There was a clear-cut moment during my first listen to Silver Ocean by Japan's Lonesome Echo Production when I knew, unequivocally, that it had serious problems. Anything could have happened after that moment. The Beatles, Tupac, and Elvis could have shown up collaborating on a hip-hop version of the Eagles' Take It Easy -- something that cool could have happened -- and it still wouldn't have reversed the damage done in this one dreadfully painful moment.
When it happened, I was approximately fifty seconds into song number three. An opening featuring brisk, fluttering percussion had given way to an obnoxious horn attack, followed by a driving techno beat. Then the horns returned, greeting the beat with a gallingly simple breakdown. After the breakdown, everything dramatically stopped. Then, in the most egregiously strident voice imaginable:
"Ain't no sunshine when she's goooooooone."
"It's not warm when she's awaaaaaaaay."
Yes, they did. They took one of the most haunting, affecting songs about obsessive love ever, and transformed it into a vaguely reggae-sounding club track. With horns. To call it sacrilege is to be too kind. You'd understand if you'd heard it, although I strongly counsel you to do everything in your power not to.
Is Silver Ocean completely without merit? Not necessarily. The production, for example, is impeccably crisp. The guest vocalists are in many cases talented, although many of them choose delivery styles that will prove offensive to listeners with any semblance of good taste. The instrumentation, samples, and beats are all executed with proficiency. Nevertheless, there's a troubling absence on this album. It's technically competent, yet, like a footprint in wet sand, its impression fades so quickly that it's almost like it was never there.
It's not as if Lonesome Echo Production sound architect Yasushi Ide lacks ambition; he gathers sounds from an unlikely multiplicity of sources. The floating soprano of Chicago House star Byron Stingily (of Ten City fame) is featured on the album's over-the-top gospel-house opener, "Sweet Dream". New Age spoken-word poetry assails the listener on the pseudo-philosophical "Soul Galactic". More words are later spoken, rather unfortunately, by the Jamaican-tinged voice of Mutabaruka on the tribute to tribal African drums, "Spirit of the Drums".
It seems that American jazz is the only genre that doesn't get completely bastardized by Ide's excessively antiseptic take on house music. The silky "Love" is the only track on Silver Ocean that begs repeated listens. With a mesmerizing bass line and the simple, low-key rhyming of emcee Apani, "Love" is faintly redolent of the jazz-rap fusion brought out by Digable Planets back in the early '90s.
The most frustrating thing about Lonesome Echo Production is that the team (Yoko Ota makes up the other half of LEP) is talented. Ide's beats and transitions are fluid, and at times even effervescent. But I'll be damned if there's one moment on the album where the next step taken by Ide isn't exactly the step you'd expect him to take. For all of the vocal talent, high production quality, and expert instrumentation found on Silver Ocean, the listener comes away feeling as if she's just experienced a sermon on soulfulness by a preacher who has no soul.