So, other than the relatively pleasant subscription routine described here, how was the music? Though the reaction of many friends I spoke to about this project was that the selection of tracks on emusic.com couldn't possibly be worthy of sustained interest (or, at the very least, wouldn't include anything current), I found that there are riches being offered by this site -- in addition to which, they added the Ghost World soundtrack practically the same week the movie was released, which means that they have the capability to be current with selected releases.
Below, I tackle the daunting task of reviewing the many hours of music obtained in the course of this downloadable digital music subscription. This page will be updated from time to time as I work my way through the collection.
For the record, during the time of my subscription (about 4 months, including the free 100 track download period that kicks off the service), my interaction with emusic.com was limited to these areas of music:
The electronic section, which includes ambient, downtempo, house, DnB, hiphop, breaks, and tons more; the Dub/Reggae section (Mad Professor, Bill Laswell are there in abundance) and a few items from the World Beat section – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is there, but not the best example of his work; from the Jazz section, I looked mostly at classic, bebop … my pickings in this section were influenced by my having just watched the first 5 segments of the PBS Jazz series….
Within those categories, I found a lot of stuff I’d never heard of along with a couple of familiar names; in most cases, I was more likely to download something if the good folks at emusic.com had included a bit of description on the download page …. Who knows, I might have missed the best stuff by being too cautious. Unlike the high cost of taking a chance on a commercial CD, emusic's "unlimited download" subscription makes it possible to explore the unknown without bankrupting you, and that's a fine thing.
Among the biggest excitements: finding James Hardway; the many great house tracks on compilations from Guidance, Ubiquity, and other lables; Cool Breeze including RMXs of my favorite track (and his, too, apparently) Can’t Deal with This; discovering Jhelisa, Elements of Life, finding Amalgamation of Soundz after reading a recommendation on thedownbeat.org forum, digging up crazy RMXs of the Miracles and Ike & Tina Turner.
The biggest drawback: You don’t get liner notes or really much info at all, particularly if there’s no write-up on the download page … You definitely don’t get any information as to year of release, unless you’re downloading bebop or swing material that references the year of recording in the title, as so many compilations of historical jazz material do. Oh well, if good taste is timeless, that shouldn’t matter other than as a curiosity.
Here’s the first handful of reviews, covering the material in no particular order (note this feature: some titles may be links -- these will take you to the emixes page or to the MixMeister Radio set-lists, and you can see how I put the track to work):
The first things I listened to were a
couple of compilations, one from Tummy Touch Records and one put
together by the good folks at emusic.com. Standout tracks on these two collections
caught my attention so I wandered off to make a mix, and never went back
to focus on the other tracks, but it’s basically all Electronic Dance
Music (EDM) in its many manifestations: housey stuff from Tummy Touch,
DnB / hip-hop from emusic, plus the odd downtempo nugget: in other
words, the whole gamut. I’ll come back to these with more detail
Elements of Life: Molecular Dreams – Although it begins with a suggestion of spacy ambient, it actually delivers plenty of active grooves, right on the edge of house … and there’s one must-have downtempo track, Thrill. Overall, danceable; moderately complex and interest-sustaining.
Cujo: Adventures in Foam – this CD was recommended to me by a number of different people and its popularity made its presence on emusic surprising … but then they offer some Groove Armada, too (tho not the most recent or the biggest hits.) At any rate, this is an admirably complex collection of beats – DnB, electro, a bit of funk, a bit of jazz. Never dull. Check out Fat Ass Joint for funk, Paris Stretham for atmospheric DnB, and The Sighting for a compelling blend of all these styles.
In the acid jazz vein, Fresh Lab’s Jazzalistic offered a handful of memorable tracks. The title tune comes in two versions, the "Miles" flavor being highly satisfying. On the Rhodes Again, Sax O’Phone and Urban Pygmys are some other outstanding cuts mixing the dance, downtempo and jazz sensibilities.
Notable among artists I’d heard of prior to seeing their material on emusic.com, Beanfield offered their self-titled first album for download, and I found myself liking it way better than the later release I’d already purchased. In addition to Charles (which I give high marks for its sampling from the Eno / Byrne ur-EDM album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), To Be Alienated is a downtempo gem, and Richard Dorfmeister’s Belvedere remix of Planetary Deadlock turns in the classic K&D sound, elevating an already fine track to the next level. Did You Know the Truth and Freund Clone are two other tunes will also keep downtempo fans engaged, and other than Green Angel, none of the remaining tunes is at all bad.
Beanfield and K&D tracks also show up on the compilation Dub’n’Bass: A Tripomatic Jazz Experience, but they aren’t really the best things going on – in fact, I find the vocal on K&D’s Revenge of the Bomberclad Joint downright irritating. But Silverbeam turns in a listenable effort on Hallucinate, and the Fauna Flash RMX of Fon Kin’s Montininja is excellent. And of course, this collection also offers Shantel’s frequently-heard Azulee, a favorite of mine.
