Robert Strauss: Quasars and Phasars
The problem is that producers such as Strauss seem to have such a good ear for synthesizing incredibly funky and compelling sounds that they are unable to utilize any kind of editorial discretion.
The problem with an artist like Robert Strauss is not that they don't produce good music -- no, quite the opposite. The problem is that producers such as Strauss seem to have such a good ear for synthesizing incredibly funky and compelling sounds that they are unable to utilize any kind of editorial discretion. When every beat is so funky, why bother paring away the dross? When you can just lay down a funky beat, why bother writing songs?
Part of the problem is, of course, that 17 tracks of anything is just too much for most people to comfortably absorb, and at 17 tracks Quasars and Phasars feels like it needed some judicious pruning. Most dance albums benefit from length and space: grooves need time to develop and atmospherics need space to function. When an album such as this is densely packed with stuff bursting from every seam, and when the producer lacks the necessary songwriting acumen to render his creations adequately distinctive, it's easy for the listener to long for a more considered pace.
Quasars and Phasars hits the ground running and really doesn't relent until it's over. After a brief introduction (the superfluous likes of which seem to be something of a plague on modern dance music), the album kicks in with "Ouija", a great example of modern Latin-influenced funky house. There are any number of artists -- John Beltran, Jazzanova and their ilk -- who create techno with Brazilian influences (hell, there are entire series, such as Brazilectro and Brazilution, dedicated to the genre), and Strauss' contributions, while satisfying, are hardly unique. But "Ouija" also points to a distinctive problem the album has, which is that while Strauss' attempts to distill specific stylistic influences are successful, the overall effect is, again, less inspired than schematic.
"Ouija" is followed by "Do It Up", which features a more conventional house beat but continues the retro feel with Moog sounds and Brazilian vocals inserted at the chorus. It's such a cozy and familiar sound that it's almost easy to forget how many artists are doing something remarkably similar -- but the album never quite falters on this point. Something like "What U Talkin' Bout", in putting together so many different elements -- the electro beat, the fusion-influenced jazzy Hammond organ parts, the Latin party vibe -- succeeds on the fact that everything sounds really, really good. Although the intersection between these multiple genres is well-trod territory, it works because Strauss clearly knows what he's doing. Likewise on "Spinning Inside Your Love", featuring Saidah Baba Talibah, the attempts at approximating a 70s funk-vibe, complete with Talibah's clever and convincing Chaka Khan vamp are so successfully accomplished that you can't really resent the absolute dearth of originality on display.
That probably sounds harsher than was intended, and for that I'm sorry. I hear a lot of music, and the fact is that legitimately talented producers who can create dynamite dance grooves are a dime-a-dozen. I can't hate any album that has a song like "The Empire Strikes Back", with its irrefutably funky backbeat and loping bassline, but I can wish that Strauss would have cleared away more of the repetitive neo-soul and Latin mannerisms to find a more distinctive individual songwriting voice. As it is, while Quasars and Phasars is a good album, it could also have been produced by dozens of other producers with similar talents and identically well heeled tastes in 70s funk and Brazilian jazz. It's not enough to be good -- what separates the good from the great is ideas. Strauss has got the skills, but time will tell if he's got any ideas that can set him apart from every other producer plowing this exact same field.