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DJ Boy George
Didn’t you know? Washington is the hotbed of the latest trend in dance music today, chillout. Its epicenter is the Eighteenth Street Lounge, an exclusive, unidentified club that draws straight hipsters and foreign diplomats’ kids, located near the new Lizard Lounge in South Dupont. After Vienna (not Virginia), D.C. outpaces any other city in chillout, according to the Wall Street Journal. You’d barely know about D.C.’s preeminence, though, from recorded music, which more regularly comes from New York, London or Paris. At its worst, chillout is glorified easy listening, pretentious elevator music by John Tesh/Yanni imitators or producers of cinematic scores instead of songs.
“Chillout” is often slapped on any type of music with a steady, unassuming groove, the latest in a line of catchall dance music sub-genres. At its best, it’s essentially mid-tempo, house-style music with strong influences from Africa, India, the Middle East and Latin America — basically World Music with a dance beat and, more often than not, English lyrics. Much of the music released on the Eighteenth Street Lounge Music label comes across as precisely the kind you’d expect to hear at your doctor’s office and think nothing of. Many Eighteenth Street artists view themselves loftily as music educators bringing modern-day (smooth) jazz to new, DJ-centered audiences. Their often slow-paced, smooth-edged jazz can soothe you when you need that sort of thing (and when you need a break from Sade).
When it works, as it does on Thievery Corporation’s latest, The Richest Man in Babylon, it also awes you with its deft incorporation of various musical influences — salsa, reggae, Arabic, Indian — and exotic musical instruments: sitar, conga drums, tablas. It’s not always original. Nearly every melodic element of “Exilio (Exile),” for example, was copied from the 1997 Afro-Cuban All Stars CD. But it’s always high concept and well-meaning.
Thievery Corporation is Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, who founded the Eighteenth Street Lounge. How you can tell the group is from Washington? It wears its politics on its album sleeves. The 34-page, bound booklet that accompanies the CD contains captivating black and white images, mostly of peoples in the midst of regional or national struggles. These, as well as the songs (“Heaven’s Gonna Burn Your Eyes,” “Omid (Hope),” “The Outernationalist”) seem intended to comfort and spiritually nourish human rights activists after a long day of principled activism, and maybe to inspire the rest of us to take action. The title track and the barbed lyrics of “The State of the Union,” in particular, seem aimed at complacent Americans to wake up and smell injustice. The credits refer to its recording site, D.C., as the “heart of Babylon.” They don’t mean that as a compliment.
Boy George’s London location manifests itself in his international ensemble of songs on A Night In with Boy George: A Chillout Mix, which often calls to mind the glorious Britpop of the Boy’s Culture Club days. Too bad he doesn’t actually sing or offer any of his own songs here. But that’s the worst that can be said. The Boy is quite the superb DJ, and this diverse collection presents psychedelic touches straight from Austin Powers’ Britain (Jadell’s “Stick It To Em”), early hip hop with a Jamaican flavor (Mr. Live’s winsome “The Good Life”), and propulsive Indian pop taken right off the wonderful “Monsoon Wedding” soundtrack (Mychael Danna’s “Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa”). Even throaty-voiced Neil Diamond’s influence can be heard to surprisingly good effect (El Hula’s “Augustine”). In short, a remarkable collection that you never grow tired of hearing, certainly more so than A Night Out with Boy George, released a few months prior. And far more so than other similar chillout mix CDs of recent vintage.
Crystal Waters never got the attention she deserved with “Come On Down,” last year’s fun-filled song based on the over-the-top The Price Is Right game show theme. Waters, the Howard University grad who had a string of playful, catchy dance songs in the 1990s (“100 Percent Pure Love,” “Gypsy Woman,” “SayÂ…If You Feel Alright”), has a scratchy, robust alto voice that spreads charm over often cheesy yet inspired and always likeable melodies. Now she’s back again with “Enough,” a song that isn’t cheesy and in every way is pleasing. “It’s never enough” though, since you’ll be lucky to hear it anywhere, and not just because of her label’s obviously poor publicity machine.
