Various Artists: French Sessions 6

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By Maurice Bottomley

There are still branches of House that have not forgotten the genre’s roots in Disco. There is also House that remembers the days of jazz-funk and re-fashions them for the 21st century. These are the records that the mainstream dance mags can’t cope with and call “Dadhouse” (if it has a disco flavour) or “noodly and chin-stroking” (if it’s deep and jazzy). Perhaps it is not House at all but simply uptempo nu-soul for today’s dancefloor. Anyway, all of the above are what Distance cares about. The French label has kept the flag flying for this small corner of the club world for over five years. With Julia McKnight’s “Finally” scoring heavily this summer amidst the bosh-bosh nonsense that Ibiza is now home to, Distance, who first broke that massive tune, are making even the likes of Mixmag sit up and take notice. Soulfulness is back.

Not that they were ever completely alone. In the States, Guidance, King Street and a number of other labels have, in the words of the Northern Soul community, also “Kept the Faith”. Yet, if any European imprint could be relied upon for sticking to the plot while the BPMs all round went up and up, it was this Paris based company. The twelves appeared less frequently than one would have liked but in recent times the compilations have just poured out. For those into this material—every new release was bought on spec. Who cared if you already owned half the tracks? There was bound to be some gem that had slipped the net.

Nothing has exemplified the label’s musical policy better than the series of French Sessions, which consist of mixes put together by leading French DJs. This sixth release, sequenced by DJ Rork, sticks to the same vibe and keeps the quality control firmly in place. If you have missed out on the whole “real House” phenomenon, if you stopped listening to the post-Paradise sounds of Chicago, New Jersey and New York in about 1989, this is as good a place as any to start catching up. If you quite like dance music—but wish they would write some proper songs—then go directly to the opening cut.

That slice of very superior pop comes courtesy of DJ Rork himself, in his producer’s guise and as Seria label boss, under the name Soldiers of Twilight. “Believe” is blessed with crisp, choppy guitar, a skipping beat and a keyboard pattern that the word infectious was designed for. Over this, vocalist Lady Bird comes on like Stevie Nicks in a more soulful reincarnation and makes the most of lyrics that do not, for a change, make you cringe. Oddly, the words and music manage to be both poignant and joyously positive. By the end of the track, when Lady Bird gets all sensual and skittish around the melody, the album has already justified itself.

Not quite as original, but very welcome, is the Savannah feat. Chezere second track. “The Right Time” is an urgent but never hectic piece of New York Garage—except, in keeping with these global times, it is actually French. It is the sort of upbeat, uplifting cut that Kerri Chandler has been championing for longer than I care to remember. One for the Modern Soulboys who are starting to latch on to this variant of their beloved ‘70s sound, now that they have overcome their allergy to the four to the floor beat.

And so to track four, Julia McKnight’s “Finally”. It might just be that 10 years from now this generation of night-people will look on this record in the same way that we now regard Linda Clifford’s “Runaway Love” or Loleatta Holloway’s “Love Sensation”. Like them, this is a great dance tune but, somehow, so much more. It is one of those songs that you remember when you first heard it and perhaps when you first asked the DJ to play it again. For me, it absolutely defines Soulful House—great lyrics (which turn out, apparently, to be about dying and meeting God), a wonderful remix from Masters at Work, and gospelly vocals over a nu-disco beat. It first surfaced a couple of years ago on a Kings of Tomorrow set and I’m still not sick of it. The mix here is the Louie Vega Dub, which is the slinkiest version yet, although you will still need the vocal mixes for full anthemic effect.

The rest of the selections do not quite sustain this level of excellence but do bounce along very engagingly. There is a “Latin” section including Del Vegas’ delightful “Felicidad”, while the powerhouse UBP are represented by the four-year-old dub of Michael Proctor’s “Fall Down”—a brass-led, Salsoul Orchestra affair that oozes class. Richard Les Crees is in there too, though his fusion flavours sound a little over-familiar and the vocals are somewhat insipid.

Switzerland’s Stephane Attias digs a little deeper with, the Andy Bey (I think) sampling, “Listen Luv”. On the whole, however, the moodier side of Distance is noticeably absent on this collection, which is situated at the frothier, floor-friendly end of the scale. Given that, the stylistic (and geographical) spread is more varied than one would expect. American Classic House sounds come in the form of Jay J’s two contributions (“Power” and “Soul of a Man”)—each with typically striking keyboard riffs. Canada’s growing reputation for jazz grooves is enhanced by Fred Everything’s groove-heavy mix of Kavita’s “Gypsy”. Fittingly, the so-French-it’s-not-true “Amour” by Julien Jabre brings proceedings to a sophisticated close.

French Sessions and the sister series, the unmixed My House collections, are as reliable as compilations get. Rork’s offering is a more partyish, sunny affair than has been the norm. It might seem a little lightweight if you are more into Kevin Yost or DJ Deep, two artists who have found a good home at Distance. Yet, those who have worried that the company was moving too far from its club base towards home-listening should be reassured by Volume Six’s floor-friendly orientation. An expanding audience of “mature clubbers” will need little encouragement to add this to their list of essential purchases. The success of “Finally” might also draw in a few less seasoned heads. If so, they are in for a treat.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/various-frenchsessions6/