The art of covers has been made science. Publishing houses have plugged thousands of dollars into learning precisely what draws readers to a particular book or magazine, and entire books have been devoted to the trends of album cover art.
Dance music, as a genre, has relied more heavily than most on the clean futuristic lines of modern graphic design, and for reasons that are easily made accountable. Dance is a largely faceless genre, one that stands without benefit of photogenic quartets or charismatic crooners. Also, the vast majority of dance music releases are compilations, killing any possibility of identification through the specific. When it comes to the human touch and album cover art, it seems the best dance music can offer is the allure of a nubile young body, utterly irrelevant and undressed to kill; either that, or it's a mug-shot of a scowling DJ, caught like a criminal and equally wondering, "Just how did I get here?"
To judge by its cover, the recent Wax Poetic release Nublu Sessions suggests another down-tempo compilation, pieced together to fill a vacuous lounge space. However, Wax Poetic are a band, and their songs have an organic feel that suggests as much. Their message speaks directly -- they are late heirs to a more innovative music, a music that preceded the glut of lay-low releases that saturated us to the point of drowning. Besides, didn't we used to call sounds for hotels and elevators "muzak"?
Trip-hop and acid jazz started out as something other than music disappearing into space, different than sounds afraid to offend. It was music that came at you with a distinct viewpoint. Nublu Sessions reminds you of this, even if it doesn't quite begin that way.
The opening track, "Tell Me", features vocals from chanteuse de jour Norah Jones. In light of Ms. Jones's recent success, it's easy to see why the album would begin here. Her performance on this track displays elegance beyond reproach, albeit without a super-abundance of flavor. Much more interesting is "Angels" four tracks in, during which Jones suggests a delicious understated sexiness, and the album begins to spark a flame.
It begins in earnest with "Flights in Dub", harnessed by Jamaican sound system veteran U-Roy. The song shakes us free of the comfort zone, releases us from the expected, and from here on out the album cross-pollinates cultures and countries, mixes beats with jazz, rhythm and rhyme. Nublu Sessions is not directed at chillin' you out (even if it might occasionally allow that), but rather at dropping you into the metropolitan mix. Spoken word artist Saul Williams contributes dark urban poetry over the crash of metal, like the sound of garbage cans colliding in an alley as a horn blows jazz through a distant open window. Marla Turner on "Della" recalls Martina Topley-Bird and Tricky on Maxinquaye, a plaintive cry, mesmerizing and distinct. It's unmistakably the sound of the city, of modern living. The movement is harried, shifting, anything but lateral, and perhaps one reason the opening track seems almost out of place is the timeless quality of Nora Jones vocal line. It's awfully pretty, but it could easily have been recorded thirty years ago.
The rest of the album proceeds in a different fashion from that opening note, which is to say it's much more interesting. The scratch and hiss of turntables, smoky atmospheric beats, the now familiar influence of movie soundtrack: we're reminded that this is where dance music found introspection before the somnambulists lured us all to sleep, keeping us cozy with Euro Chill Lounge Volume 8. It's more a contained set of ideas than a collection of pieces blending in. It's standing out, not merging together. Most of all, it's about musicians playing for the love -- and the furthest thing it's about is trendy labels.
Doubtless this album will be picked apart and placed on lazy compilations anyway, but the way to experience it is whole. The Wax Poetic collective emerged from a club located on Avenue C in New York City, a joint where a rotating crop of musicians came to jam, hang out, exchange notes. It continues still, revolving around principle Ihan Ersahin who, thankfully, is keeping it real on the outskirts of an exhausted, troubled scene.