Here's an intriguing and very welcome debut album from a newish name on the West Coast deep house scene. I can live without the hippy-trippy ethos that surrounds the project (and makes for some rather silly sleeve-notes). Ditto some very blue-eyed vocals from Rithma himself, which do detract from the music's overall effectiveness. However, these are minor quibbles, for this very Californian (and very Om) melange of new age ambience, jazz-house, and subtle electronica is one of 2003's better dance-oriented affairs and should be duly supported.
Composer/Producer Rithma (Etienne Sehelin to his mum) is just 23, plays a superior (blues-influenced) guitar, has a good ear for a jazz phrase and just enough of a dance-floor sensibility to endear him to the worldwide following for the laid-back house sounds that labels like Om and Naked have made their own. In addition, he is prepared to experiment with different textures, samples, and flavours with greater freedom than is usually the case. Thus, even if the very notion of dance music fills you with horror, there is enough musical enterprise on display to merit your attention.
A mellow, jazzy vibe infuses the most successful aspects of this session. Said "jazz" is both more melodic and lively than the anticipated Om "Mushroom" variety, as compiled by label-mate Mark Farina. Some nice muted brass adds considerably to the appeal of tracks like "Love and Music". In contrast, some of the moody, temple-bell exotica that are also a feature of the album have a sort of ECM-on-acid quality to it. That, too, works surprisingly well. These factors, plus some solid if unthreatening beats, dominate the first half of the set.
Folk meets jazz-funk in the opening "Dream Again". Hypnotic, laid-back house arrives with "Make You Mine" -- featuring some fine female vocals that could have been used less sparingly. This one could be a Lisa Shaw/Naked Music track, which should be recommendation enough. Voice apart, "Love and Music" is a wonderful club groove and I look forward to the remixes. The tempo drops and things become moodier with the sensuous, "abstract lounge" sound of "The Return". Rithma's arrangements have a spaciousness and a sensitivity to tone that is as captivating as it is refreshing. There are some parallels with the type of sounds you'd find on Shadow or Ubiquity but the touch is lighter and less dubby.
"Down in a Funk" (with Mitch Monker on flugelhorn) is perhaps the best of the funked-up jazz numbers but is followed by the pop-rock of "Sagebrush Blues", the album's one failure. More atmospherics (and mute trumpet) with "Everyone's Sleeping Today", the orchestral "Flying over the City", and the downright quirky "Mr. Lofgren", which allows Sehelin to indulge in a few tasty licks. I can't see any of these three getting club play, but they'll sound ideal in your more horizontal moments.
The remainder of the album is a bit too low-key and lacking in individuality (the broken-beatish "I Don't Mind" being a partial exception). Nonetheless, the music is never less than pleasant and mostly something considerably more substantial than that. Once more, the vocals are a disappointment but the instrumental touches are well above the average "chill out" affair. All in all, Rithma has done enough to ensure his place among names to watch out for in the coming months.
Om is a label with consistently high levels of achievement. Sophistication and intelligence characterise all its output. Rithma fits in perfectly with both the general style and the required standards of the company and with luck will be around for some considerable time. Not sure he quite warrants the "new wave of house" title some are bestowing upon him but he certainly shows there is still plenty of good music to be found at the smoother, jazzier fringes of dance.