On their sophomore album, the European duo tackle voodoo, soca, and hip-hop. But their trip-hop spell is strangely easy to break.
Slowtrainsoul (formerly Slow Train Soul, if you're into trivialities) is a riddle. On paper, it's a tantalizing concept. A British/Trinidadian jazz diva with a full-bodied voice pairs with a hip Danish electronic music producer. Together, they make impossibly cool, urban, sophisticated, refined, eclectic music that incorporates elements of dance, jazz, soul, and other styles. The lyrics pull no punches, either, dealing with the psychological extremes of relationships, big city nightlife, and Caribbean folklore. You can't lose, and neither can they, so you think. But, as in those voodoo legends, something is awry. The pieces don't all add up the way they should.
Illegal Cargo, the 2004 debut from Lady Z (the diva) and Morten Varano (the producer), was a solid but strangely sterile collection of post-trip-hop grooves and mood pieces. It did have enough high points to suggest a great leap forward could be in the offing if the duo's creative chemistry ever became as refined as their sense of fashion. Santimanitay does take the Slowtrainsoul sound in some different directions, incorporating more soca and hip-hop influences. And, while some of the tempos may be a bit more lively, the subject matter is darker. The album title itself is a calypso phrase for "without pity"; and longing, murder, and sexual surrender are recurring themes. The sinister voodoo god Baron Semedi even makes an appearance, solidifying the impression that this certainly isn't fluff.
Yet it doesn't quite turn the corner, either. Varano adds a sexy sheen to his minimal, often funky arrangements, and Lady Z can wail and smolder at will, but not enough of their songs lodge in your memory. "Goldiggah" does, but that's because its title is repeated about 10,000 times, so it's more like being beaten into submission than seduced by a hook. "I Want You to Love Me" is slippery-smooth, yet is so languid it forgets to leave an impression. It's nice to hear the duo stretch a bit on the more uptempo numbers, but the strongest moments on Illegal Cargo were the softer, nakedly romantic ones -- and there aren't many on Santimanitay.
The horn-led soca of "Las Lap", a song about the Carnival celebration, is appropriately festive, and it's about the only case where Lady Z and Varano are able to cut loose. The instrumental interlude, incorporating drum'n'bass that paradoxically seems to slow down so much that it becomes fast again and bumps back into the soca groove, is an inspired touch. And then, two-thirds into the album, come a couple of those downtempo songs. "Sexing the Cherry", with its spiraling keyboard, forlorn trumpet, and soulful electric piano, is actually a breakup song. Again, it may be a paradox that Lady Z comes the most alive when she's singing about the death of a relationship.
The ramshackle, horn-blasted "Eight In Nine", a song wherein Lady Luck meets her fate at the hands of the Midnight Robber and Papa Legba, is one case where the folklore really works within the context of the music. Otherwise, you really wouldn't know that all the voodoo imagery was there unless you paid close attention (or read the press release). Lady Z is clearly a powerful, multi-faceted vocalist and lyricist, and Varano a gifted producer. Maybe such close devotion to pre-determined themes and backstories ultimately prevents the duo from jelling. Or maybe it's simply that Slowtrainsoul's sound is still grounded in a trip-hop template that was perfected over a decade ago.
The reasons may be tough to pin down, but Santimanitay isn't the hoped-for breakthrough. It's hip; it's accomplished; it's danceable. Still, it plays more like an exercise than an experience.