Despite good intentions, veteran act is not up to the task of Saving House Music.
It's not exactly an encouraging situation when your album's press kit reads like a defense of its existence in the first place. Yet that's the case with Dubtribe Sound System's Baggage collection. It's also less than ideal when one of the highlights of that album is a track that's going on five years old. But here's Baggage showcasing "Do it Now", which was a dance hit in 2001.
Better late than never?
Dubtribe Sound System would like you to think so. According to the San Fransisco-based collective, it is the sole defender of the dying faith that used to be house music. Baggage, as its title suggests, is an attempt to deal with all the changes house music has been through over the past decade and remind listeners what was exciting about it in the first place. But while baggage can sometimes provide a spark of creative inspiration, on this album it mostly just weighs Dubtribe down.
Although Baggage is danceable, pleasant, and easy to listen to, only a few tracks transcend something that you might hear in your more progressive local coffee shop. In keeping with basic house decorum, the rhythms are consistently 4-on-the-floor. But very little sticks in your ear, and Baggage just isn't enough fun to stand on rhythm alone.
In its attempt to trace the roots of house music, Dubtribe has employed a fair number of disco stylings. The best part of this is the funky slap-bass lines that feature on most tracks. You find yourself thinking that it would have been nice to hear John Taylor employ more of that kind of playing on the Duran Duran reunion album. Therein lies the problem: the overall effect of Baggage is so negligible that your mind wanders to things like Duran Duran reunion albums. Or paying bills.
"Shakertrance" is a fairly standardized start, with phased synths panning in and out of the mix while the drum machines hiss away. "Freeway" offers the first taste of that funky bass, but it also uses that most heinous of disco clichés, the voice synthesizer. It's like "Mr. Roboto" without the kitsch value. Just when you're reaching for that eject button, Dubtribe saves the day with "Autosoul", easily Baggage's best track. The synths turn moody and a lovelorn female vocal gives way to a chanted chorus of "more, more more". It's genuinely soulful, so much so that it even gets away with a flute solo.
Just as the mood is heating up, "This Is the Time" effectively kills it. With its catcalling strings and exhortation of "Groovers! Get your freak on / Freaks! Get your swing on", the song is well-intentioned but evokes nothing more inspirational than Kool & the Gang on downers. Four tracks in, and Baggage is already starting to lose its way.
What follows is another half album's worth of material that falls squarely into the "Not Bad/Just Okay" category. "Rideline"'s trebly drum machines and mechanical handclaps recall the vintage Detroit techno sound, while several other tracks sound like a (slightly) updated version of the kind of pseudo-tropical, polyrhythmic stuff Yello were fooling around with in the late 1980s -- only not as playful. Finally, a 12-minute mix of "Do It Now" rewards your perseverance with a well-focused effort that sounds anticlimactic nonetheless.
Dubtribe Sound System itself has persevered with dance music's ups and downs for over a decade now. That alone warrants respect. But if the group is going to succeed at being house music's grand savior, it might want to sound a little more excited about it.