It's ironic that the club that has most come to symbolize Ibiza, Europe's summertime hotbed of drug-and-techno-fueled, dance-all-night bacchanals, is the supremely mellow Café Del Mar. Made famous by DJ Jose Padilla's gorgeous sunset accompaniments, the club has become a staple of Ibiza's ephemeral party scene, providing 20 years' worth of bleary-eyed revellers with a much-needed moment's respite from the island's steady diet of dancefloor anthems. It's also become a merchandising machine, cranking out souvenir T-shirts and a remarkably successful series of chill-out compilations based on Padilla's celebrated sets.
Volume Siete finds this series at something of a crossroads. For one thing, electronica is finally creeping into the American mainstream, giving this latest Café Del Mar release a commercial potential in this country that its predecessors lacked. More importantly, however, Café Del Mar godfather Jose Padilla has finally stepped down from producing the series, and his protégé, Bruno Lepretre, who has been a DJ at the club since 1997, takes his first crack at compiling the tracks.
How have these developments affected the latest Café Del Mar release? The good news is, not much. Bruno has perhaps less affinity for Latin grooves than his mentor did, and he does make a few cagey nods towards the more commercial end of Café Del Mar's sonic spectrum -- there are tracks from Moby and John Digweed's Bedrock, and, unexpectedly, a trippy remix of Brit-rockers Bush. But other than that, there is much here to please fans of this series, and little to surprise them.
Like prior Café Del Mar releases, this compilation sort of sneaks up on you. At first shine much of it comes across as too smooth, too safe, too overproduced -- elevator music for hipsters. A few tracks, including Bruno's own "Easy Rider" (credited to Deep & Wide), never overcome this initial impression, but most of them reveal themselves, after a couple of listens, to have surprising emotional and sonic depth. About half the tracks feature vocals, and most of them are quite effective. This is a rarity in electronic music, much of which still has a tin ear when it comes to engaging lyrics and emotive singers. The standout is Bent's lush, melancholy "Swollen", off their album Programmed to Love. It is a clever bit of Beck/Cornershop electronica noodling anchored by a pulsating beat and a gorgeous female vocal. But a surprising runner-up for best cut on this collection is Bush's "Letting the Cables Sleep", which is smartly "mixed and herbalised" (as the liner notes put it) by Nightmares on Wax into a dreamy, downtempo ballad. Stripped of its usual macho, grunge-guitar backdrop, Gavin Rossdale's gruff voice sounds almost vunerable, and "Letting the Cables Sleep" actually proves to be a weightier piece of songwriting than much of the made-to-order electronic/ambient window-dressing that fills the rest of the album.
Don't get me wrong -- this is top-quality window-dressing, but it's still mostly background music, which is why the few vocals that don't work are truly irritating instead of just merely intrusive. To avoid these, your best bet is to program your CD player to skip any track that lists a featured a vocalist -- as in A New Funky Generation feat. Joy Rose, and Slow Pulse featuring Cathy Battistessa. The latter track is an especially bad mistake -- a reggae-tinged closing cut called "Riva" that pulls the listener out of the sun-sleepy spell the CD has cast with faux-political lyrics about money-grubbing politicians and such decidedly un-chillout sentiments as "Disrespecting, disregarding, disillusioning bullshit." Do the customers at Café Del Mar really enjoy a dose of watered-down rasta protest with their sunset sangrias?
Overall, however, Café Del Mar Volume Siete is a satisfying addition to this most successful "ambient" music series. It's not exactly a ground-breaking compilation, but it does a good job of keeping that sunset-on-the-beach vibe alive. Fans of bachelor-pad chillout maestros like Kid Loco and Thievery Corporation would do well to seek this one out.