It's been a great year for San Francisco's Naked Music. Actually, every year in the house label's scant four-year existence has been pretty great, but this was the year that started with founder Jay Denes' masterful artist debut as Blue Six and continued with another solid artist debut from Aquanote and the latest in a string of excellent deep house mixes by resident turntable wizard Miguel Migs. Nobody else in house music in 2002 can really claim a hat trick like that.
Now comes Naked Music's most highly anticipated release yet: Migs' artist debut, Colorful You. Considering the DJ's stature as the best-known ambassador of the Naked vibe, and the tough acts he has to follow in Blue Six and Aquanote, expectations for this disc were running pretty high. Does he deliver? Yes and no. Colorful You is a very polished, assured record, the work of someone whose talents obviously extend far beyond spinning other peoples' tracks. But it also reveals, maybe for the first time, some of Migs' limitations as a house producer and songwriter. This guy is good, clearly, but he's not quite the auteur that Jay Denes proved himself to be on Blue Six's Beautiful Tomorrow. Ultimately, despite a high level of production polish throughout, the best moments on Colorful You owe as much to Lisa Shaw as they do to Migs, and leave you wishing these two had collaborated more closely on creating an album's worth of material.
Migs raises an eyebrow right off the bat with a hopelessly dorky spoken-word Spanish intro that no amount of sex-kitten cooing by its unidentified speaker can save. "Abre tu mente . . . abre tu alma . . . tu corazon," the voice urges us -- "Open your mind . . . open your soul . . . your heart." It goes on like that for awhile, name-dropping Miguel Migs and his Petalpusher alias lots of times in case we might have forgotten what CD we just bought. Underneath all this self-indulgence lurks a nice mid-tempo track with some great acoustic percussion, a cool Spanish guitar solo, and a typically slick, deep, sexy bass groove, but until the instrumental remix comes out, I won't be listening to it again.
The next track, "Brand New Day", finds Migs returning to form with one of his trademark smooth house anthems, with a jazzy flute solo and uplifting lyrics delivered by longtime Naked Music vocalist Lagerald Norman. It's good stuff, but not spectacular, the kind of track the Naked label can churn out like Ghiradelli churns out chocolate bars. The track that really gets Colorful You going is "Think It Over", the first of four featuring vocals and lyrics by Lisa Shaw, as well as one of those deliciously elastic Naked Music basslines that's probably the work of label cofounder David Boonshoft (the lack of individual collaborators' credits on the disc is frustrating -- not even the vocalists are identified in the liner notes). Shaw is in top form on this track, singing her part with a warmth and sensuality that pretty much no other vocalist in the house scene can touch these days, but it's more than her pipes that make this and her other collaborations with Migs on Colorful You the album's standouts. As sacrilegious as it may be to say so, Shaw is simply a better lyricist and melodicist than Migs is, and her tracks all have a pop breeziness to them that the ones Migs penned solo just can't touch. Especially good is "Days of Color", a jazzy number with nostalgia-tinged lyrics perfectly complemented by some gorgeous muted trumpet work.
Not that Lisa Shaw's lyrics reach Dylanesque heights; but compare her "Seems like yesterday/I was a little child playing games and running wild" to Migs' "Cause here in the night is where we are/Spinning around just like a star" -- the tip of an iceberg of doggerel that pretty much sinks the otherwise seaworthy old-school anthem "The Night". Similar wince-inducing moments pepper "Don't Let Me Down" and "The One", as Migs the lyricist makes it tough to appreciate the note-perfect R&B and soul arrangements of Migs the producer.
Lyrical annoyances aside, one of the nicest surprises on Colorful You is Migs' willingness to branch out from his familiar house idioms and try his hand at other musical styles. For the most part his forays into R&B, hip-hop, and dub are just as smooth and assured as his house tracks -- and occasionally, they excel. "Waiting", another Lisa Shaw collaboration, is a straight hip-hop/R&B ballad that's as good as anything Alicia Keys or JLo has put out lately; with a good video to back it up, there's no reason it shouldn't be Migs' first crossover hit. Migs' superfly soul reworking of his own "Breaking it Down" is also surprisingly good, and a gutsy move considering the original house version has practically become his signature track since he used it to lead off his definitive 1999 DJ mix, Nude Dimensions Vol. 1.
The dubbed-out "Inspirational Interlude", with its Rastafarian toasts and reverb-laden drum flourishes, sounds like another departure, but it's actually a return to form for Migs, who started his career as a guitarist named Miguel Steward in a dub/reggae band from Santa Cruz. "Soul Vibe", another collaboration with singer Lagerald Norman, is a return to familiar deep house territory; like "Brand New Day", it's solid genre material but not a standout, most noteworthy for Norman's soulful, overdubbed harmonies, which give the track a little bit of a Nathan Haines meets Earth, Wind & Fire vibe. "Messages" is a flute-led jazz-fusion jam that demonstrates that Migs could probably teach the nu jazz/broken beat camp a trick or two. Lisa Shaw makes one final luminous appearance on "One Wish for Me", another lovely R&B slow jam. Did I mention how freakin' great Colorful You is when Shaw and Migs team up? Well, I'm mentioning it again. God, I can't wait for her solo debut.
After journeying through more R&B/soul territory with "Don't Let Me Down" and "The One" (the latter of which almost sounds like a Boz Scaggs number until Soulstice vocalist Zoe Ellis comes in), Migs wraps up his debut with a blast from the past of sorts: his 1999 club hit "Surrender", in its original mix complete with stomping four-on-the-floor beat and Lagerald Norman's breathless vocals. After Colorful You's more laid-back tempos, "Surrender" sounds almost aggressive, but it's an appropriately urgent, uptempo climax, and a nice reminder of how far Migs has come from his early dance floor anthem days.
Some hardcore Naked Music fans may miss those anthemic glory days, but I suspect most will embrace the new, more eclectic sounds Migs pursues on Colorful You. Naked Music's laid-back brand of house was always only a few beats away from R&B anyway, so tracks like "Waiting" and "One Wish For Me" seem like logical evolutions of their trademark sound, and it's clear that Migs is right at home in these more downtempo settings. For all his shortcomings as a lyricist and songwriter, Migs is such a consummate stylist that Colorful You winds up being impossible not to like.