Naked Music is starting to make me look bad. I mean, part of your job as a music critic is supposed to be to harsh on things every now and then, but here's a label that in five years really has yet to put out a bad record. Oh, sure; some are better than others. There have been marked bright spots, like Blue Six's sensational Beautiful Tomorrow debut last year, or Miguel Migs' seminal mix on 1999's Nude Dimensions, Volume One. But everything in between's been pretty darn solid, too. If every record label were this consistent, I'd be out of a job.
So here comes Naked's latest, volume two in their Bare Essentials series, and here I am like the proverbial broken 12-inch, telling you that, yep, those crazy San Francisco house kids have done it again. There's nothing revolutionary here, just 13 tracks that further promulgate that irresistibly sleek, sexy Naked sound. Motown was never this reliable.
Unlike its companion Nude Dimensions series, which packages a mélange of Naked singles and other laid-back house tracks into a bona fide DJ mix, Bare Essentials just collects highlights from the label's catalog and presents them as straightforwardly as possible. Tracks are segued just enough to provide some continuity, but not so much to get in the way of any bedroom DJs out there who might want work this CD into their own mixes.
The usual suspects are all here -- Aquanote, Blue Six, Miguel Migs, Lisa Shaw and Soulstice's Andy Caldwell all contribute tracks -- but the highlights mostly come courtesy of unheralded talents from the Naked stable and special guests, who inject this Bare Essentials with more breakbeats, nu jazz and midtempo R&B sounds than any Naked release to date. This willingness to branch out, and ability to do so without sacrificing that core vibe of slinky sophistication, is the label's greatest strength -- like the Stuart Patterson pop-art nymphettes that grace every cover, no two Naked Music releases are alike, yet all are unmistakably from the same hand.
The relative unknown that gets the most play here is Dave Warrin, who along with Naked co-founder Jay Denes was the man behind the label's first big club hit, Lovetronic's "You Are Love". Under his new Central Living alias, Warrin contributes two tracks, both featuring the reliably sweet vocals of Naked's best talent, Lisa Shaw. Apart from Shaw's pipes, however, neither "Visions" nor "Inside" offers much to get worked up over -- they're just pleasantly downtempo house tracks with poppy basslines and hooky choruses, and offer none of the smoky sensuality that made "You Are Love" so memorable. Far more interesting is Weekender's track "Weekenderstyle", a bubbly instrumental house jam that mixes a bold palette of subtly insistent Latin percussion, funk guitar, discoey synth bass and layers of keyboards into one of the compilation's standout cuts. Weekender is the work of Alex Moran and Si Brad, who have turned up with the odd remix on previous Naked releases, but never before, to my knowledge, with an original track. More from these guys, please.
Also pretty darn cool are the contributions of a Swedish collective called Gonkyburg, led by songwriter/vocalist J. Bäckelie, producer/arranger Andreas Saag, and veteran producer/remixer Jonas Quant. Sounding like a cross between Jazzanova and late '70s Herbie Hancock on the jazz-funk space jam "Blow My Mind", this trio, under the name Gonky Business, concocts the album's most pretentiously messy track, an electro-tinged epic that shouldn't work, but does. Almost as good is "Try", a track attributed to Arvid feat. Ernestos -- Ernestos apparently being Bäckelie's Al Jarreau-like jazz-soul alterego, which he plays very convincingly for a Swedish dude. With its tricky start-stop beat and choppy melody, "Try" takes a few listens to get into, but its complexity never overwhelms the song's jazzy charms.
Among guest contributors, however, the real surprise is Jamie Odell, a.k.a. Jimpster, a producer/DJ best known for his jazzy jungle and drum-and-bass projects. Odell's turned up on the Naked Music label before, but only fleetingly, with an ambient remix of Hajime Yoshizawa's "Endless Bow" that opened Migs' Nude Tempo One mix disc last year. Here, however, he makes his presence strongly felt with outstanding remixes of Blue Six's "All I Need" and Lisa Shaw's "Let it Ride". There's not a trace of jungle's dense rhythms in either one; instead, Odell evinces a great touch with mid-tempo breaks on "All I Need" and offers up a slightly jazzy but fairly straight-ahead pop take on Shaw's pretty "Let it Ride". His production style fits surprisingly well with the Naked vibe.
Elsewhere, the highlight on this Bare Essentials is CJ One's remix of San Francisco house veteran's Andy Caldwell's "All I Need" (same title as the Blue Six cut, totally different song). Caldwell's a frustratingly inconsistent producer, but when he's on his game, he cooks up some of the most irresistable house anthems in the business, and "All I Need" is clearly one of them, all head-bopping bassline, ear-candy pop chords and a great vocal from another of Naked's seemingly endless roster of talented divas, Caitlin. Caldwell's Om Records cohort Kaskade is in fine form on the Quant-remixed "Brighter Day", a percussive electro-jazz anthem, and Miguel Migs, under his Petalpusher alias, injects his signature smooth house sound with a healthy dose of shuffling Latin soul on "Rely on Me". Only Gabriel Rene's Aquanote falls short of expectations: Crazy P's jazzy breakbeat remix of "Nowhere" and Rene's own slow-dance take on his Lisa Shaw-helmed "All Over You" both expose the relative lack of depth of the Aquanote sound, which already sounds tired compared the heartier strains of the Naked vibe perfected by Migs and Denes.
In short, Bare Essentials 02 is like most Naked Music compilations and DJ mixes, rarely less than solid and occasionally brilliant, unlikely to win them any new fans but almost guaranteed to satisfy the faithful. In other words, I probably could have saved both of us the time and just written a review that said: "If you like Naked Music, buy this". To which you'd reply: "Duh". So long as Naked Music stays in business, I guess I better hadn't quit my day job.