Various Artists: Chillout 06 * The Ultimate Chillout
It's tough to chill out at 90 beats-per-minute, and the baffling song selection doesn't help. The latest in this usually reliable series should've been called 'Indie Darlings 101'.
... And here we have two of the most dubious prospects in the current record business: the label-produced various artists package and the chill-out compilation. At their best, these types of deals offer you a coherent, seamless atmosphere and introduce you to new artists without the hassle of previewing and downloading individual tracks. At their most cynical, they're a chance for a label to promote its stable of artists and make a buck without having to pay for more than a few song licenses and some crappy artwork.
Nettwerk's successful Chillout series is neither the best nor the worst out there. More often than not, it's thoughtfully produced and sharply, if generically, packaged. Chillout 06 * The Ultimate Chillout, though, hits a low -- and for a curious and frustrating reason: it's just not that chill. When you see the "chillout" stamp (and it's everywhere these days), you're thinking of dreamy, mellow, moody, slow, drifty, and, often, instrumental. Ironically, The Ultimate Chillout rarely meets any of these criteria. Aside from averaging around 90 beats-per-minute, the 14-song tracklisting plays more like a disc burned by your little sister who's just gone off to college and "discovered" independent music; Indie Darlings 101 would have been a more apt title.
No Nettwerk compilation, Chillout or otherwise, would be complete without tracks from Delirium and Sarah McLachlan, two of the label's most profitable signees. The remix of Delirium's "You & I" is tasteful, bland "adult alternative" muzak with vocals that sound like an androgynous version of Jon Anderson from Yes. Would you believe that Delirium's frontman, Bill Leeb, was an early member of Skinny Puppy? He was. McLachlan's "World on Fire" is more of the same VH-1-ready fare. Of course, the remix is heavy on atmospheric synth and "trippy" percussion. At least McLachlan's voice is always nice and soothing.
You also get a couple other tracks from Nettwerk artists. Ivy's "Nothing but the Sky", from their latest album, is pleasant and ethereal, but is a pop song at heart. As the rhythm and guitars pick up toward the end, the Lush comparisons make sense. The Perishers' "Weekends" gets a remix from Alpha, who do make what you could actually describe as chillout music. The result is a song that sounds exactly like Alpha being fronted by Peter Gabriel: relaxing for sure, but too earnest by half.
A few other distinguished tracks make it through the haze of faceless, tasteful cool. Bent's "Silent Life" combines warm harmonies, woozy lap steel, and twinkling electronics for a Beatles-on-downers kind of bliss. Junior Boys' "Birthday" is an evergreen that combines the best of both Speak & Spell and Black Celebration-era Depeche Mode. Exactly why the need for that kind of rehash exists is open to debate, but it sounds good. The after hours piano parlor feel of the Real Tuesday Weld's "The Ugly and the Beautiful" is just the kind of off-kilter atmosphere you want from a compilation that's supposed to transport you to Somewhere Else. San Ilya's "Bellissimo" closes the album with hopelessly romantic crooning, over-the-top melodramatic strings, and a trip-hop beat, leaving you well along the comedown trail.
The problem is that too much of what comes before is inexplicable fare like Ian Brown's "Time is My Everything" -- not a bad song in its own right, but more mellow than chill. The Postal Service's straight-faced cover of "Against All Odds" is proof that it takes more than a good band to make a bad song good. And what to make of the inclusion of Talk Talk's "Life's What You Make It" from 1986? Sure, it's a great song with a kind of resigned optimism that's the perfect complement to a difficult morning after. But smack in the middle of this collection of decidedly 21st Century wistfulness, it just doesn't make sense. And that, more than anything, is what's wrong with The Ultimate Chillout.