Good to see Japan's Silent Poets getting an American release through Atlantic picking up on their output for the innovative Parisian label, Yellow. What with Blue Note releasing St. Germain and other French acts, it looks like American labels are finally taking notice of the global jazz-dance scene. In this instance "jazz-dance" is stretching it a bit -- jazzy and sometimes danceable might be fairer. "Chill-out" is probably how this will be marketed -- but that term, which too often means lazy, dope-driven pop-electronica, doesn't do justice to the material on offer here, which is engaging, subtle and only occasionally soporific.
This is actually not a "pure" Silent Poets album, consisting as it does mostly of re-mixes. It is really the new Yellow remix set with a couple of tracks from the last album thrown in and the running order jumbled up. However, you get enough of what the (recently disbanded) duo are about as the re-mixers all share the same category-bending tendencies. Anyway, names such as Taxi, Extended Spirit, King Britt, Tom & Joyce and Restless Soul are enough to ensure interest as they represent the cream of their particular crop. This is a scene where the re-rub and the original are of equivalent status -- and in many cases the original is often just an excuse for the inventiveness to begin.
On offer, then, are two original tracks and eight remixes -- all fairly downtempo and futuristically ambient. Eclectic too -- hip-hop, dub, jazz, Latin, classical -- a whole gamut of styles find their way on to this menu. The result is satisfying -- not overwhelming -- but substantial enough to merit attention. As an introduction to both the Poets and the leftfield club scene it has the benefit of displaying both the strengths and the weaknesses of this anti-genre genre.
The opening cut, "I Will Miss...", is one of those dreamy, vaguely English village-green, psychedelic pieces. Nicely put together with a gorgeous, sampled acoustic bass, it has that over-used folksy female vocal overlay which rambles on about colours and star signs. Wonderful if you have just ingested some mushrooms but rather wet otherwise. There is too much of this stuff around -- has been ever since The Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds". Too tasteful and twee by half. The other weak track is "Sugar Man" featuring ex-Specials vocalist Terry Hall. The blurb makes much of this "exclusive" but Hall's dreary non-voice has long since lost whatever charm it may have had. Dull English Indie meets clever arrangement -- to no great effect.
Happily, the other eight tracks have much more going for them. "Someday" (Anomolies/Extended Spirit) picks up the tempo using hip-hop beats that transform into Cubano percussion. Anomolies' half-spoken chorus tops off a nice hodgepodge of styles that hold together well. It also boasts a tasty funk bass-line. "Save the Day" (Restless Soul) is even better. Attica Blues' Roba sings beautifully while Phil Asher mixes house rhythms with Spanish guitar and jazzy horns. Modern soul for those who like the West London sound.
After that sprightly interlude, things get all moody again. "Come Raising" has a nasty, squelchy bass and breathy vocals over Tom & Joyce's laid-back Latin groove. Nice piano here, as elsewhere, on the album. Genuine jazzy feel too. Two poem-raps follow -- one from the ubiquitous Ursula Rucker and the other from Brooklyn newcomers, Anomolies. Rucker sounds angrier than usual, perhaps she is getting fed up of being on everyone's album but her own, but her stuff is always solid and the keyboards behind her are tough and modernist. Anomolies win this pairing though. "Poisons" is a little gem, with haunting strings and insistent drums. Urgent but unhurried, it builds up the pressure through a strange, repeated synth pattern over angst-ridden lyrics. Good creative hip-hop.
This leaves the two unretouched tracks "The Corner" and "To Come" and a Scuba mix. The first is very Carl Craigish techno -- slightly menacing with some succulent beats -- and the second is a Satie-meets-dub affair. Both have a minimalist purity about them, but the second wins out because of the wonderful string samples -- they really sample instruments well, these Poets. The Scuba mix ("Where The Street Ends") is telling because it should be as limp as the opening track, having much the same ingredients. However King Britt adds his spacey strangeness and lifts it out of the mundane.
So there you go -- great beats, two Japanese studio types with a penchant for piano and strings,a handful of guest vocalists and several tweakers and tinkerers. A whole catalogue of musical styles and an over-riding mellow sensibility. It is all pleasantly intriguing and likely to improve with each listen. Rather serious and in certain moods a little too low key -- but well-crafted and, I am convinced, built to last. With outfits like Calm, Kyoto Jazz Massive and Mondo Grosso -- Japan is producing some remarkable new music built on the rich resources of black musical history. The Silent Poets are part of that movement, a little too "European" at times, but with enough creativity to please open-minded ears.