It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Gabriel Rene, the man behind Aquanote, to ride the coattails of his Naked Music labelmates and crank out a debut album's worth of the same deep, sexy, soulful house for which the label is known. Certainly Rene's earlier tracks with partner Andy Caldwell as Soulstice suggested that the dance floor was his native habitat. But give the man credit: On The Pearl, he bends over backwards to forge a sound that's very distinctly different, even as it somehow manages to stay within the Naked palette. Abandoning house beats almost entirely in favor of a slower, funkier vibe that's equal parts smooth jazz, vintage '70s R&B and '80s proto-hip-hop, Rene drops an album whose pleasures are mellower than the work of cohorts Jay Denes (a.k.a. Blue Six) and Miguel Migs, but in many ways just as satisfying.
After a self-consciously arty/poetic intro called "Water Psalm I" (and yes, regrettably, psalms "II" and "III" intrude on the proceedings later on), Rene settles in with his most conventionally "Naked"-sounding track, the languid "Waiting". With a beat that hovers somewhere between house and downtempo, muted trumpets, jazzy keys and a terrific vocal from newcomer Caetlin Cornwell, it's very much the same territory Jay Denes explored so effectively on his artist debut, Blue Six's Beautiful Tomorrow.
Then comes a new version of Aquanote's "True Love", which was first featured on the Naked Music compilation Carte Blanche Volume Two, and from here on out Rene is off and running down his own path, into a world where electro-funk basslines, soulful vocals and jazzy instrumental flourishes all cheerfully co-exist in the soundtrack to someone's very heavy makeout session. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, as it flirts sometimes with Luther Vandross-style smooth R&B and even that scariest of genres, smooth jazz, but for the most part, Rene's take on this stuff is playful and inventive, a far cry from the predictable shlock that most purveyors of "smooth" sounds are guilty of cranking out.
Take one of the album's best tracks, the slow bedroom jam "All Over You". It helps a lot that the song features Naked Music's reigning diva, Lisa Shaw, but it has way more going for it than just her: '70s space-rock flourishes like an electric sitar and a Moog synth, electro-funk keyboard squawks and drum rolls, and a deeply funky, bump 'n' grind bassline. The track comes dangerously close to laying it on too thick, but somehow manages just to flirt with cheesiness without ever actually lapsing into it. There's an irresistible note of playfulness in Shaw's vocal here, and I suspect it's because she's having as much fun with the music as we are.
Elsewhere, Rene spices things up with a couple of Latin beats ("Nowhere" and especially vocalist Zoe Ellis and guitarist Cedjazz's Latin jazz thumper "Leave"), but mostly sticks to late-night R&B tricked out with jazzy instrumentation and soulful vocals. Most of the guest vocalists are terrific: Shaw is the updisputed highlight, but Naked Music veteran Zoe Ellis is in top form on "True Love" and the aforementioned "Nowhere" and "Leave", Caitlin Cornwell pulls off the album's corniest lyrics on "Heartbreaker", a contrived tale of a good girl taken in by the allure of a ladykiller ("Now I'm headin' for some trouble / Now I should leave here on the double") and Naomi Nsombi shines on the reggae-tinged "Never Let it Go". Only the album's single male vocalist, J-Soul, doesn't quite pull off his two contributions: He's got that constipated soul singer moan down pat, but lacks the range to take it to the next level.
I don't think The Pearl is going to make anyone forget Naked Music's heavy hitters -- Migs, Blue Six, and Lisa Shaw -- but it firmly establishes Aquanote as an artist with a great ear for easy listening, jazzy soul that fuses modern dance music elements and a pleasingly old school vibe. Naked Music's streak of solid releases remains unbroken.