Various Artists: Afrotech / Dream Therapy / Dub Selector 2 / Nordic Exposure
The Dating Game, Quango Style
I'm sitting in my chair with four new Quango comps before me. I know I have to choose one of them as my favorite, because that's the way the (review) game is played. The genial wisecracking host introduces them one by one. . . .
Bachelor #1 is Dream Therapy. Weighing in at ten tracks and 66 minutes, this disc aims, in the overripe liner-note words of Quango prexy Bruno Guez, to "change your frequency, open your eyes to blue dimensions, green worlds -- the dream is just starting". Translation: it's ambient techno with a floaty new-age feel. Now, just last year I savaged a Quango comp called Lush Life Electronica for being boring and elevator-musicky, so you'd think that I'd be right there doing the same here; but I'm not going to, because Dream Therapy is quite good. Tracks like "Parallel" by 1 Giant Leap and Cantoma's "The Call" are the basic template for how to do this sort of music: insistent but downplayed-to-the-point-of-being-almost-subliminal beat, some interesting washes here and there, and a new percussive or melodic element added every eight to sixteen bars, and you're good to go.
What makes this one better than Lush Life Electronica, besides its infinitely better title? One thing, really: these songs are actually interesting. The acoustic guitars that peek through the laptop rhythms and keyboard curtains of Milennia Nova's "Otra Bes (Frequencies Mix)" show some heart and soul, and the skittering one-minute d'n'b break dropped in near the end doesn't hurt one bit. "Hey Jack" by Howie B as remixed by Afterlife sounds ripped straight from Karsh Kale's work, but is effective nonetheless because of a superb guitar line, and I:Cube's "Adore" turns into relaxed bossa nova disco. And the richness and depth of the arrangement on Richard Dorfmeister's mix of Professor Oz's "Waves and Sand" is just intimidating. (Who needs Kruder anyway?) All of these songs are beautiful and ethereal, and just about all of them have at least one moment where you go "Hey, that's kinda cool"; even the ones that don't have a moment like that (Fila Brazilia's "Spill the Beans" in another mix by Dorfmeister) have a chillout charm like nothing since Mr. Pat Boone. Overall, a great conceptual compilation.
Bachelor #2 is Nordic Exposure, which collects techno tracks by artists from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. I don't hear anything in the sound of these that ties any of them together, any Scandinavian reserved cool or frosty jingle-bells thing, but maybe I'm skeptical that way. What I do hear are some kickin' tunes by some brave music makers. If you had told me at the beginning of 2002 that one of my favorite songs of the year would come from an act named Emo, I would have smacked you on the back of the head -- but that's "Relief for Free", and it swings like seventy in this remix by Butti 49, with jazz drums and (okay fine) some sleigh bells ringaling ting ting tingaling too and crystal chandelier sad vocals. "Relaxin' at Club F****n'", by Koop, has all the downbeat elegance you will ever need, and "Music in Her Eyes", by Swell Session (with vocals by Yukimi Nagano), is the best 10 minutes you'll ever spend, especially when the Steely Dan horns kick in at the three-minute mark.
But there is in fact a clear winner among the tracks on this record. It's Röyksopp's "So Easy", and it's built around the repeating chorus of "Blue on Blue", as performed by Gals and Pals. Yeah, that's right: the Bobby Vinton song, done like a combination of Tricky and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. Got a problem with that? The pizzicato strings, the creepy time-adjusted vocals . . . it's shivery, man. And then we go right into another creeper: "Nikita", by Ralph Myerz and the Jack Herren Band. It goes down like cough syrup, but you never choke on it, and there's a great breakdown at the end, ending with someone saying "Check it out, right?" Well, you should. I have no idea who any of these people are (Nu Spirit Helsinki? Slow Supreme?), but they pretty much all rock, which means that either a) there IS some kind of scene, or b) Guez found the only people in the Scandinavian world who know about techno music or c) his tie is crooked. I like these Nords, but they'll never be popular here because they think too much and they're too smooth. So again, high marks. Rock and roll. Moving on:
Let's meet Afrotech. The longest of these discs (10 tracks, 70 minutes), this is also the most familiar to me, as it contains work by artists I already dearly love: Issa Bagayogo, whose rough-hewn voice and three-stringed lute combined with Parisian laptoptech has made his Timbuktu album one of my top tenners this year, contributes the soulful "Banani", and the selection from Frederic Galliano's African Divas project, "Koutiom", shows the depth and coolness of that project, for which Galliano traveled around western Africa for two years to find beautiful voices to put to funky beats. And regular readers of my Popmatters work know how in love with Baaba Maal's work I am; I was pretty sure I would hate an eight-minute "Ashley Beedle Africanz on Marz Mani Remix" of "Falaye Fanaan", but boy oh boy I don't. This mix takes Maal's heartfelt original vocals and basic stripped-down approach and houses it up with a two-step beat that just cannot be denied by man nor beast. The vocoder thing is a little much, but whatever. It's still nice.
