Downtempo house doesn't necessarily have to be the new 'easy listening', but you sense Om's conscious struggle against a slowly sinking ship on the tenth volume of this series.
A couple years after the peak of the chillout popularity, I think it's safe to say what we knew, back-of-mind, all along: at its worst, 'chillout' can just be 'easy listenting' more acceptably named. The good (and hopefully not altogether surprising) news is, that applies more to Ultra: Chilled or one of the ubiquitous MOS compilations than to West Coast veteran entrant Om Lounge, Volume 10. With its inception in 1998, the downtempo series predates chill electronica's spliffed-out notoriety, and knows the value of beat-making, atmospherics, and all the other elements of dance-music oriented electronica. No watered-down collection of late-night acoustic melancholia, Om's Lounge series has made a specialty of sophisticated, jazz-soaked chillout: think aprs-ski, think champagne, think romance, think sex.
That's the idea, anyway. Over the years, Om has become pretty familiar with the theory, so when you buy an Om Lounge disc, you know what to expect: silky-smooth songs infused with acid jazz. The only trouble is, on the series' tenth disc, the weariness that characterizes the genre in general seems to have found a way into the Om camp. So, though you get a clinically effective Om Lounge sound again here, somehow it seems largely soulless.
No need to re-recap Om's independent spirit and lauded history -- I'd point you in the direction of John Bergstrom's recent review of the Om:10 comp for that. Just know -- Om's been around 10 years, the Lounge series for eight of those, and by now their reputation for sophisticated cocktail-party electronica has grown rock solid.
Don't get me wrong, most of the new comp upholds that reputation valiantly; just -- there's something slightly awry. Om Lounge's tenth volume mostly drops the big names that have made frequent appearances on previous entrants in the series -- acts like Niko, Kaskade, and Soulstice -- leaving a roster of, on the whole, similar-sounding female vocalists. That's the disc's biggest failing: with women crooning soulfully on every other track, by the end the sound wears thin.
On the other hand, objectively skillful craft is obvious in every nook and cranny of the disc's songs. In general, the high-range sounds -- harps, electronic sparkles, and flighty synth melodies -- are turned up loud, with big echoes. These elements characterize the space you hear very clearly on Om Lounge, Volume 10.
Samantha James' opener, "Rise", plays like a slightly electro-d-up Kinobe, but with trite, generically soulful lyrics. But any fears of continued commercial-grade chillout are alleviated within the first few bars of Gil T's excellent "Broken Amber". Its opening space-filled triangle tinkles before a bongo rhythm enters, setting the stage for a jazz-influenced extemporization, all space and impression-of-improvisation, with block piano chords and a de-emphasized, wordless vocal flourish.
What's been set up here is characteristic of the whole disc -- oscillation between saccharine warbles and true, sophisticated atmospheric house sounds. The oscillation continues with Shazzam's "Huff N Puff" and Joey Youngman's "Gotta Be Love"; and so it goes. But there are some obvious highlights. The flute improvisation on "Chopsticks", based around the kids' tune of the track's title, sounds organic and works perfectly. The formula is repeated on Moqita's "No More Sand in My Lipbalm", which sings summer relaxation with a subtle vocal line and a flute breakdown.
Downtempo house doesn't necessarily have to be the new 'easy listening', but you sense Om's conscious struggle against a slowly sinking ship on Om:Lounge Volume 10. More effective would be to downplay the female vocal element, and highlight the spacious, atmospheric beats. An essential element of easy listening is the tendency of the music to fade into the background. Unfortunately, at times that's just what this disc does.