It’s hard not to admire Ubiquity. You would be hard pressed to find another label so steadfastly dedicated to the simple notion of taste, or more devoted to the unifying principle that quality music produced for and by knowledgeable afficionados can survive and thrive in a crowded marketplace. There are few labels who can compete with Ubiquity in terms of the sheer quality of the vast majority of their releases. From the future jazz of Zero dB to Darkleaf’s bracing hip-hop, and from the intricate Detroit-tinged IDM of Kirk DeGiorgio to James Combs’ well-crafted acoustic pop, Ubiquity remains one of the premier independent labels currently extant.
However, the concept of tasteful musicianship can be dangerous. There are any number of competent and capable musicians who craft undeniably boring music. There’s something missing — be it passion, originality or some indefinable spark of genius — the want of which renders their music simultaneously studied and bland. As we consider Soul Mosaic the thought looms inescapably that Greyboy, for all his talent and descriminaiton, has become immensely boring.
Greyboy — AKA Andreas Stephens — has been Ubiquity’s point man for 10 years. His debut, 1993’s Freestylin’, remains Ubiquity’s’s best-selling release and can also be considered a useful keystone for the label’s ethos. Quietly confident, Freestylin’ helped to define the concept of acid jazz, pulling inspiration from the worlds of hip-hop and house while simultaneously hewing to a refreshingly orthodox conception of pre-fusion jazz idiom. But acid jazz became very successful in the ensuing years, and the man called Greyboy chose to walk away from the genre’s commercial excesses and dedicate himself to reforging his signature sound.
Soul Mosaic is a tribute, of sorts, to the funk and soul sounds of the early 1970s as seen through the prism of 1990s hip-hop. But it’s a bloodless tribute, a funk album without any funk and a soul album without any soul. The music’s surface attributes are accurately represented, but the motivating id is totally absent. In making an exhaustive study of the music that inspires him, Greyboy has succeeded in sapping the interest from his own music.
This problem is perfectly illustrated by the album’s opening track, a cover of Cymande’s 1973 classic “Genevieve”, a track that also opened the Rewind 3 compilation. Whatever charms the original may have had are here totally unrepresented. Greyboy lays a fairly generic stuttering glitchy R&B undercarriage under a minuscule, emaciated bassline. Bart Davenport’s cloying falsetto only reminds the listener of Al Green, who did pretty much the same thing only a lot better. The song just sounds naked, and not in an intense Cat Power way. It’s almost as if Greyboy is afraid to let loose, to really enjoy himself — because this track sounds about as fun as a Chemistry midterm.
The same problems crop up later on, during a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “To Know You Is to Love You” (a track originally performed by Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta). While this song has a much better bassline than “Genevieve”, there’s still something remarkably bloodless at work here. There are small flourishes of funky guitar and Hammond organ, but there’s nothing to quicken the pulse of even the most calcified funkster. Whereas the conscientious funk musician knows how to create tension by knowing what notes not to play, Greyboy seems simply reluctant to muddy his intricate programming. It’s almost cynically calculated.
Sharon Jones contributes excellent vocals to one of the album’s least affected tracks, “Got to Be a Love.” This works because Jones’ unmannered, raucous voice shines a brilliant light across Greyboy’s production. Of the many funk pastiches which comprise the bulk of Soul Mosaic, this is the only one that sounds as if it might have a living, breathing soul deep under the studio sheen. There are a few bits of straight hip-hop, with the help of MC Mainflo and a few guest turntablists. He seems a lot more comfortable crafting hip-hop beats than patchwork soul tracks — there’s some life in the undercarriage of tracks like “Bronson” and “Gotta Stand for Something”. He even tries his hand at DJ Shadow-ish sample collage on tracks like “Big Tito”. There are a few good tracks peppered throughout, but the overall effect is damningly underwhelming. Usually a few good tracks can buoy my opinion of a mediocre album, but the cryogenically-frozen, utterly deracinated funk that dominates the album is overwhelmingly unpleasant.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Greyboy is capable of much better than this. Ubiquity’s one shining weakness is their propensity to cross the line between tasteful and tepid, and nowhere is this conflict better illustrated than on Soul Mosaic.