Who, at this late date, really expected to hear such a definitively funky statement from a group like Gabin? Most people remember them — if they remember them at all — from their 2002 hit “Doo Uap Doo Uap Doo Uap” (you remember — it had that sample of the lady singing “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” over and over again). That it was a surprising worldwide success did not necessarily mean that their follow-up came on the heels of great anticipation, at least on my part. Quite frankly, their debut album — sans “Doo Uap” — was mostly forgettable, slightly funky Continental lounge music in the vein of a cheekier Thievery Corporation.
Their 2004 remix of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” — which you might have missed, as it appeared on the Pink Panther’s Penthouse Party — was a surprisingly subtle adaptation that hinted at something more enduring in the group’s style. Nevertheless, Mr. Freedom arrived with relatively little fanfare and succeeded in surpassing my meager expectations. Don’t mistake me: this is a modest achievement. But it’s a significantly buoyant achievement nonetheless. This is merely the finest in modern retro-lounge funk, and when you consider the slightly shopworn state of the genre, enthusiasm can make up for a myriad of sins.
And this is a very enthusiastic disc. I am reminded of Mocean Worker’s underrated 2004 album Enter The MoWo!; like that album, Mr. Freedom is a mixture of ’60s lounge jazz — think Quincy Jones’ effusive solo arrangements — and modern sample-based house. The results are sometimes thrilling and never less than satisfactory.
The album opens up with the mighty wallop of “Into My Soul”, featuring the vocal talent of Ms. Dee Dee Bridgewater. This is one of those tracks you expect to hear on a hundred movie trailers and car commercials — which is in no way intended to disparage, merely to say that it is so endearingly energetic that, like vintage Fatboy Slim, it cannot help but put a smile on your face. The track works so well it appears twice, closing the album with a Nicola Conta remix, which transplants the track onto a traditional swing jazz sextet. It’s a calculated risk that pays a pleasing dividend — the track is strong enough to survive and thrive in the new setting.
“Bang Bang to the Rock ‘N’ Roll” is a big beat stomper in the tradition of “Gangsta Tripping”, taking a silly vocal bit and laying an implausibly funky bit of jazzy swing — a la “Weapon of Choice” — underneath it. There’s even a Link Wray-esque guitar solo, adding to the kitchen-sink aesthetic. “It’s Gonna Be” steps back into a more collected, Bossa-influenced sound, with Jho Jenkins delivering an austere, impassioned blues vocal over a shuffling, minimal rhythm that almost reminds me of early Santana, albeit with a more prominent Brazilian touch. It’s an interesting change of pace that inserts an unexpected note of melancholy.
But before you can get too comfortable, China Moses (Dee Dee Bridgewater’s daughter) delivers the sassy, assured vocal for “The Other Way Around”, which manages to exchange the straight-ahead enthusiasm of the first two tracks with a sly languor. “Midnight Caffe” falls into unfortunate faux-Air Latin jazz territory, however, which wears a bit thin after almost six minutes. Edwyn Collins appears for the title track, which conjures up the strange specter of Art of Noise (particularly during their “Peter Gunn” phase) backing an especially punchy Rat Pack review. It’s an interesting effect, but the middle portion of album drags. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that when the tempo slows down, their resolutely European irony comes to the fore. This provides something of a distraction from the genuinely enthusiastic first half.
But the album recovers in the final third, which features three more appearances by China Moses. “The Thousand and One Nights” is an odd track, because it tries to replicate old-school acid-jazz in such a way as to remind me strangely of early ’90s R&B — Toni Braxton and the like. “Just Be Yourself” infuses a bit of techno with the presence of a few beeps and burbles, placed atop a frenetic rhythm constructed out of handclaps and anxious guitar strums. It’s probably the oddest bit of production on the album, and definitely a standout.
The last track — aside from the superlative “Into My Soul” remix — is “…And She’s Still Watching Me”. This is simply a wonderful song, with a winsome melody line placed atop a shifting, almost mirage-like synth line and gentle acoustic backing. It’s the type of track that would seem tailor-made to fit at the end of a classy downtempo anthology, just full of romance and sensuality. Like much of the rest of Mr. Freedom, it offers an essential charm that simply can’t be faked. But it is also a beautiful track, a fact which points to the fact that Gabin have successfully crossed the threshold into something more exciting than mere one-hit-wonder status. Perhaps it points in the direction of an even more exciting future.