One of the most rewarding pleasures in music is the gleefully selfish sensation of having your very own private band. I'm not talking about a band where you actually play music yourself (although that certainly has its advantages). I'm referring to the conspiratorial glee of finding a fantastic group that has everything you like about music all rolled into one package, but that nobody else knows about.
Of course, we all know someone who says they bought Murmur off the rack the day it came out, or whose father claims to have frequented the Cavern Club while stationed in Germany during the early '60s. But both R.E.M. and the Beatles eventually blew up rather big (or hadn't you heard?), so any parochial notions of private ownership on the part of certain well-connected fans were blown to the winds. But there will always be someone around the corner to tell you that they saw Captain Beefheart, and how it was the greatest experience of their lives.
In the microcosm of house music my wife and I were especially lucky to be among the very first American fans to catch wind of an extraordinary sound emanating from Devonshire, England. The Rurals' Sweeter Sounds album was released stateside in October of 2001. It received some limited attention on the college radio circuit (thanks to the efforts of folks such as Aaron Michaelson, then of Green Galactic) but the album itself failed to make much of an impact on the American scene.
Which was a shame. This was about the same time that Astralwerk's now-defunct deal with Naked Music was introducing that label's distinctive deep house style to a broader nationwide audience. Deep house has become a consistently popular genre among American electronic music aficionados. But as much as I like some of Naked's output, however, it pales in comparison to the Rurals' instantly recognizable and effortlessly cosmopolitan sound.
So the Rurals remain less a Beatles than a Beefheart, endlessly engrossing to a small coterie of adherents but practically unknown to most Americans, even most house fans. The release of their latest album, Messages, threatens to leave this status quo relatively intact.
If you've never heard the Rurals, they have one of the most pleasingly crisp sounds in all of house music. Their sound remains understated and sophisticated even as they incorporate elements from the techno and tech-house subgenres. The backbone remains soulful jazz, and this serves them well on every track on Messages.
The problem with Messages is that it is only partially a house record. There are a few downtempo tracks, songs that owe more in atmosphere and execution to Sade than Deep Dish. These are something of a disappointment, as they do not play to the group's advantages. Marie, AKA "Tweek", is nowhere near as accomplished a vocalist as the aforementioned Sade, so attempts to showcase her voice in a similar manner, on tracks such as "Serious" and "True", fall unfortunately flat.
But when they get a solid beat under their feet, the Rurals remain unstoppable. The album kicks off with a surprisingly wan mellow breaks number, "Do It for Love", but kicks into high gear with the title track. "Messages" begins with a lonely kick drum playing against a simple bongo break. Elements are slowly added as the track builds into a joyously understated, slightly acid-influenced groove.
One of the album's best tracks, "Rebel", is built on a glistening Detroit rhythm section. There's a subtle melodic movement that underlies the entire track, the kind of sweeping bass line that can build and sustain momentum at the peak of a successful set in a packed club. "Blame" plays around with a similarly boisterous techno beat, with similarly pleasing results.
"Habits", a surprisingly orthodox house number, is also a collaboration with the producer Bazil. Of all the tracks on the album, it's a spotlight for subtle instrumentation by the Rurals' founding member, Andy Compton. Compton supplies efficaciously funky guitar and organ flourishes, while also providing the track's dangerously funky minimal bass line. "Mainbreak" is perhaps the album's most adventurous track, featuring Compton's most inspired guitar playing offset against some hypnotically psychedelic grooves.
The Rurals remain a consistently pleasing group, easily one of the very best deep house outfits in the world. The problem is that some of their tracks stray from the house format, and when they lose that propulsive beat under their feet they also lose their bearings, with tragic results. "Tweek" is not as strong a vocalist as she thinks she is, and attempts to showcase her voice will invariably succeed in spotlighting the group's weakest link.