Sounds of Om: Third Edition
US release date: 22 January 2002
by Maurice Bottomley
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Over the past few years the California label Om has established a very high reputation for itself. As a purveyor of sophisticated, deep, ambient, jazzy and dub-flavoured sounds it has few rivals. Om collections were reliable, tasteful and distinctive. However, the general rise in downtempo and chill-out compilations rather robbed the label of a certain distinctiveness. Where Om led, many have followed and Om was in danger of becoming just one of the crowd. The relative weakness of Om Lounge 5 and the last Mushroom Jazz set led some to conclude that the Golden Age was over. Even the well-received Soulstice album did little to halt a suspicion that the best of Om was now in the past.
These two releases suggest that the pessimists were wrong. Interestingly, they do indicate a slight change in overall sound, as if Om too were worrying about repetition and the overly soporific. Sounds of Om is the most upbeat and straightforwardly house outing that has appeared on the label for ages, while the latest Lounge collection bears witness to America’s sudden interest in the percussive, broken-beats style currently making waves in West London’s more discerning clubs and bars. Both CDs are impressive and the Sounds imprint will take some dislodging from any of 2002’s top 10 mix CDs.
Sounds 3 is based on a simple premise. DJ/Producer Kascade has been given the pleasant task of mixing together the best and most floor-oriented cuts from Om’s 12″ output in the last 18 months. It can hardly go wrong and my only quibbles concern the endless recycling of Naked Music NYC and the claim that this is the first time on CD for most of these tracks. The latter is simply not true, which does not detract from the quality of said “exclusives”, but did make me think that there were more unreleased remixes here than is the case. The Naked issue is also not a real problem, but I was rather disappointed by Om’s Naked Music Reconstructed set and, fine as King Kooba’s remix is, “It’s Love” is just too hoary a chestnut (in dance terms) to excite me afresh.
Naked Music provide the opening cut which actually pales only in comparison to what follows. Kascade’s own “Gonna Make It”, Andy Caldwell’s “I Can’t Wait” and Johnny Fiasco’s “Take It” represent soulful dance at its most luxurious and elegant. We get two shots of Kascade: the slinky Ryan Raddon West Coast dub, which is much more than the filler track it usually functions as, and the Truth Be Told Mix. I think I would have preferred the bouncier original mix to the rather folky-hippy Truth one but the dub is certainly worth checking if you like that San Francisco/Miguel Migs/Chris Lum funky/spacey vibe. Andy Caldwell’s “I Can’t Wait” was just about the best of last years uptempo soul cuts. Relaxed yet with a pumping rhythm, this is music I travel miles to hear. It even boasts a sleazy but smooth sax solo. Johnny Fiasco is the surprise. Often dismissed as a producer of substandard recycled disco fodder, his “Take It” and the instrumental “Jazzmatic” (which pops up later on) are the album’s unexpected treats.
Built round a bassline with real spring in its stride, some genuine soul singing gives “Take It” a Chez Damier or Kerri Chandler feel (old school soulful house) but with the smoother tones of Toronto or the West Coast. It is ludicrously catchy without being shallow. “Jazzmatic” is just the kind of sax-plus-beats groove that jazzhouse DJs keep in their boxes for months. Both numbers show that Fiasco is a maligned man.
More big guns fire in the shape of the two best Soulstice remixes (Fiasco’s take on “Lovely” and their own reworking of “Fall”). These are already classic tracks and even though the cool-meets-coy vocals of singer Gina Rene irritate some, they do represent the essence of Om’s attitude to house. Sexy, a little detached, usually floating above a lounge bossa arrangement (sax again to the fore), Rene is one of the voices of the Blue Six/French house generation of dance that Om have helped build into a global force.
Add to this some mood sustaining instrumentals and the charming vocal-led “Can’t Stop” by Magnetic West and you have as effective a tour of the less sweaty side of the dance world as could be wished for. Along with Distant’s Paris Live and Dmitri from Paris’ After the Playboy Club, this is the cream of what already has been a good crop of deep house CDs you can dance to, 2002-style.
The Lounge set is, in it’s own way even more essential. I sense that 4 Hero, Zero 7, I.G.Culture and Kaidi Tatham are going to have a big effect on the subtler American dance markets and this Om offering could have easily come out on any of London’s trendier labels. The cast list is truly international, from the Italo-Austrian duo of Dzihan and Kamien to France’s Rollercone, taking in England’s Block 16, returning home with California’s Andy Caldwell. The mood is jazzy, with those shuffling beats, drawn originally from drum’n’bass, but turned to more melodic use, to the fore. It was just what the series needed. The gentle ambience survives but, as with Naked Music’s last compilation, the extra percussion has added some necessary vigour.
Obvious high spots are Block 16’s late acid jazz “Find an Oasis”, with the dependable Jhelisa on vocal chores, and the Caldwell, Kascade and Rollercone cuts. Lesser known acts are not overshadowed though. Who the Beard are is a mystery to me, but the atmospheric “Someday” is very classy indeed. The vibe and horns on Bartholomeus and Rubinstein’s “Club Dandy Goldrush” is even better and wins out as the finest jazz piece. There are no jarring moments and no skip-button tunes at all. This means that the session can be enjoyed as a whole experience as well as for little moments of magic.
The potpourri of styles (try Mo Horizons with their reggae meets Hollywood film score fusion) ensures variety and inventiveness. The rhythms flow smoothly and guarantee continuity. If you want contemporary music that is laid-back but still exploratory, then the mixture of the chilled-out and the left-of-centre as gathered together here is a must. Ambient broken beats, nu jazz breaks and downtempo electronica all combine to deliver what is a very satisfying and substantial set.
Om have at a stroke re-established themselves as a dance label it is impossible to ignore. The funkier edge that has been injected into their penchant for superior mellowness should win them a whole new audience. The house CD will find favour with the more soul-seeking sector of the dance fraternity while the skipping beats that buoy up Lounge 5 are the very same ones currently uniting a black European scene with some cutting edge black American producers (Vikter Duplaix, for instance).
It is perhaps indicative of this trend that Philly’s finest, King Britt, has signed a three album deal with the label. His brand of quirky, abstract funkiness should fit in well with the soothing but purposeful music Om seem to have decided is the way forward for them. Not that Om were on the verge of collapse, but there was the suspicion of a drift into torpor. The reversal shown here is dramatic but not traumatic. If you know both series you know something of what to expect. However, you may be surprised at the quality and the liveliness of these two essential mixes. It’s a pleasant surprise, I assure you.