Various Artists: The Best of Lounge Music

Maurice Bottomley

Various Artists

The Best of Lounge Music

Label: Sony France

I know lounge now includes chill-out, trip-hop and even deep house within its very marketable remit, but I hadn't realised it had swallowed up world music as well. If the title of this collection is to be believed, then it has done just that, for at least two thirds of this collection would normally be filed under that notoriously problematic category. True, some tracks are of the modified and slightly digitalised variant that has been popular since Bebel Gilberto's Tanto Tiempo (and stretches back to The Mory Kante dance mixes of the late '80s), but mostly it is straight world music. Odd that a term like lounge, which originally referred to the kitsch and chic ephemera of '60s Western culture, should now include its opposite and supposedly authentic Other.

Less peculiar perhaps if we think about the logic of reception rather than production. The likely rationale is that this is the sort of thing you would hear in the trendier wine and cafe bars of the postmodern city. This makes it seem like exotic aural wallpaper for yuppies, a sort of stationary tourism of the worst kind. There is a truth in this, one that the appallingly gushy sleevenotes do nothing to disprove. I am afraid it rather lends an uneasy and almost neo-colonial odour to the set. Such intellectual worries pale however beside the inclusion of Deepak Chopra's "Desire" -- easily the most horrendous thing doing the rounds just now. Musically delightful, it contains an embarrassing "lurrve" male spoken vocal and a truly toe-curling "I value me therefore I can love you" piece of chat-show crapology from none other than actress Demi Moore. Avoid at all costs.

Nonetheless, political worries and (one) aesthetic objection apart, this is a very entertaining and generally successful snapshot of global pop music of the more relaxed and sophisticated variety. There is a strong Middle Eastern and North African slant that all sounded fine to me, but I cannot comment on such matters with anything approaching authority. To give you an example of my ignorance, I thought Ajda Pekkan's "Bir Gunah Gibi" had the haunting feel of a genuine Turkish cabaret-folk song, a sort of Casbah-tango affair that some disillusioned Eric Ambler or Graham Greene consulate might write a suicide note to, until I read the credits and found it was a rendition of some Julio Iglesias ditty. Still sounded good, but left me feeling somewhat underqualified in the explication department.

World music hits me like that. I don't know enough about the cultural and musical influences that Hossam Ramzy or Omar Faruk Tekbilek build upon to offer any commentary more enlightening other than to say they sound pleasant, are well-crafted and beautifully executed. Perhaps that is enough. Such is probably the thinking behind the project. Fresh sounds with a suitably multicultural flavour, the agreeable face of globalisation etc., etc. Where's the harm? It's all just music anyway and so forth. Not convinced? Me neither, not wholly anyway.

And yet 30 tracks of superbly played music, whose sources range from the Bosphorus to Brazil, are hardly going to fail to throw up something interesting. As it turns out, hardly a single song falls down in terms of obviousness or the merely commonplace. If you can live with the suspect premise, then there are at least a dozen tunes here that you will want to get to know intimately. There are also artists familiar and (mostly) unfamiliar whose other work you will want to seek out. So, ignore the waffle about spiritual journeys and the dodgy New Age travelogue concepts; just treat The Best of Lounge Music as a sampler album and pick and choose your favourites.

Here are a few of mine to set you on your way. "Kissing" by Bliss comes from Denmark but is very English chill-out in ambience. It conjures up post-prandial, Cotswold, summer evenings, a landscape peopled by beautiful young women in long dresses with boyfriends who adore them. You can substitute that for whichever crepuscular idyll appeals to your idea of languid eroticism. Sufficient to say that this piece of laid-back lyricism is achingly wistful and absolutely charming.

Equally seductive, but more mobile, are no less than three bossa nova winners. Wanda Sa and Celia Vaz give as glorious a rendition of Jobim's "Agua de Beber" as any of the eight billion recorded versions, while the much-lamented Suba (the Serbian émigré behind the Tanto Tiempo disc) updates the equally venerable "Felicidade" to considerable effect. Bossa nova, that product of hip, rich kids with impeccable taste (yes,a unique historical event), was probably the original lounge music and its expensively-tailored elegance shows up well in this international setting. Bia Mestriner completes the trio with "O Barquinho", whose cultivated piano and sensuous bass-line should melt the hardest heart.

Emmanuel Santarromana fuses dub, Argentinian accordion and the Orient to make the much anthologised "Chinese Bubbles". Intriguing and abstract in the best ways,this type of modernised world music is most suited to the lounge idiom and is one of a number of such tracks (nu-world?) that score heavily on atmospherics while not leaving you feeling too much of an interloper on someone else's heritage. Can't say the same about Ishtar's "Horchat Hai Calyptus", recorded in Paris but Middle Eastern in origin, I assume. Intense female vocals make it a distinctly moving ballad, though concerning what I have no idea. It is followed by a lachrymose instrumental called "Secret Love" by Nikos (Greek?) that acts like a bleak coda to the vocal track.

Mostly that kind of sequentiality doesn't happen. Styles, tempi and nation vary from number to number. This ensures no extended stretches of boredom, but is a trifle disconcerting unless you are an absolute believer in the Oneness of Music. Though unconvinced, I'll happily settle for the diversity on show.

From the almost antediluvian Pop of Nino's "Amor, Amor" to the nu-beat seduction of MC Sultan's "Josiane", it's an odd but in the end exciting mix. Aurally far more satisfying than ideologically, The Best of Lounge Music does, I freely admit, win out in its celebration of the wealth of material that is finding its way to Western ears these days. It is not, of course, "the best of lounge music", because that term has no meaning stable enough to support such an enterprise.

Instead, you get a very solid and generous package of some of the regional styles being recorded, re-worked, modified and marketed in contemporary European capital cities. Much of that music and much of this two-CD collection is excellent. Some explanatory or biographical notes might have made one less suspicious of the framework, but the songs themselves have a resonance to them that the most cynical or inane surroundings could not stifle. Oh, and if you can read French the liner blurb is even funnier in the original than in the (marginally) less hippy-dippy translation.

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