Various Artists: California Dreamin'

Maurice Bottomley

Various Artists

California Dreamin'

Label: Milan
US Release Date: 2002-03-24

A disturbingly high proportion of 2002's myriad downtempo, chill-out or lounge compilations have a distinct aroma of the late '60s and early '70s to them. Like the perfume from a joss-stick, there is an unmistakable, not neccesarily pleasant but undeniably evocative,retrospection about much of the music. This is particularly the case where the deep house or nu-jazz components are secondary to a more "Rock Music after Massive Attack" vibe.

On such sets, and California Dreamin is in its early stages one of these, it is hard not to find oneself reminded of art college bed-sits, purple loon trousers and record collections that included Pearls Before Swine and Dr. Strangely Strange alongside the more obvious Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. This image is in this case prompted by some actual, ancient referencing but is more pervasive than simply the odd quote or updated version of half-forgotten psychedelic classics. The New Age Ambience this album (successfully) engenders has a lot of decidedly Old Age trimmings.

For all the post-modernity of its samplings,for all the state of the art digital beats, this (horizontally) laid-back mix is the contemporary equivalent of making a tape up of a few softer, more introspective tracks from a number of "progressive or "underground" albums circa 1971. Moreover, mystery of mysteries, it mostly works very well indeed. I have to say that my tastes draw me much more to the later soulful or jazz-inflected sections, but as a sustained exercise in relaxed atmospherics it is a winner. Compiler/mixer David Ireland has acted with great expertise and no little nuance.

Let's get the more obvious borrowings out of the way first, as they both triggered this backward-looking fantasy and remain the more troublesome aspects to the mix. The main culprits are Waldeck, The Azul Project and Lemongrass -- although the Mike Oldfield sensibility surrounding some of the material needs to be noted also.

Waldeck has a singer (not the world's most gifted) lugubriously intoning "I Talk to the Wind". Grandparents among you will remember this from King Crimson's first album (for some baffling reason still highly regarded, or so I am informed). This is very hard to take and comfortably the weakest of three covers, although the other two have their difficulties. For example, The Azul Project serve up "Ain't No Sunshine", a wonderful song but one certainly in need of a long vacation. Unlike Waldeck, their rendition of a "standard" is rather more appealing.

What they do is perform the tune as one would imagine the Zombies might have done in their late phase. Indeed, the singer does a more than passable Colin Blunstone impression. This wrests the tune from both Withers and its less pleasant karaoke trappings to duly reinforce our kaftans and sandalwood scenario. Similarly, Coldcut's take on "Autumn Leaves" (of all things) would seem to lead us into pastures jazz but, despite its broken beats arrangement and "Ghetto Heaven " sample, is sung in that Beth Orton-ish folk-jazz style whose emotional origins are as much '70s singer-songwriter as nouveau West London.

Add the cringeworthy eastern mysticism of the spoken voice on the otherwise perfectly lovely, string-soaked "Planet Tears" by Lemongrass plus the Steve Howe-Art Rock guitar on Peter Benisch's "Skymming" and we should be in deep trouble. Somehow we are not. The prevailing ethereal mood (and like all chill-out selections the mood is all) is oddly captivating and truly relaxing.By the time the more fluid and less prog-inflected tracks arrive the awkwardness of some of the hippy-trappings has largely been forgiven.

Then in the middle of the set comes Lisa Shaw, who as everyone knows can do no wrong. "Should Have Known Better", her collaboration with the estimable Rae and Christian, was a highlight even by her standards and gently nudges the music towards more soulful territory.This is followed by Charles Webster and Terra Deva's very post-Bristol sounding "Ready" from Webster's recent album. Another downtempo (if rather abstract) piece of neo-soul that takes us further into jazz-fusionist waters. If you can cope with the downright peculiar lyric and singing on Shantel's "Believe" then the second half of the album is both funkier (in a very, very discreet fashion) and slightly (very slightly) more club-familiar than the first.

I have talked mostly about the vocal tracks but three of the purely instrumental tracks deserve mention. Amalgamation of Soundz and the Nu Mood Orchestra provide two beautifully paced nu-jazz, cinematic "etudes" while Brozza Fragg borrow from Jorge Ben to give the mix some luscious neo-bossa bounce. The engaging melodies of all three are in themselves above-par Lounge fare but sound particularly at home here. "Breeze" by Nu Mood Orchestra is the pick of the three, as well as the most jazzy (great keyboard work).

This could and should have been a dull and somewhat pretentious affair. By the way, don't read the sleevenotes first, they are very silly and prejudicial to your enjoyment of what is a smooth as velvet journey through various of the more mellow tributaries of electronica's many faces. The movement from rock to jazz (albeit both in highly disguised and abstruse form) is one that convinces -- and those less rock-allergic than me will find the whole affair unproblematically seamless.

So, if you have a taste for the quieter reaches of times long past and a fondness for their modern equivalent then this record will soothe and (as it progresses) lazily groove you. The quality of arrangements throughout is high and if some of the songs could have been left slumbering then the music itself carries the day. An idiosyncratic, at times disconcerting and even anachronistic, selection but a worthwhile one for all that, California Dreamin' (which is much more Anglo-European than that title implies)is one of those rare chill-out affairs that actually improves after a few listens.

It may inadvertently cast you back into an era you would generally rather forget but my discomfort may well be someone else's source of pleasure and for its target youthful audience this will not even be an issue. This is left-field and downtempo in both its generic and descriptive senses and a more than adequate example of the current backlash against all things raucous and frenetic. Serene and certainly worth a try, with or without flashbacks.





West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.


'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.