But the revelation here is the other stuff. I've heard Gigi a couple of times without actually hearing last year's debut album, but the Restless Soul Offcentre Mix of "Gudfella" is downtempo disco on rollerskates. Her voice is a wonderful gift from Ethiopia, and this mix is so unrelentingly pleasant that I really want to go get the original album. Like, now, except that it's early in the morning and everything's closed except Walmart. Les Go and Mory Kante make distinguished contributions, Tony Allen (Fela's drummer for many many years) gets a Jeff Sharel mix of "Ariya" that strips everything down to the drums and builds up the funk from there (with some very Bernie-Worrell-rific keyboard squiggles thrown into the breakdown), and Dennis Ferrer's "Funu" is presented in a "Cameroun Guitar Dub" that traces King Sunny Ade through his most obvious influences: James Brown and township jive. This is my favorite Quango so far, because it is so effortlessly beautiful, and because it shows that one can play computer games with African music without being condescending or overly "Western" about it. Also, because it introduced me to Osunlade in the form of the track "Cantos a Ochun et Oxa", which would be my personal Pied Piper track to lead me anywhere in the world.
Now on to Bachelor #4, which is titled Dub Selector 2. I took the first Dub Selector to task in these very pages last September for being sucky and boring, and this new one actually has the effrontery to keep trying to woo me with ambient dub (must I repeat that dub was an influence on ambient music even back in the 1970s when Eno "invented" it and not the other way around?) and even with some of the same artists? But this new one somehow avoids that fate by going heavier on the dub and lighter on the ambient. (Also, maybe last September was a lousy time to review records . . . but I'm not supposed to say that.)
It opens with another mix of Professor Ox's "Waves and Sand" -- I like Grant Phabad's leisurely approach here better than the version on the Dream Therapy disc, and it's the perfect introduction to ambient dub 2002. "Millennium", by Submission, uses Tikiman's hot dancehall toasting as an entering point for some serious stereo skullbashing. Someone called Noiseshaper" gets a Groove Corporation remix of a track called "The Only Redeemer", and it's exactly what it should be: great dub mixed with very modern electronic drum and production tactics. And up pops Dorfmeister again, collaboration with Marcus Kienzle on a version of Cutty Ranks' "The Stoppa" that takes in Krautrock and trance before completely imploding and emerging out the other side with Ranks' unstoppable flow.
We're also grooving majorly to Stereotyp's "My Sound", which singlehandedly justifies all of dancehall music with some of the best knobwork you'll ever hear, and Boozoo Bajou's "Camioux", which s-l-o-w-s e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g d-o-w-n and makes it beautiful. And when Thievery Corporation comes up with "38.45 (A Thievery Number)", it's clear that dub should not be garaged-up, but they get points for two-step ambition anyway.
So which one do I pick? Ultimately, gun-to-my-head time, I guess I go for Afrotech. But I don't really have to choose, so I guess I won't. I do know that having these four LPs in heavy rotation in my car has made my morning commute a wonderful thing, and playing them at work makes me not hate work, and cooking to them makes my food taste better. So I'm not going to choose between them. I want all the bachelors.
Please disregard that last sentence. That was weird.