It seems that the worst criticism a reviewer can give to an electronic artist’s work is to liken it to car commercial music. I reckon the reasoning is something like this: car commercials that use mainstream electronic music are selling a very bland image of speed, or sophistication, or energy. The music that immediately communicates this, that can communicate this in a 30-second advertisement, must therefore be also entirely superficial: bom-bom-bom, without anything stimulating or interesting. This is, of course, a critic’s complaint. We sit at our computers, listening to this music through headphones, while the real intent of much of this music is to make us dance, not to be analysed.
Perhaps that’s why Paul Oakenfold, even after years and years of churning out the same emotionally shallow commercial club fare, still has such a passionate following; this populism that has simultaneously delighted casual listeners and frustrated those hoping for some small indication of progress. Bunkka was at least something new — Oakenfold’s Fatboy Slim moment. All commercial-radio-oriented, shorter tracks, the producer/DJ’s ‘artist debut’ attempted mainstream crossover, and while it never achieved the saturation of Fatboy Slim’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby or Moby’s Play, at least a couple of songs (specifically, “Starry Eyed Surprise” and “Ready Steady Go”) have found themselves on our screens in commercials and TV programs.
A Lively Mind, Oakenfold’s follow-up to Bunnka, finds him in a little — only a little — more of a club mood. Tracks, though on the whole fairly concise, revolve more around the club’s rhythmic pull than radio’s addiction to melody, to choruses you can sing. The trouble is, on his new disc the veteran of populist trance shows himself unable to come up with anything remotely innovative or engaging, even for the dance floor.
Oakenfold’s idea of writing a song goes like this: build up a riff (quality: optional); throw in a pre-set house percussion loop; and to top it off, a flourish in the last bar of the 8-bar phrase, a vocal shout or melody. For his vocalists, Oakenfold ascribes to the Famous Name theory of songwriting: the greater the name recognition of the guest vocalist (however mangled or miniscule their actual contribution), the greater the selling power. This results in nine of the 12 tracks on the CD having that “(feat. X)” postscript. So on first track and lead-off single, “Faster Kill Pussycat”, it’s surprise vocalist Brittany Murphy — yeah, the actress from cinema classics Just Married and Little Black Book. Here she reprises her persona from 8 Mile, this sexy vixen-voice that’s impressive in a one-dimensional way; but she can’t save the song itself from its “Flashdance”-imitating mediocrity.
The two prime examples of Oakenfold’s injection of interest on the list measure of the loop (the prototype for which is “Ready Steady Go” from Bunnka) are “Sex N’ Money” and “Switch On”. Neither one worth note: “Sex N’ Money” emaciates Pharell Williams to an inconsequential echo, while the beat is Top 40 dance turned Chav; and “Switch On” is an inferior version of “Sex N’ Money”.
A few times Oakenfold ventures into late ’90s trance territory, as on “Amsterdam” and “Save the Last Trance for Me”. I didn’t know they still made tracks like this — thump, thump, thump in the bass, Tetris-like synth line on top. “Save the Last Trance” is like a pastiche of trance clichés — from the echoing glock breakdown to the high strings, wordless female vocals, and held-out synth background. But to save the worst for last, Oakenfold’s collaboration with Grandmaster Flash is an embarrassment from the first seconds:
“Hey Flash whassup”
“Hey Flash whassup”
These moments all you can do is groan.
A Lively Mind, then, stutters slip-shod through its unoriginal sounds, even more disappointing as these are unoriginal even by Paul Oakenfold’s standards. And even for those who only hear the DJ in a clubbing context, this disc really offers little more interesting than a monotonous and poor quality DJ mix. If the producer really does have a lively mind, he’s nowhere shown it here.
Paul Oakenfold feat. Brittany Murphy – Faster Kill Pussycat