The Supreme Beings of Leisure take the sophomore slump and drop-kick it into last week on Divine Operating System, the follow-up to the self-titled debut that became a surprise hit two years ago on college radio and martini bar disc changers. Looking back at that debut, it now seems apparent that it was really a transitional disc; Supreme Beings of Leisure was a band back then, formed when a forgettable hip-hop trio called Oversoul 7 joined forces with a vampy singer-songwriter named Geri Soriano-Lightwood. As a quartet, Supreme Beings of Leisure created tracks that were catchy but always slightly mannered, with gimmicky elements like drum 'n' bass loops and electric sitars intruding on otherwise breezy lounge-pop confections like "Ain't Got Nothin'" and "Sublime". It was a great sound, but a self-consciously arty one, and it didn't always do justice to Soriano-Lightwood's honey voice.
DOS finds the Beings reinvented as a duo, with Ramin Sakurai handling most of the production and instrumentation chores and Soriano-Lightwood settling more confidently into her role as resident chanteuse. The departure of guitarist-sitarist Rick Torres and bassist Kiran Shahani has at once expanded Supreme Beings of Leisure's sound and simplified it; gone are the days of quirky rhythm changes and trip-hoppy samples, but these much more straightforward, unapologetically catchy songs are fleshed out with the sort of dense, orchestral sound that earlier tracks like "Strangelove Addiction" and "Never the Same" only hinted at. As improbable as it sounds, imagine if Goldfrapp teamed up with Jamiroquai and you have a sense of what DOS sounds like -- seductive, ebullient, unabashedly retro, infectiously uptempo and wrapped up in the kind of maneater theatrics most pop music has shied away from since Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" heyday.
The track that most memorably captures this new and improved Supreme Beings of Leisure aesthetic is "Catch Me", a deliriously over-the-top diva anthem complete with xylophones, Spanish guitar, flute solo, a John Barry string section -- and, lest we forget this is still 2002, scratches courtesy of former Beck collaborator DJ Swamp, whose tasty turntable fills creep into the corners of many of DOS's best songs like a bratty kid brother chiding his big sister's goofy romantic daydreams. "I'll take my chances on silver romances / High wire dances," sings Soriano, at her Bassey-esque brassiest, selling a line that from many a lesser singer would be wince-inducing. Supreme Beings are hardly the first to attempt this sort of Barry/Bacharach orchestral pop sound, but it's hard to remember the last time anyone made it sound this authoritative.
Elsewhere, Supreme Beings of Leisure has the chutzpah to take on an even crustier old genre -- disco. And they don't waste any time, either: the opening track, "Give Up", drops the twangy synth-bass and big goofy string riffs right out of the gate, probably scaring away two-thirds of the group's old trip-hop/downtempo fan base before the two-minute mark. But for anyone who doesn't mind a little camp with their dance grooves, "Give Up" works -- and a later shamelessly string-laden disco workout, "Divine", is even better. Jamiroquai only wishes they sounded this hip.
The secret ingredient that keeps this stuff from falling off the cool cliff into cheeseland is Geri Soriano-Lightwood's amazing voice, which really comes into its own on this disc. She's a classic pop belter, short on range and histrionics but long on attitude and technique, slipping agilely between breathy sex kitten croons and clean, sassy phrases that recall singers like Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel. At her best, there's also an archness to her delivery that gives the music's slick production and soul-lite vibe a much-needed edge. On "Rock and a Hard Place", she delivers lines like, "They'll never understand how hard it is to be you" with the seductive sneer of a female Donald Fagen, and on "Freezer", she rescues her own corny lyrics ("I lost my soul in the freezer / I lost my heart where it's 40 below") with phrasing that almost sounds contempuous of her own silly sentiments.
But Supreme Beings of Leisure isn't all about the charms of Geri Soriano-Lightwood. Ramin Sakurai steps into the Dave Stewart role to her Annie Lennox with a remarkable display of chops and assurance, laying down deliciously groovy basic tracks and embellishing them some nice guitars, keyboards, and atmospheric electronics. His skills as an arranger are even more impressive; unlike the group's debut, where lead instruments tended to bash their way through the mix, the best touches on DOS are woven seamlessly into the fabric of tracks. Take the blaxpoitation-tinged "Ghetto", which punches up a deceptively smooth soul groove with scratches from DJ Swamp and DJ True, bongos, a muted wah-wah guitar, strings, and even a harp (trust me, it's in there somewhere). Better still is the use of a "santur", a Middle Eastern instrument that sounds kind of like a dulcimer, on the slow-burner "Rock and a Hard Place", giving the track the exotic, faintly menacing vibe of an old spy movie theme song.
The Beings don't hit every ball out of the park. "Get Away" isn't catchy enough to allay the bombast of its Austin Powers go-go riff, and the album's closer, "Perfect", blows another disco gambit on a melody and lyrics that are too earnest for their own good; not even Geri's voice can save them. But missteps aside, Divine Operating System represents a major upgrade in one of the best pop-electronic acts to come along in recent years. Expect to be hearing a lot of more of them at your local martini bar.
One footnote to this review: Supreme Beings of Leisure's label, Palm Pictures, has seen fit to package Divine Operating System with a "limited edition" bonus DVD (why it's a "limited edition" since it's the only version of the album available is beyond me, but then again, so is most marketing lingo). While in theory this sounds like a cool idea, in practice the DVD is a joke, a collection of four unwatchably boring "videos" (mostly just nifty photo collections and home movies) fleshed out with trailers for Palm Pictures films, teaser videos from other Palm Pictures artists, and, oh yes, a fully interactive, browsable version of the Palm Pictures catalog. In other words, in exchange for having some label advertising rammed down their throats, purchasers of Divine Operating System get stuck with a special fold-out jewel case too thick to fit in standard CD shelf units. Note to Palm Pictures: Stop mixing product with marketing and put out a version of Divine Operating System that isn't laden with a lot of crap most Supreme Beings of Leisure fans don't want.