Chillout music isn't really a genre unto itself so much as a subset of electronica defined by its slowed-down tempo and woozily romantic, 3 a.m. vibe. A good chillout tune is, essentially, a ballad, except we're not allowed to call them ballads anymore because that term is so unhip and syrupy and Celine-Dionified. Still, you can think of your average chillout mix as the 21st Century hipster's equivalent of those Monster Ballad compilations that came out towards the end of the hair metal band era. Like a good set of lighter-flicking singalongs, a good chillout mix combines songs from acts who are all kindred spirits but who wouldn't necessarily show up on the same bill together (i.e., Night Ranger is to Whitesnake as Bent is to Lamb), and is as much or more about the consistency of overall sound than it is about the quality of the individual tracks. You shouldn't have to interrupt your makeout session to get up and adjust the volume, or skip the track with the big noisy chorus.
Judged in these terms, Ultra Records' Ultra Chilled series has pretty much been the gold standard since its 2001 debut. What sets these double-CD sets apart from the more run-of-the-mill chillout comps in circulation -- and their numbers are legion -- is Ultra Records' extraordinary licensing reach, and the skills of mixer/compiler David Waxman, a highly gifted New York house DJ who brings a level of talent to the Ultra series that's virtually non-existent among other purveyors of chill. On your typical Ultra Chilled set, you not only get tracks from major-label acts like Coldplay and Dido -- you get good chillout tracks from major-label acts like Coldplay and Dido, well-placed and sequenced amongst tunes from other acts you might not have heard of, but should.
Ultra Chilled 04 doesn't offer quite as many big names as previous sets, but Waxman's ear for great songs and knack for sequencing remain undimmed, making this yet another solid entry in the series. There are really only one or two dud tracks in the whole double-disc set of 24, and it's all sequenced in a way that provides for maximum makeout efficiency (though I'm still looking for volunteers to confirm this). And there's a nice blend of more well-known tracks, wow-I-didn't-know-they-did-that gems, and flat-out obscure stuff that sounds nice, anyway.
The collection starts off with its biggest licensing coup, a Zero 7 remix of N.E.R.D.'s "Provider" that was previously unavailable in the States. The English kings of downtempo sound like strange bedfellows for the main project of ultra-cool hip-hop producers the Neptunes, but strip "Provider" down to a few restrained beats, throbbing bass, and gently strummed acoustic guitar, and presto! Damn if it isn't a Zero 7 track. Chillout fans who actually pay attention to the lyrics -- for all its lush romanticism, "Provider" is still a gang-banger ballad about driving cocaine shipments down the Jersey Turnpike -- can skip it and proceed straight to another great find, an old jazz-hop tune by the otherwise forgettable Wax Poetic that features jazz chanteuse Norah Jones. It's hard to believe now, but in 2000 no one knew who Jones was, and "Angels" sank without a trace along with the album it came out on. So it's great to hear the track resuscitated here, especially since Jones' sultry voice soars with a range she rarely revealed on Come Away with Me.
The ever-reliable Goldfrapp weigh in next with "Hairy Trees", an unfortunately named slice of lovely dream-pop that's more typical of their debut Felt Mountain than of the electro-clashy 2003 album Black Cherry from which it's taken. Then it's skip-button time, as Andrew Lloyd Webber fave Sarah Brightman turns up with one of her unfortunate forays into mainstream pop, a track called "Beautiful" off this year's allegedly Middle Eastern-flavored album Harem. I'm guessing Brightman's inclusion was a ploy to lure in the older demographic to whom she appeals, because I can't think of any other explanation for including this treacly New Age tripe in the mix.
