The annual report from Watt's ultrahip deep house imprint leans more electro, but still can't make the emotional connection it seeks.
Both Ben Watt's Buzzin' Fly label and its new Strange Feelin' offshoot are named for tracks on Tim Buckley's Happy Sad album. The 1969 record is widely regarded as the best the psychedelic folker released before his untimely death. At its best, it combines Buckley's high-pitched, warbly voice with soft, jazz-tinged backing to achieve the sort of melancholy its title describes. But doesn't it make a bit of an add inspiration for a deep house label and its pop-oriented sister?
Actually, the focus on Happy Sad invites at least a few assumptions: 1. Watt is a true music lover with wide-ranging tastes; 2. Those tastes extend to lesser-known, non-electronica but trendy signifiers like Buckley; 3. Watt strives toward a similar combination of detached coolness and emotional expression on Buzzin' Fly and Strange Feelin' releases.
Those who are familiar with Watt's previous life as half of the eclectic, trendy, and influential pop group Everything But the Girl won't be surprised by this; in EBTG, Watt and lover Tracey Thorn were able to successfully apply both laconic cool and warm feelings to a variety of styles -- including, in later years, electronica. Now, with nearly a decade passed since EBTG's last album, there seems to be a sort of taking-stock-and-moving-on happening. Out of the Woods, Thorn's first post-EBTG solo album, dealt in large part with the effects of Watt's DJ/label boss career on hers and Watt's relationship and family. Now, barely two months later, comes the fourth installment of Watt's yearly Buzzin' Fly showcase -- with a bit of renewed intent, it seems.
This slight shift in focus probably has little to do with Thorn and more to do with the challenges of keeping things fresh and up-to-date on a label that's been around for half a decade now -- an eternity in electronica/dance music time. Buzzin' Fly has always been known for clean, immaculate, deep-thinking deep house music. But sometimes, as on much of the previous Buzzin' Fly installment, it can comes across as too clean, even clinical. Without much in the way of vocals, it's up to the music to make an emotional connection. Especially when removed from the heated frenzy of the dancefloor, that doesn't always happen.
Buzzin' Fly Volume 4, as usual selected and mixed by Watt, shows that the label is moving into harder, more techno and electro-centric territory. So, not everything's as calm and serene as before, and the upped tension offers potential for more gut-level impact. Unfortunately, that doesn't come often enough. Coming from a label that claims, in Watt's liner notes manifesto, it "stand[s] for people and music", most of the 11 tracks here sound, well, impersonal.
Things do start out very promisingly with Barbq's brilliant "Barbi in Love" -- a stark, urgent sequencer figure overlaid with swells of downcast analog synth probes the darkness. To this Watt adds elements of one of his trademark spoken-word collaborations, in this case reverb-soaked vocalist Jennifer Valone talking about a trip to "... the Sussex Downs after rainfall…I never knew a place so beautiful". Then the trebly hi-hat and steady chatter of the classic drum machine kick in. The track is an incantation; powerful, full of wonder and nostalgia, and danceable. It's a happy-sad combination Tim Buckley would be proud of.
But you never want a mix to open with its best track, and Volume 4 does just that. After "Barbi in Love" primes your emotions, Pedro Madeira's new age-y "Long Shadows" leaves them slack, coming on like mid-'80s Tangerine Dream with a backbeat. The mix does engage on a couple further occasions -- Watt's own "Just a Blip" is electro flavored with some New Order-style guitar, while he achieves some mixing dynamics in the segue from Mando and François A's "Magnetic" to Martin Brodin's heavy, aptly-named "Freaky Bleepy". Mlle Caro and Franck Garcia's "Lost" uses simple chords and string synths comes closest to the effect of "Barbi in Love", though (again) it sounds like New Order. Justin Martin's "The Sad Piano" provides appropriately moody closure.
That still leaves about half of Volume 4 mired in pleasant-but-inconsequential murk. This time around, every track comes from the Buzzin' Fly stable, providing a more cohesive mix than ever-- many tracks sound like they were recorded with the same equipment. That's not a bad thing, as it suggests that Watt and company have a clear, unified artistic vision. That vision involves a different kind of cohesion, too, the kind that produces emotional bonds among people. He's getting closer, but Buzzin' Fly Volume 4 suggests that Watt has yet to bring that vision to full fruition.