Various Artists: Simply Good Music - Volume One

Tim O'Neil

Various Artists

Simply Good Music - Volume One

Label: Giant Step
US Release Date: 2004-07-27
UK Release Date: 2004-08-09

Giant Step was founded in 1990 as an underground club date. In the ensuing 15 years the company has spread its branches throughout the fabric of modern electronic music, with both a trend-setting record label and an industry leading promotional department. Giant Step maintains that in any capacity they only give their support to acts and events which they regard as important and interesting.

Based solely on their exhaustive track record, its hard to disagree with their methods. Giant Step releases typically reside in the blurry gray area between genres, where adventurous musicians explore the boundaries of beautiful sonic miscegenation. If there is one problem with the label, it would have to be their dogged adherence to their own irrepressible sense of good taste -- most Giant Step artists and projects are unsurprisingly cosmopolitan in their execution and unerringly polite. This is hardly a cardinal sin in an industry where bad taste is an unfailing virtue, but it lends a sense of predictability to an otherwise sterling curriculum vitae.

Alt-pop chanteuse Esthereo begins the compilation with "O.G. Bitch", a Latin-flavored hip-hop influenced track that juxtaposes her kiss-off lyrics with a lovingly modified salsa beat. There's even a bossa nova breakdown in the middle eight. Ty featuring MPHO continue the Latin vibe with "Wait a Minute", a similarly syncopated experiment in uptempo hip-hop.

I've never heard of Two Banks of Four, but based on their contribution, a spry torch-song number called "One Day", they are a group to watch. Their jazz-heavy approach to sampling reminds me very strongly of Lamb. Roots Manuva represents with "The Haunting", a refreshingly original approach to the hoary intersection between hip-hop and jazz. If this track is any indicator of what his new material will sound like, we may yet see Roots Manuva take his rightful place alongside Mike Skinner (of the Streets) and Dizzy Rascal in the ranks of British hip-hop artists who have found success stateside.

Carl Hancock Rux remains one of the most criminally underexposed artists of the last decade. Unfortunately, its not a surprise that he remains a hidden gem, as his combination of combative spoken-word and aggressive electronic programming make him singularly unapproachable. Oi Va Voi is another group I've never heard of before, but based on the evidence of "Refugee", this London-based sextet might just be on the brink of something very big. Their effortlessly catholic sound manages to conjure images of both Eastern Europe and modern electronic pop, while never allowing either flavor to dominate the mix.

I have already written about Aya for PopMatters here. I am not a vindictive writer, so I will not belabor the point: her music appeals to me about as much as it did four months ago, that is, not at all. Jiva's "Confessions of a Man" is relatively unimpressive, presenting the artist's R&B vox alongside an uninteresting soft-jazz backdrop. Sara Devine presents another side of the nu-soul experience, with a slightly more palatable style slightly evocative of En Vogue being backed by Grayboy.

Amp Fiddler has made quite a splash with his debut album, the infectious Waltz of a Ghetto Fly, and his "I Believe In You", excerpted from that album, is a fine example of his typically engaging electro-soul. Carl Craig's remix of Zap Mama's "Bandy Bandy" is perhaps the album's standout track. Craig manages to infuse the track with his trademark futuristic house without losing sight of Zap Mama's exotic melancholy.

Agent K's Feed the Cat was one of last year's more underrepresented highlights, and "Betcha Did" is one of that album's standout tracks. Agent K is one of the better artists to explore the borderlands between house and jazz, and this track successfully straps both of these opposing viewpoints to satisfyingly funky pop engine. DKD is one of the album pleasantest surprises, presenting a sharply abstract take on UK Garage in contrast to a smooth R&B vocal. Donnie, another of Giant Step's signature artists, lends his voice. The Danny Krivit edit of RSL's "Wesley Music" lends a fittingly eclectic mood as the album's final track. This track could best be described as "kitchen sink house", with elements of jazz, funk, world and Latin music intermingling atop a frenetic breakbeat.

Giant Step is one of the most distinctive labels in modern electronic music, and this compilation offers a satisfying look at the length and breadth of their ambition. It isn't perfect, and the unfalteringly urbane atmosphere combined with the milquetoast R&B elements may repel some, but the composite effect is wholly pleasing.

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