Perhaps a bit dazed by Brightman's numbingly sweet soprano, Waxman then gets stuck in a "Beautiful" rut, following up Brightman's "Beautiful" with a Chris Coco mix of Poloroid's old Ibiza chestnut "So Damn Beautiful" and Bent's "Beautiful Otherness". The Poloroid track is inoffensive but another unfortunate choice, I think; it's turned up in various versions on at least half a dozen other compilations since its original 1999 release, and it's wearing pretty thin around the edges. The mix hits its stride again with "Beautiful Otherness", off Bent's latest brilliant downtempo album The Everlasting Blink; with a great, swaying cocktail jazz beat and warmly crooned vocals by John Marsh of the Beloved, it effortlessly mimics and then tops the lushness of chamber pop specialists like the Aluminum Group and Belle & Sebastian.
A couple of unheralded but excellent tracks from Baz and Kelli keep the vibe dreamy and cool; Baz's "Never Ending Story" is a lovely little jazz-samba number, while Kelli, who's loaned her girlishly soulful pipes to everyone from Bootsy Collins to Satoshi Tomiie, injects just the right note of dramatic urgency into the proceedings with the slowly soaring "Sunlight in the Rain" (this is the part of the makeout session where the clothes start coming off). Then comes the compilation's one and only, and very smart, cover song: a bluesy, Rhodes-led reading of Pink Floyd's "Breathe" from Open Door. Like many good covers, on paper it sounds like it couldn't possibly work, but trust me, it does, and it's a nice nod to chillout's roots in the psychedelic/stoner rock of the early '70s, which the hipsters who listen to this stuff don't admit to anywhere near often enough.
Disc one ends on an electro/synth-pop note with a trio of buzzy tracks: "Prego Amore" from former Kings of Convenience frontman Erland Øye, "Last Days of Summer" from "UK buzz band" Magnet (quoting the press kit here because I'd never heard of them before), and "This Place is a Prison" by Dntel/Death Cab for Cutie side project the Postal Service. All three are solid songs, especially the breathtaking "Prison", but they don't really rate as chillout music unless you're a huge fan of early Adam Ant and Depeche Mode material.
Disc two is less adventurous but more consistent, and might be nicknamed the "People You've Heard of Working under Other Names" set. The insanely prolific Andy Cato of Groove Armada weighs in with tracks from two side projects: Weekend Players, whose throbbing, gorgeous "Jericho" off the album The Pursuit of Happiness is a major highlight, and Caia, his collaboration with Maiku Takahashi, whose "Remembrance" is classic chillout, a breezy instrumental with just enough soul to keep from lapsing into elevator music. The even-more-insanely prolific Chris Brann of Wamdue and P'Taah fame is the driving force behind Ananda Project and their track "Justice, Mercy" off the 2003 album Morning Light. The track is vintage Brann: pretty, soulful, jazzy, with a pleasingly Seal-like vocal from Terrance Downs.
Richard Dorfmeister's Tosca project has never lived up to the promise of his groundbreaking work with Peter Kruder, but Waxman's selection, "Oscar", off the 2003 album Dehli9, is exemplary, a dreamy, shuffling samba with sweetly dubbed-out vocals by Anna Clementi. And in the compilation's deepest cut from the musty vaults of proto-chillout, Waxman tosses in a weird little trip-hop/dub track called "Invasion of the Estate Agents" from an early (1989) project by a guy named Norman Cook, who later went on to become Fatboy Slim. It's not the best track in the mix, but for curiosity's sake alone it's a clever, welcome addition.
The rest of disc two is rounded out by the usual chillout suspects, and if these names don't mean anything to you, they should: Lamb, Gotan Project, Chungking, and yes, the godfathers of it all, the Orb, who contribute what I believe is a brand-new cut called "Tower Twenty-Three". Waxman also gives us a pretty new song called "The Cure" by UK chillout veterans Miro, the beatless "lush mix" of Mutiny UK's pretty Ibiza-friendly anthem "Keep Love" off their solid 2003 debut In the Now, and the prettily melancholy calypso of Ben Onono's "Badagry Beach". And if all that sounds like too much prettiness, just remember that it's all served up wrapped in a thick, warm gauze of chillout atmospherics for your protection. Your hipness will not be tainted.