Hot on the heels of the hugely successful Paris Lounge set comes Volume Two. A little too hotly perhaps, for although this mixture of deep house, chic electronica and downtempo dreaminess is never less than satisfactory, there are rather a lot of these collections around at the moment. The suspicion must be that a certain amount of cashing in is taking place. After all, Lounge is this season's buzz word -- omnipresent, ill defined, and threatening to depose chill out as the most overused adjunct to any and every compilation. I haven't seen anything called Ibiza Lounge yet but it's on its way, believe me.
So what has this got to recommend it? Well, Paris is a good start. If anywhere is the centre of the nu-cool it is post-St. Germain France, home of Cafe Bar culture Mark One and provider of soundtracks to its new global variant. Wagram is a reassuring sign, too. The label has a good pedigree, having churned out solid house, dance, and world material for some time now. And indeed, the 33 tracks (all from Paris) are well chosen and make for a varied and more enterprising exercise than the skeptical among us will have expected.
There are a few fillers and the whole thing perhaps fails to produce that blissed-out and unthreatening ambience the more refined of such sets can attain (early Om Lounge comps still remain the leaders in that field). On the positive side it is a more robust and upbeat affair than the term lounge usually implies and there are some tracks that simply stand out as great tunes in their own right. Actually, there are quite a few. Even if you don't buy the idea of two and a half hours of rather self-congratulatory stylishness, I defy anyone with the slightest fondness for well-crafted dance music not to find one or two new favourites here.
The first CD bears the title Paris By Day and the second, logically enough, Paris By Night. The concomitant but dubious aural distinction would appear to indicate that Parisians listen to dubby nu-jazz and broken beats stuff in the daylight and good old fashioned Kevin Yost-like deep house after dark. Good for them if that is the case. There is some electro pop scattered in amongst the jazzier flavours. I wasn't too taken with this diversion but others may find the change of style refreshing. The first half of CD Two is the best thought-out sequence (consisting of some tasteful, instrumental jazz-house) but the killer cuts are to be found on the By Day selection.
Killer of killers is track 12, "Motherless Child" by Brady. If this had taken up the whole 70 minutes I would not have complained as it is simply the best piece of cut-and-mix jazz imaginable. Verve have (rightly) won great plaudits for their recent remix project. "Motherless Child" beats anything on that by some distance. A familiar voice (Nina Simone-like but not, I think, her), moody organ and some wickedly infectious guitar samples are fused together to create a post-modern classic. The song ("Motherless Children Have a Hard Time") is, of course, one of the greats of the African-American canon. Whether sung by Van Morrison or Sarah Vaughn, it is always moving. Brady (who is/are Brady?) have managed to make it suitably stylish and 21st century without sacrificing any of the vocal's emotional impact. This is one of those tunes that if dropped on the right dancefloors would have people rushing to the DJ booth to find out what it was. Essential and an example of the best that the sampling culture can achieve.
It does make the surrounding tracks seem a little facile and may be why the earlier sides seem the next most effective. Of these I'd pick the opener "Slave Tempo" by Plaisir de France and Etienne De Crecy's "Tempovision" as noteworthy. "Slave Tempo" manages to be simultaneously funky and haunting. Popping bass, a fine keyboard solo, and inventive percussion add depth to an oddly anguished vocal. This is only easy listening if you let its full force pass you by. De Crecy is one of the few big names on show (some of the others include Shazz, I-Cube, and Alex Gopher, although who knows what producers hide behind pseudonyms such as Oxymore and Coco Suma?). "Tempovision" would once have been called trip-hop and would be a little too arch and contrived but for strong hooks, a lugubrious chorus, and some futuristic orchestration that give it an unsettling cinematic and dystopian quality.
Elsewhere, it is the little touches that tell. The gypsy violin and staccato piano on the "La Fugitive" by Williams Traffic or the bassline on Zampara's sultry "Sugar". You will find your own examples. Lounge in its earlier chic meets kitsch form is best represented by the very French and rather splendid "C'est Presque Ca". 1960s theme music meets 1990s dub plus a female singer who is all mystery and seduction. What more do you want?
CD Two is all about the first six numbers where flutes, guitars, and synths dance around a mellow 4/4 drive. Deep, danceable house with lashings of jazz sensibility. There is nothing groundbreaking in the well-behaved jazz-funk of Next Evidence, Rinocerose, Helena, Soha, etc. but it is all consummately crafted and kicks along with purpose and unexpected panache. I particularly liked "Ida Y Vuelta" by Savannah for its arresting keyboard patterns and four to the floor solidity.
There are a couple of dodgy vocals towards the end of this marathon session but they are minor flaws on a convincing and generally impressive compilation. Whether abstact lounge is the new genre for our times, the soundtrack to the new global order or just background muzak for self-satisfied advertising types you will have to decide for yourself. Seductive it certainly is. Undemanding? Only if you wish it to be. There is bite to some of these tunes, although the well manicured appearance of most of the material hides the fact well.
France may have failed miserably in the World Cup but on this showing they are far from a spent force musically. Expect to hear some of these tunes at your local pre-club bar for many months to come. Sophisticated and in places surprisingly stirring, this will fill the, probably very short, gap until Volume Three arrives very adequately.