cafe D’Afrique

[27 July 2006]

By Dan Raper

A semi-strange little release, Palace Lounge Presents Café D’Afrique attempts to straddle the smudged line between smooth jazz and chilled electronica with mixed results. Actually, it’s almost as if the DJ responsible for the mix, South African producer Andrew Mitchley, gave up on the electronica halfway through: from about the two-thirds mark, it’s straight, easy-listening jazz. Nothing unpleasant, but not the stimulating, unique-flavoured blend it could have been.

I guess the overarching idea here is to bring together some uniquely “African” sound with more conventional, ever-popular chilled-to-the-bone beats. It’s funny, this chilled house sound has come to be a symbol of all these conceptually strange bedfellows: the beach; summer; cafes; sophistication; lounges; pre-clubbing; post-clubbing; jet-setting; sex. What Café D’Afrique‘s trying to get at, I believe, is a mixture of the sophisticated/lounge/European aspect of the music rather than its egalitarian/comedown/beach-bound connotations. But let’s not forget slow jazz is for elevators, or trying-too-hard-to-be-romantic restaurants—not for those who take their medication nasally, on some sunny Mediterranean island.

Look, there’s some effort to bring an African flavour to the proceedings: Dino Moran’s “Vuna” is a kind of African house, incorporating bird-calls and an expressive yelp. The track has integrity, though, because instead of a Western aping the continent for its heartfelt call-and-response songs, the indigenousness of the sentiment is never in doubt. But it’s an exception among a group of songs that have their sights set in a different part of the world—just listen to the French-accented sample in Chris Palmer’s “Café Rue” and you’ll see what I mean.

As I mentioned, Café D’Afrique starts with the promise of one thing and, over the course of the disc, gradually peters out into another. The album begins with the echoing hit and tribal, pattering percussion of “Hip Hip Chin Chin”. It’s a solid chilled-electronica track in the style of the Avalanches, with a spoken word lecture-sample “the subject for tonight’s lecture is rhythm”. And when the dirty funk accompaniment hits its stride, it’s easy to see why that aspect of the music would be the subject of a whole lecture. But it doesn’t last.

Instead, we get standard chillout and light jazz. “Dream” by Goldfish is lesser Groove Armada, all atmospheric beats, overt female vocal. “Count Me Out” is pure saccharine pop, reminiscent of Dido’s “Hunter”, the kind of airy nothing that all-female college a cappella groups eat up. In fact this female-vocal nothingness is echoed on a number of other tracks, which all seem to blend together—and that’s not a great thing.

Café D’Afrique is hardly an expertly mixed collection, either. The emphasis is more on the songs, which are cross-faded almost with iTunes-like crudity (the transition between “Vuna” and “Dream” is particularly halting). And when, towards the end, the house beats fade completely away, leaving only jazz rhythms and wispy melodies, you notice something’s missing.

It’s too bad, because the idea’s a good one in a genre crying out for some innovation, any innovation. Maybe next time, Palace Lounge.

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