Beanfield exists in that weird constellation of Northern European artists who draw heavily on the sounds of '70s-era American soul and R&B acts, but spice them up with modern breakbeats, chop-shop programming, and an occasional dash of Brazilian percussion. Jazzanova, Truby Trio, Koop -- all these acts from Germany and Sweden produce an eclectic mix of jazzy, funky sounds that often seem like they were produced in Philadelphia in 1976 instead of Berlin in 2003. Maybe it's knowing this, the gap of time and space between the source and the current European "nu jazz" sounds (which I've always thought owe more to Philly soul than they do to jazz, unless it's the latter-day "smooth jazz" that was equally influenced by '70s Philly soul), that makes them sound so inauthentic to my ear. For all that I admire about the musicianship and production skills behind acts like Beanfield, I can't help feeling that there's just something inescapably derivative about their sounds.
Having said that, there's much to enjoy in the German duo's second album, Seek, which finds Beanfield founder Jan Krause moving in a more organic direction thanks to the benign influence of his new partner, keyboardist/guitarist Michael Mettke. Mettke's soulful Fender Rhodes anchored most of the best tracks on Truby Trio's Elevator Music album, and his fondness for warm, blissed-out chords lends Seek a similarly smooth vibe. In fact, despite a certain unshakable anonymity about the Beanfield sound, Seek is ultimately a more successful album than the recent disappointing releases from German nu jazz cohorts Truby Trio and Jazzanova. Where those better-known acts made the fatal mistake of playing every card in their deck of influences, flipping erratically from jazz to soul to hip-hop to bossa nova to Afro-beat, Beanfield are content to play it closer to the vest, never letting any of the album's 11 tracks stray too far from their core nu jazz/future soul sound.
Krause and Mettke start off with what actually may be the album's oddest track, "Chosen", the first of four tunes featuring the vocals of the pleasant but limited Ernesto. Ernesto's carefully emoted vocals and Mettke's ubiquitous Rhodes make the track sound like a sweet Philly soul ballad, but there's something distinctly German about its lurching rhythms; you can almost hear the oompah band lurking in the background. It's an uneasy combination of sounds, but it works, though at barely three minutes it's over so quickly that it takes a few listens for the song's charms to reveal themselves. The next track, "Tides", has the opposite problem -- its skittering breakbeat and melancholy chord progressions are arresting when they first kick in, but they wear out their welcome as Seek's other principle vocalist, Bajka, serves up a banal melody and hackneyed lyrics about the rhythms of the earth or some such nonsense.
Seek finally hits its stride on "Someone Like You", thanks to a great bass hook and the album's first real chorus, which is just catchy enough to mask Ernesto's vocal shortcomings. The instrumental "Mr. Park" continues in a similar vein, laying down a jazzy, start-stop bassline and acoustic guitar riff that provide the perfect foundation for Mettke's groovy organ licks and, unexpectedly, a jazzy accordion solo. "Close to You", another Ernesto joint, is the album's smooth jazz radio hit, inoffensive enough but probably only of real interest to hopelessly sappy romantics and people who show up early to doctor's appointments because they like the music in the waiting room.
The album's centerpiece, "Home", may be its best track. Here Bajka's given a decent melody to wrap her smoky voice around, and she takes full advantage, showing a lot more soul chops than she revealed on the tepid "Tide". The rest of the track pulls together everything about Beanfield that's most likeable -- a tricky but head-bobbing broken beat rhythm, soulful keys, sweet strings, a catchy chorus spiced up with some jazzy keyboard fills. Beanfield isn't breaking any new ground here, but they're hugging the corners on the windy road laid down by Jazzanova and Koop with considerable skill, and it makes for a fun ride.
The rest of Seek ventures into less pop-friendly territory, with mixed results. The instrumental "Vertigoheel" is too Hancock-lite for its own good, building layer upon layer of warm, uplifting chords that even a squelchy keyboard bass solo can't enliven. "Kiss" squanders the album's best slow groove on Ernesto's least satisfying performance, and "Welcome", a noisy breakbeat/samba jam reminiscent of Zero dB's fussy production work, takes too long to get going. The album's two closing instrumentals, however, are among its highlights, and make you wish Krause and Mettke had chosen to rely less on their guest vocalists. "15 & 8" grabs your attention with a lumbering beat and oddly juxtaposed acoustic guitars and squelchy keys, but "Cargo" is the real standout, with gorgeously warm yet ominous chords anchoring a melancholy accordion and horns.
Seek is the kind of album that takes a few listens to fully appreciate; under the perhaps overly trite vocals and the sleek, polished production values, the tracks are deceptively complex, with beats that are aggressive but seldom make you want to jump out of your chair and start dancing. For all its flaws, it's still worth taking the time to get acquainted with Beanfield's sophomore effort. For once, those Philly soul influences haven't lost all their soul on their journey to Northern Europe.