Strictly Rhythm, Waters’ current label, shut down three weeks ago, taking the artist and her yet-to-be-released single with it — along with Ultra Nate, Reina, Abigail, Duane Harden, Andrea Brown and others. Meanwhile, Strictly Rhythm’s Groovilicious Music division had just released DJ Escape’s Party Music 2003 — four months ahead of the calendar. Did they anticipate foreclosure? Truth is, this was to be part one of two, with the second for release in February. The CD is a typical collection of hit dance songs, of which we’ve seen several good ones lately from various labels. This is the best of the bunch.
“I Feel So Fine” by K.M.C. featuring Dhany is just one aptly titled standout here. The beautiful, intensely affecting song offers remarkable contrasts: sad, minor-key melody and bass juxtaposed by happy, trance-ish keyboard elements, and dispassionate vocals spouting ecstatic, flirtatious lyrics. Other hightlights include “The More I Love You,” “Something” and “Safe from Harm.” So from Strictly Rhythm, this is “The Sound of Goodbye.” As Perpetual Dreamer tells it in this, another great moody track on the CD, “it’s louder than any drumbeat.”
Strictly Rhythm was the rare label that spent quality time producing mix CDs, bucking the common practice of simply piling up tracks we’ve heard too many times before, or, worse, tracks we’d never want to hear in the first place. Clearly the behavior appeals to some, since we wouldn’t encounter these CDs if they didn’t sell. How else to account for the popularity of DJ Dan, for example?
Dan’s latest mix CD, Round Trip, is a departure from his usual house music funkiness, but then again this elliptical DJ has never been one for much melody. On Round Trip, he throws tracks together that are characterized by little else than repetitious noise, all in an attempt to emulate travel — “trains, planes, subway” to be exact, with all kinds of technical gimmicks and other disturbances (car horns, weed whackers, shrill blips and pings).
The first CD ends with a screech and a halt, as this train rolls into the station. But our journey is only half over, with a full second CD to go. We wanted off this train even before the woman’s screams of Player’s “Rub On Your Titties.” You can hear your standards dropping as the annoying, uncontrolled laughing from the hyper girl in Czar & Ito’s “Soiree” on CD two actually turns amusing. Nothing progresses quickly with DJ Dan’s Movers and Co., and we’re already in quite a stupor by the time Tony Thomas tries to stir us with the incessantly monotonous “Big Stepper.” It hardly makes you want to step out and make a move. Except to turn it off.
DJ Tony Moran
DJ David DePino
Most benefit dance CDs are nothing but fast-paced noise dumped into 70-minute dustbins. Oh sure, it’s for a good cause, but it’s not usually clear how much of each purchase will be donated. And with thousands of CDs competing for your dollars, it seems more lucrative to donate money directly to the intended charitable recipients.
But record labels churn them out anyway, for feel-good effect. Hotlanta benefits Atlanta AIDS organizations — presumably. Proceeds from other CDs in Centaur’s Party Groove collections have gone to charity, but Hotlanta doesn’t actually say it benefits charity, only that the Hotlanta River Expo circuit party does. Regardless, Hotlanta isn’t up to the standard Tony Moran set for himself with his first full mix CD, Global Groove: House, making him the toast of the summer. And while we might have hoped this new CD would make him the toast of fall, it instead marks a fall from grace. A battle between two songs kicks off the CD, “Summer Drummer vs. Love Is in The Music.” I don’t know who wins, but we lose, since two weak songs don’t add up to one winner.
Smack dab in the middle is one of the only songs worth our time, the happy “Let’s Get Together” by Regeneration. Produced by Moran, this number features a soothing serenade from a songstress who confidently hums her way through much of it, to our delight.
Another new CD, Dance for Life, benefits the music industry’s AIDS efforts. Yes, the same benevolent music industry that has shown such compassion to its consumers by thwarting every demand-driven effort to change wants us to give it more money so it can be charitable. Well…here at least the independent dance label West End Records makes a compelling case, for this is a joy through and through — and all proceeds go to LIFEbeat, the music charity.
