Usually I'm all for music that synthesizes a variety of styles, especially when there's a little bit of Latin involved. Nothing spices up western dance music like a little salsa, samba, cumbia, merengue, tango, reggae . . . I mean, geez, has any other part of the world produced as many indelible musical styles? The fusion of African, Spanish and native cultures unique to Latin America seems to generate an endless bounty of rhythms and beats, and when fused with the high-tech sounds of contemporary American, British and European dance music, the results are often spectacular.
Still, the best purveyors of Latin-flavored electronica tend to be the iconoclasts, the cheeky rhythm thieves like Kinky and Jazzanova and the aptly named Thievery Corporation who twist traditional sounds to their own selfish ends. And I think my biggest problem with Sidestepper's latest project, 3AM (In Beats We Trust), is that it steadfastly refuses to do this. Where Sidestepper's debut full-length, More Grip, was a Basement Jaxx-like crazy quilt of warped beats and mutated Latin pop, 3AM sounds at times like a tastefully remixed assemblage of Alan Lomax field recordings from Colombia and the Caribbean. I kept waiting for Sidestepper founder Richard Blair's trademark drum 'n' bass beats and dirty synths to wade in and liven up the proceedings, but the closest they come is a few trippy burbles on "Donde Va Mi Corazon" and "No Lloraré", and then the effect is more intrusive than additive, like the house DJ at a cumbia club cutting in on the PA during a folk set to say there's a car in the parking lot with its lights on.
This is not to say that 3AM isn't still interested in mashing together styles and sounds, but this time around it's Jamaica rather than England that adds most of the spice. Dub/reggae horns and a nearly subliminal bassline are virtually the only embellishments on the opening track, "Deja (Mary)", which features minimalist piano, sparse percussion and a delicate vocal from Blair's main partner in crime, Colombian folk-pop singer/guitarist Ivan Benavides. Things get more interesting on "Mas Papaya", which juxtaposes Colombian vocals with the ragga/dancehall raps of Rubi Dan and Jucxi Dee over a bouncy beat that's somewhere between cumbia and reggae. Still, there's a stripped-down quality to this and the album's other obvious attempts to fuse Kingston and Bogotá sounds that was apparently intended to make the music sound more soulful, but to my ear just makes it too flat to work as dance music, and so traditional that it comes off more as a clumsy grafting together of well-worn ideas rather than a discovery of something truly original.
The best moments on 3AM have less to do with attempts at Latin/dub fusion than with the style and grace on individual performances. Intrusive synths aside, "No Lloraré" works thanks a gorgeously sprightly lead vocal from Janio Coronado, a far more engaging singer than the solid but unremarkable Benavides, who regrettably does the leads on most of the album. "No Lloraré" is also interesting because it's a departure from the traditional cumbia sound favored by Benavides; instead, Coronado favors a shuffling, almost samba-like rhythm unique to coastal Colombian folk. Blair fleshes out the track's feather-light percussion and vocals with a dub bassline, the odd splash of programmed beats, and those synths, but the track would work just as well without any embellishment. "Walking" is similarly highlighted by a surprisingly nice sung vocal by Jucxi Dee, who sweetly sells this dub/reggae track's simple lyrics and melody. Unfortunatley, Rubi Dan interrupts thing with a rap that reminds us that, while he's certainly got riddim and one of those classic Shaggy-like Kingston baritones, lyrically he's just not all that interesting: "Shy, no lie, go up to the sky/I've grown into one hell of a guy/Stay young in my mind as the years multiply". Dan's shortcomings as a vocalist are a major reason why the album's dub/reggae elements too often sound cookie-cutter, rather than innovative, even when they're layered on top of Colombian arrangements.
3AM ends on a pretty note with "Llegare", which features some harmonies between Benavides and the album's talented female vocalists, Jimena Angel and Liliana Montes, that will make post-party beat junkies go all misty-eyed. It's a nice finish, but it still doesn't quite save an album that's mostly made up of tracks like "Aunque Me Duela la Vida" and the insufferably silly "Me Gustas (No Me Disgustas)", which are really just fair-to-middling Colombian pop tunes dressed up with dub/reggae horns, basslines and the occasional disposable toast, plus electronics so subtle they're barely there. There's just no oomph to any of these songs. They're catchy at times, especially the title track, a straight ragga number with a ridiculously infectious synth hook; but unless you've been smoking copious amounts of ganja they're unlikely to induce more than the occasional head-bob.
Ultimately, I suppose 3AM will probably delight anyone who happens to be a big fan of both Jamaican dub/ragga and Latin pop -- I happen not to be, which is probably why I found Sidestepper's latest to be a little reverential in its treatment of its source styles. But I do think that other recent fusions of Latin and "western" musical styles have produced livelier and more surprising discs than this.