Album: Simply Good Music
Label: Giant Step
Rating: 8 / 10
Reviewer: Dr. Franklin
“Giant Step Presents Simply Good Music” features 14 tracks from artists who reside in the interzone between underground and commercial, both stylistically and in terms of exposure. Despite a few tracks which either fall into safe formulae or delve into unrewarding experimentalism, the compilation delivers what it advertises: a foretaste of Giant Step’s upcoming releases, and a vibrant array of independent, genre-blending songs which will probably be all over college radio playlists and homemade mixtapes well into 2005.
Esthero gets things kicked off with what may be the most melodious diss track in history, ‘O.G. Bitch’. Her rich, assured voice flows and flies over a track that’s right up a production head’s alley – futuristic melange of breakbeats, acoustic guitars, distorted flutes, glockenspiels, and vocal samples. That’s the spoonful of sugar, but it’s laced with arsenic lyrics: Esth proclaims herself “the original bitch, the original whore… the girl you just won’t admit you adore”, calls a rival a “fake ass bitch”, and accuses others of completely stealing her sound. (Half the fun of watching an anonymous attack in music culture is hazarding errant guesses about to whom it might be directed – so, umm, JoJo, maybe?)
The disc segues neatly into ‘Wait a Minute’ a track by Ty. This track is lighter and simpler, relying on an catchy uptempo hook and some quickly rapped verses to tell the story of a romantic relationship slowly and painfully beginning to break. Its upside is also its downfall; the hook is repeated both vocally and instrumentally, and isn’t really strong enough to sustain the repetition. This is one of those tracks that is nice once but its syrupy blend gets annoying if played twice in a row.
Two Banks of Four take things in a more organic direction, dropping sweet harmonies over smooth jazz on ‘One Day’. Think Sons and Daughters of Light’s rare “Darkuman Junction” LP, or Alice Coletrane’s work in the 1970s. ‘One Day’ is rewarding because it explores many possible permutations of its groove, building it up without wearing it out. It finds a perfect balance between the unlistenably abrasive adventures of avant-garde jazz and the play-by-numbers elevator muzak of the Kenny G crowd. A rewarding listen.
Then, damn! ROOTS MANUVA! Welcome back the best British MC going (with apologizes to Slick Rick). His track ‘The Haunting’ lives up to its name, constructing eerie spiral staircases out of rusty nails from old movie car chase music and the discarded bones of dub, dancehall, and ambient carcasses. My man’s staggering flow and warm baritone singing only make the old attic full of ghosts he’s walking through feel more seductive. Creepy but infectious, you’ll want the uncertain insane feeling over and over again.
Carl Hancock Rux’s ‘Lamentations’ takes you from the haunted carnival to the devil’s crossroads, letting the blues guitar scatter memories and the soul vocals drip symbolism all over the techno-voodoo drums. Halfway through, the track starts remixing itself,, flipping stuttering samples from its own short-term memory. This is Ghost in the Machine shit: shamanic trances induced via mad cyberscience. You feel like you could walk into this song, and lose all your programming into Christian doctrine and Netwonian physics.
Oi Va Voi gives the listener’s psyche a chance to recuperate a little with the soothing ‘Refugee’. The searching, poetic lyrics find their place walking in a lush garden of symphonic melody (featuring violins, sprinkled with organsand mandolin) propelled along by a steady (but stolid) breakbeat that’s guaranteed to keep you awake.
If you’re ready for the future of R&B, you need Aya’s ‘Do What You Want’. It explores a rhythm reminiscent of Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work, but Aya’s warm voice and perfect conveyance of emotion keep it accessible for bedroom hearts and dancefloor feet (as well as headphone heads. )
Stepping into the wayback machine, Jiva’s ‘Confessions of a Man’ could probably have been recorded in 1978 and fit in fine. It’s a fairly straight-ahead soul-jazz joint, from the businesslike hi-hats and fingersnaps to the female backing vocals. It may not be as imaginative or groundbreaking as some of the other stuff on this album, but the execution is practically flawless. Fans of classic soul should head straight for this track.
I know two things about Sara Devine’s track ‘Take Me Home’: it is absolutely perfect for its audience, and that audience is not me. Her passionate vocals soar and the piano-based track finds a nice groove, but it’s just not quite exceptional enough to really stand out. Fans of Aaliyah and Brandy, though, will eat this up. It’s well-done, just not this particular mad scientist’s taste.
Amp Fiddler’s contribution to the compilation falls into the same category. The funky ‘I Believe in You’ sports a rubbery bass wash that would make ZAPP proud, but it’s barely a step away from what you hear on everyday commercial R&B radio. If you like everyday R&B commercial radio, or want to like it but don’t, you will believe in this. If Ginuwine doesn’t do it for you, you’ll probably find yourself skipping this one.
Zap Mama’s ‘Bandy Bandy’ gets a Carl Craig remix treatment which dresses the legendary group’s vocals up in a sublime electronic arrangement heavy on handclaps and sine wave generators which brings to mind modern dancehall, 1980s dance music, and 1950s science fiction movies. This track goes places a lot of heads can’t go, finding a new sonic trick around every corner without descending into pointless gimmickry. A complete delight for anyone with an aural fixation, as well as a chance to hear two music legends intertwine for a few unforgettable moments.
Agent K’s ‘Betcha Did’ mixes a simple, funky bassline with a faux-rain forest drum & sound effect track. Then come the heavily processed vocals, reminiscent of Chaka Khan in a blender. Eventually the voices straighten themselves out to resemble something much more human, but in spite of this track’s promise it ends up being inaccessible, almost as if it is afraid of its own groove and instead focuses on a few overblown ego-bending explorations. It strips down to an interesting, natural break midway through the song, but gradually builds back up into the same overdone, forced mess. It’s a shame to think about what this song could’ve been–the talent is there.
‘We Can Make It’ by DKD featuring Donnie features an eccentric drum machine and a steady organ with R & B vocals mixed (literally) underneath it; it sounds as if the vocals and the rhythm have no clue concerning each other’s existence. But then midway through something happens, and like an optical illusion, the song starts to sound closer to being in sync. It’s hard to explain–it doesn’t really work, but it comes closer than such a intentionally difficult and pretentious concept has any right to. Any one of the elements of this song could probably be built into a worthwhile track, but mixed together they’re like a scrambled-egg-and-jelly sandwich.
RSL’s ‘Wesley Music’ is practically trance-inducing; it gradually builds into something that might have happened if Jimi Hendrix’s proposed ‘Electric Church’ had developed its own tradition of hymnody. Innocent but sophisticated. The same two lines (“People walk by,a brighter day, a better day/people walk on by, the sun repairs the sky”) sung over and over again find enough melodious and rhythmic variation to walk through your consciousness like a seeker in a labyrinth, retracing the same steps in new ways so that each dead end feels alive. The groovy drum-and-organ breaks which build up and filter in make the final track on this compilation one of the strongest.
Overall, the tracks on “Simply Good Music” may not be as unique or innovative as Giant Step’s publicists would like you to think; nevertheless, it is a strong mix and a good introductory sampler for the label. If you set aside the hype and come in with fresh ears ready for a simply good audio experience, you won’t be disappointed.