Right from the start, we’re on higher ground with this ebullient collection, mixed by pioneering house music DJ David DePino. “Thank You (Power of Love)” is nothing less than inspirational, with its vocal calls and organ-riff responses. The beat doesn’t drop for a solid three minutes, or more than halfway into the song, but we don’t miss it. This is classic-style house, all churchy, happy soul that makes you want to shout “Amen” with every shift in your seat and kick of your feet, as you let Marty Thomas’s refreshing, silky vocals wash over you. Newcomer Thomas, who also blesses us here with “Resurrect Me (Lift Me Up),” sounds older than his 22 years and his warm tenor comes out sounding both male and female in blissful harmony. His chief distinction is defeating Britney (yes, her) as StarSearch‘s Junior Vocalist Champion 10 years ago. She may now have the fame, but he’s got the glory, and the pipes for both.
The year’s most uproarious song has got to be “Another Man.” It’s remixed by Junior Vasquez, but the story and its delivery is what sells it. Singer Barbara Mason tells a familiar tale of her cheatin’ man in an unfamiliar way: “I had gone out one day and bought me a vurry, VUR-ry sexy dress and opened up my closet and [it] had disappeared. Lord I hope the man isn’t wearin’ myÂ…” “Uh, child,” interrupts the chorus. She continues, “In my case what I thought I had was not a whole entire man but a facsimile thereof. He wasn’t a clone or nuthin, ya know.” Yeah we know. “Another man is lovin’ mine.” Hmm-hmm-hmm. Ain’t that just the story of our vurry, VUR-ry gay lives.
Mary J. Blige
Amber is covered only by strategically placed tufts of hair on Naked. But it’s not just her amber-hewed skin that’s exposed. Amber’s voice has never been more upfront, and neither has her songwriting ability. While Naked is her third album, it’s the first where she’s wielded total control. As enjoyable as her past hits were, we wish her control had begun long ago. Naked is a remarkable accomplishment, a mark of true talent — though the album isn’t perfect.
All the sophisticated fixings of the album’s first song, “Yes,” don’t add up to a coherently satisfying single. Her second hit, “The Need to Be Naked,” works far more in her favor, though the real meaning behind the lyrics will be lost on casual listeners. Amber is without question a first-rate writer of pop melodies, but she’s also probably too lyrically provocative for the mainstream. She talks a lot about sex, about being naked, about dirty thoughts, but she often uses the provocation just to get your attention; it’s a ruse to talk about human frailties, about revealing our true selves and being honest, about stripping down to our emotional core.
In addition to her sophistications, Naked shows off some of Amber’s blemishes, almost all of which appear when she slows down and relaxes her pace. “You’re Sent From Heaven” features carried-away screeches from a broken-winged angel stranded on barren-desert beats. Her cheating husband is causing her much distress in “Dirty Thoughts,” but our distress comes from her head-scratching metaphor: “Here I am on a raft on a black waterfall of dirty thoughts.” Her mother actually wrote the fetching fast-dance “Heavenly Proximity.” Momma obviously loves to dance, though it’s mostly dance-by-numbers.
Mother also co-wrote with her daughter an ode to Amber’s son, “The Smile of My Child.” It’s a stunning departure from anything we’ve ever heard from the artist. Her voice has always been distinctive but disguised by forceful beats, suggesting weak Madonna pipes. But one listen to this cabaret-styled song and we realize she has a second career all lined up as a Kennedy Center chanteuse. Then there’s the other standout here, “Sex & The City.” Harkening back to that warm feeling Pet Shop Boys gave us with “New York City Boy,” this is perhaps Amber’s most satisfying song to date. And remember the Boys’ joyous “Absolutely Fabulous,” written for the BBC series? Amber emulates them again, though there’s no guarantee the HBO series will pick up the song (which is why she wrote it un-commissioned). It’ll probably only be a hit if they do, since it sounds like a commercial otherwise. But that push could just be the post-“Sexual” boost Amber needs. Come on Carrie, this is Amber’s night.
And considered briefly: Is “No More Drama” Thunderpuss’s best remix? No. It was a phenomenal song to begin with; it’s just the duo’s best remix this year. Is Dance for Me Mary J. Blige’s best album? No. She puts out consistently good discs. But it is unique, and we’ve waited far too long for it, a full acknowledgement from Blige of her fans out on the dance floor. Is this the best dance album of the year? No. It does include amazing tracks, including the high-tide “Your Child,” whose violent waves helpfully washed up all the others here. (No surprise it’s from trendsetter Junior Vasquez.) But it also includes a couple pallid remixes — fortunately, everything isn’t “Everything.” Is there anything more that needs to be said?