Is there an unlikelier dance music outfit in business these days than Faithless? With a sound best described as all over the map, fronted by the colorless raps and spoken word musings of the staggeringly untalented Maxi Jazz, this UK trio has somehow managed to become one of the best-selling dance music acts in the world, spawning at least two bona fide international club hits ("Salva Mea" and "God Is a DJ") and a pair of critically acclaimed albums. Chalk it up to the power of relentless touring in a global dance music community starved for acts with personality, which Faithless have in spades thanks to DJ/keyboardist Sister Bliss' Nordic ice queen looks and Jazz's charismatic stage presence and in-your-face spirituality.
On disc, however, the band's weaknesses can be glaring, and they undermine most of the tracks on Outrospective, their latest release. Maxi Jazz's contributions are more wince-inducing than ever, new vocalist/lyricist Zoe Johnston isn't much better, and Faithless' distinctive club anthem sound, which used to be one of their strong suits, is beginning to sound stale. Instead of asserting Faithless' supergroup status, Outrospective sounds like the work of a band that's running out of ideas.
The album starts out promisingly enough with "Donny X", an ambient/downtempo track that's long on atmosphere, the one thing Faithless can still do as well as anybody. With its oscillating synthesizers and dark, tribal drum patterns, "Donny X" could be an outtake from the band's second album, the somber Sunday 8pm. Somber is also the primary tone of "Not Enuff Love", an odd dub/trip-hop reworking of an old '60s political consciousness-raising song called "Sympathy". Featuring a overly precious chorus and a typically overwrought rap about homelessness from Maxi Jazz ("Dirty, cold, hurting, sold / Down the river, my liver / In bad condition, like my skin / Rain falling" -- you get the idea), the song tries to be both catchy and relevant, but manages to be neither.
The tempo picks up on "We Come 1", an obvious attempt to follow up the international club success of "God Is a DJ". It's built around a nicely infectious house riff, but it hardly rocks your world -- about the best that can be said for the track is that the production is great, with a big slow-attack synth riff that literally seems to leap out of the mix. The album's second dance anthem, "Tarantula", has a more interesting, progressive trance sound to it, although it's marred by yet another corny spoken word interruption from the irrepressible Mr. Jazz. ("I sleep in the precepts you hold most dear" -- could this stuff possibly be any more pretentious?)
As you've probably figured out by now, I really don't like Maxi Jazz, so you might think I'd enjoy the few tracks he doesn't appear on. And indeed, there are two solid instrumentals on Outrospective -- the Kraftwerk-like "Machines R Us" and "Code", a beautifully restrained piano and synth-string snippet that clocks in at a regrettably brief 1:40 before leading into "Evergreen", one of three songs featuring new singer/lyricist Zoe Johnston. Johnston's voice and lyrics are pretty but undistinctive -- "Evergreen" sounds like a tired dance remix of an old Sarah McLachlan track, and her dreamy delivery of the greeting card lyrics on "Liontamer" ("When there's nowhere left to run to / Let me hold you, let me help you down") turns the track into a thudding sedative. "Crazy English Summer" is a little better, with pulsating keyboards creating a pleasantly melancholy mood that better suits Johnston's sullen-waif delivery.
Johnston's vocal shortcomings are all the more apparent when compared to Dido's sole contribution (the hit solo artist is sister to Faithless producer/programmer Rollo, and has appeared on all their albums). "One Step Too Far" threatens at times to drift Enya-like into the ether, but Dido's impeccable phrasing and a crafty soul bassline keep the song earthbound, and make it the best pure-pop cut on the album.
The most interesting experiment on Outrospective is "Muhammad Ali", Maxi Jazz's tribute to the poetry-spouting heavyweight champ. Drawing heavily on a sampled Philly soul hook for its groove, the track has a swagger and bounce to it Faithless haven't shown before, and it works surprisingly well. Even Jazz's rapping sounds better, with a strong backbeat to help him speed up his delivery and stay on the beat.
Still, about the best that can be said for Outrospective is that it contains a few good songs amidst an otherwise uninspired and incoherent collection of tired dance anthems, weak raps and second-rate downtempo and trip-hop numbers. Devoted fans of Faithless will undoubtedly find enough here to keep them happy, but for everyone else, there's not much here that hasn't been done better elsewhere.