I'm all for talented artists branching out and pushing their creative boundaries, but I gotta say, there's a whole lot of disappointed househeads out there now that Chris Brann has scrapped his various Wamdue efforts and wandered off into the ambient jazz wilderness. As the main force behind Wamdue Project and Wamdue Kids, Brann was responsible for one of the best house songs ever, "King of My Castle", along with about four albums' worth of other catchy, sexy, sophisticated dance floor fodder that paved the way for Naked Music, Lazy Dog, Deep Dish and any number of other producers and DJs who continue to prove that house doesn't have to go all hard or trancey or Fat Boy Slimmy to maintain its relevance.
Then in 1999, Brann, who admitted all along that he never cared much for the very club scene he was providing the soundtrack for, stripped his work of every last semblance of danceable beats and released the debut album of his new P'taah collective, Compressed Light. A collection of remixes, Decompressed, gave old Wamdue fans hope that Brann hadn't abandoned the groove altogether, though he was clearly now more interested in breakbeats and Latin rhythms than four-on-the-floor thumps.
Now comes Brann's proper follow-up to Compressed Light, Staring at the Sun, and if anything, he's gone even further off the Herbie Hancock deep end. Staring at the Sun is a sprawling, mannered mess of arrhythmic beats, free jazz noodlings, wince-inducing avant-cabaret vocals, and great heaping piles of Brann's hyper-intellectual pretense. Despite all this, incredibly, much of it is actually pretty good. Just don't expect to be able to dance to it.
Beginning with the new agey tinklings of the first of three "Meditations" (it's always a bad sign when an album is interspersed with short instrumentals that all have the same name), the first half of Staring at the Sun plunges listeners right off into some of Brann's most aggressively experimental, jazz-oriented tracks. Echoing First Circle-era Pat Metheny with lots of uplifting chord progressions and falsetto vocals, "Become Who You Are" sounds like jazz fusion set to a stammering breakbeat, sort of like Jazzanova but without any of that quiet German restraint that makes their forays into this stuff fairly palatable no matter how weird they get. "Nobody Knows" unfolds in a similar vein, mixing funky jazz with the looped bassline and beats of dub and electro, while "Late Night Sun" employs an impossibly irregular beat and snippets of what sound like sampled Brazilian vocals. Throughout these opening tracks the album hovers somewhere interesting and unlistenable, but it finally teeters over the edge on "Oldest Story", which features vocalist Terrance Downs delivering the kind of so-awful-they-must-have-been-improvised-on-the-spot lyrics that would make even Phil Collins blush. "My love is good," he sings, "Good and plenty/It's forever/You're clever/But you can't see." I couldn't really tell you what the song sounds like because I'm too busy cringing every time I listen to it.
After the title track, which features some lovely Rhodes work from keyboardist Julius Speed but more lame vocals courtesy of P'taah's other featured singer, newcomer Sylvia Gordon, the album settles into its second half, which is far stronger than the first. Songs like "Beneath an Autumn Star" and "Path" seem to find Brann loosening up, letting the mannered beats and vocals take a backseat to the virtuoso playing of his guest musicians (a lot of talent obviously went into this album, even if the results are mixed) and, most importantly, to Brann's own prodigious gifts as a creator of sublimely dense musical textures, which work just as well with jazz as they do with house. "Path" is particularly stunning, a solemn meditation on three simple piano chords with a luscious acoustic bassline and atmospheric background vocals by Marta Gazman. "Hold You Close", which was released last year on a variety of compilation albums, comes closest to employing a danceable beat, but remains deliciously cool throughout, sounding something like a dance remix of one of Pat Metheny's better forays into Brazilian jazz.
After the vaguely African chanting of "Arise", Brann settles into pure ambient territory for awhile on "Surrendering" before opening up the song's quiet Brian-Eno-meets-Vangelis textures with some nice Eastern-flavored percussion. The track is nothing groundbreaking, but it's lovely in its simplicity and lightness of touch. The same could be said of the album's closing track, "Passages", a stripped-down piece of ambient drum-and-bass that, while not exactly danceable, at least never gets totally lost in its quirky free jazz mutations.
There's no denying Chris Brann's talent -- I just think it better suits him to making popular music than the sort of experimental, genre-mixing stuff he's determined to produce with P'taah. Still, for all its annoying pretensions, Staring at the Sun has enough moments of real beauty in its second half to make it a worthy listen for fans of ambient jazz and dance music you can't dance to. But it'll probably make most fans of Brann's old Wamdue stuff go running back to their copies of Program Yourself.