Since its first 12″ release in 1999, San Francisco’s Naked Music label has been at the forefront of a deep house revival that has brought legions of jaded old househeads back to the dance floor. On numerous compilations and mix collections, a broad array of Naked DJs, producers, and songwriters have presented a unified front of sexy, soulful grooves anchored by jazzy live instruments and seductive, diva-free vocals — Miguel Migs, Mauricio Aviles, Atjazz, Lisa Shaw, and Blue Six, the alterego of Naked Music co-founder Jay Denes, to name a few.
All this success attracted the attention of Astralwerks, home label to Fatboy Slim and Chemical Brothers among others, which is now partnering with Naked Music as part of its ongoing quest for dance/electronica world domination. Happily, Astralwerks is throwing its promotional weight behind what may be Naked Music’s best release to date, Blue Six’s sublime debut album Beautiful Tomorrow. The first single-artist release from Naked Music, Beautiful Tomorrow clears up any doubt about who the brains behind the Naked sound has been all along. Jay Denes’ Blue Six tracks are Naked Music distilled down to its essence, all bubbling basslines, catchy melodies, dreamy, melancholy vocals, and classic four-on-the-floor house beats that are irresistible without ever being overly aggressive. It’s chillout music you can dance to — or maybe dance music you can chill to.
What it’s not is music for people with short attention spans. From the sleek soul vibe of the opening track, “Let’s Do It Together”, Denes establishes his core sound and sticks to it through most of the album. Songs unfold at a leisurely pace, typically clocking in at over six minutes, and sound so alike as to blend into one another, despite the fact that Denes rarely segues directly from one track to the next. This makes the album sound a little too smooth for its own good at first, but there’s a depth to Denes’ music that rewards repeat listenings.
Take the “Teksoul Dub” remix of Blue Six’s classic “Music and Wine”. Built around a very minimalist vocal sample and keyboard vamp from the original track, the remix layers in some subtly syncopated percussion, then blossoms into something at once jazzier and funkier with some nicely understated guitar and bass licks, a well-timed hi-hat and even a flute solo. Further listens reveal even more going on — some spacey keyboards, a more fully fleshed out but heavily muted bassline. Denes is a master of building his arrangements in ways that are almost subliminal but more emotionally resonant that a hundred other, more hyperactive house tracks.
Beautiful Tomorrow‘s highlight is the another Blue Six track most househeads are familiar with, “Sweeter Love”. Presented here as an eight-minute vocal house epic, this 1999 club hit manages to sound at once like latter-day disco and cutting-edge deep house, with a chorus catchier than anything on Top 40 radio, an irresistibly slinky bassline, and insoucient female vocals, this time courtesy of Lysa, ooh-oohing through that trademark heavily filtered Naked Music sound. You could question why Blue Six’s oldest track is still their best, but I suspect age and quality in this case are directly related — Denes has had nearly four years to tweak and refine “Sweeter Love”, whereas equally groovy but less vital tracks, like the jazzy-soul spurned-love anthem “Close to Home” and the sweetly melancholy “Love Yourself” are new numbers that will probably fully reveal themselves in future remixes.
Elsewhere on Beautiful Tomorrow, Denes shows a nice touch with more downtempo numbers — clearly he’s not interested in limiting himself to dancefloor grooves, and he’s got the talent to expand far beyond the house idiom. “All I Need” and “Very Good Friends”, in particular, have a sophisticated phuture soul sound that preserves that seductive Naked Music vibe in a more laid-back, “back to mine” setting.
Although Blue Six is largely a one-man show, credit should also be given to Denes’ collaborators, whose vocal and instrumental contributions give many of these tracks a spark that a lot of purely electronic and sample-based house has lacked in recent years. In particular, Denes’ old partner and Naked Music co-founder Dave Boonshoft is the man laying down those tasty basslines, and so deserves huge props for the Blue Six sound. Then there’s a whole busload of talented vocalists seductively delivering Denes’ lyrics of loss, love and hope. Naked Music diva-in-residence Lisa Shaw (she of Lovetronic’s “You Are Love” fame) is her typically luminous self on “Let’s Do It Together”, but her work is matched and maybe even exceeded by Aya’s gorgeously restained work on “Love Yourself”, and by Catherine Russell’s multi-track crooning on “Very Good Friends”, “Music and Wine”, and the shimmering title track, which closes the album on a hopeful note.
Weak spots? Well, I’ve never been a fan of Blue Six’s other big club hit, “Pure”, but it’s arguably what Denes is best-known for, so what do I know? I do think, though, that old Blue Six fans will be disappointed by the vocal version of “Music and Wine” that turns up here. Unlike the excellent Attaboy remix featured on Miguel Migs’ Nude Dimensions Vol. 1, Denes’ version of his own song features way too much syncopated percussion and overlapping vocals — the song itself, which remains one of his best, loses its groove and gets lost in all the production. You could also argue that “Yeah” and “Grace (Freedom Dub)” are throwaway tracks, but that’s getting pretty persnickety — there are fourteen tracks and over seventy minutes of music here, and even when he’s not at his best, Denes is still as good as any other deep house producer in the business.
He’s so good, in fact, that calling Blue Six house music is probably too confining. Denes uses house beats, but really, in the way he combines joy and melancholy, regret and celebration, sometimes within the same lyric or same musical phrase, Denes is creating soul music, in its purest, most old-fashioned sense. “Used to get high just to pass the time / Music and wine were the only friends I had” is a line worthy of Otis Redding, and it’s just one of many examples throughout the album of Denes’ superior lyrical and songwriting chops. It’s terrific to hear someone combining this bittersweet sensibility with modern dance music sounds, and reminding us that it’s possible to make upbeat music that isn’t mindlessly bouncy or simperingly feel-good. May Blue Six and Naked Music ride the Astralwerks giant to a little world domination of their own.