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.