Black Jazz Chronicles is a manifestation of Ashley Beedle and the release offered by emusic.com is Future JuJu. On this CD, as on others, I packaged a one-off in the interests of maximizing storage space – so Beedle’s tracks share space with one by Underground Evolution entitled Eau du Vie. This is a spunky little number from out on the jazz tip, mostly piano-driven with a ghostly vocal layer dropping in now and again. Swank stuff, leading into Future JuJu as smoothly as though they were actually related. BJC leads off with a piano-oriented, almost classical piece, setting the tone for what follows as nothing frivolous. If the Creator Came Today builds off a relaxed drum riff with some smooth and swirly, langorous lines. After a couple of not particularly memorable tracks, the title track Future JuJu comes most proper with tribal rhythms backing the melody and birdsong providing the filigree on top. Next, Alien Waters brings an ultra-smooth, faintly DnB flavor to the mix and turns in one of the stand-out tracks on the collection -- this one begs "use me!" I’m not crazy about the "Rock Your World" vocal bit dropped into The World Will Rock, but otherwise the track offers up some choice rhythmic moments. On the other hand, the vocal intro to New Orleans sets the track up perfectly and complements the N’awlins feel to the musical side. This and the following track, All Allah, are each brief, but inviting. A bit more strenuous is One Bad Morning which picks up some of the energy slack w/ a slightly DnB feel underneath the organ melody line, and the tune builds nicely throughout its 7 minute length. With the final track Promises and Lies, we return to a more classical, piano-driven finish.
One of the previously-unknown groups whose music I took a chance on (note how agreeable it is to learn about new music when it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg) was Cellar Dwellas who have a Bushwacka! connection that’s not elaborated on the download page – but it shows in the danceability of most of the tracks. The set starts off with Ambient Dub, richly laden with effects over a smoothly rhythmic layer of bass loops, an excellent choice to pick up the tempo of a mix. Same is true of Rubber Band, tho’ it’s a bit more monotonous. Something about it suggests "Euro" to me, possibly the vocals? It grows on me…. Further on in the set Here Us Now impresses with its vigorous beats, tasteful effects and crazy vocal tag. Following that are a couple of less interesting tracks, in addition to which, a few of the mp3 files I downloaded from this page were apparently defective.
[I filled up the extra space on this CD with a couple of tracks downloaded from epitonic.com – a Johnny Fiasco track First Time (Sub Mix), which is a likable-enough, straight-up house number, and another house track by Adm Collins, Long Distance Lover, which is very smooth and slinky -- a downtempo/house hybrid.]
I won’t bother with a track-by-track rundown of one of the more disappointing sets – Distant Shore is a freshman effort by Tracey Thorn, which sounds like it dates from the days before formation of Everything But the Girl. Tracey accompanies herself (perhaps?) on guitar on a half-dozen tracks. Not one delivers "the voice" for which she is now justly famous: confident, richly inflected, sophisticated. She is captured at the demo stage of her career, and while some may find lyrics of interest, I found the whole thing eminently forgettable … this has more in common with posting nude pictures from the "before famous" years: you may have them legitimately, but neither the artist nor the listener benefits.
I really enjoyed some of the remixes of classics, such as a set of Miracles tunes which have been touched-up by various artists. These got included on a CD with a Ubiquity Records compilation entitled: No Categories #1. Leading off the CD is an irresistible remake of I Second That Emotion I (Smokin’ Mix) – I would happily add this to any uptempo mix with a funky heart. Next up, from the Ubiquity artists set, is Midnight Session by Bugs with Joefinite the I.S. (I’m guessin') providing the rap component. This is some sweet bumpin’ and groovin’ with an enticing chorus : "stop, stop, right there stop" punctuating the proceedings. Also very sweet is DJ Wally and DJ Swingsett’s Tell Me Something offered here in a version remixed by Beanfield. Loping, bumpin’ beats decorated with some semi-scratchin sounds and a low sexy vocal on the chorus, this rates inclusion in any downtempo mix that seeks to stretch the boundaries a bit. The Live and Direkt track that follows is OK, but not memorable. Then I slipped in another Miracles re-do: Tears of a Clown (Fredco Mix) which comes with much more of an updated beats feel to it than the previous Miracles track, though it's not as enticing on its own merits. Skyjuice brings on the DnB mood with The Rope-a-Dope, a relatively complex though low-key track, very mixable. DJs Wally and Swingsett turn in a fairly experimental track with Righteous Like a Brother: elements of Jungle/DnB and effected hiphop make it more of a listening experience than a mixing candidate. By contrast, Dave Pike’s jazzy Nita is virtually fusion, almost seeming out of place on this set, with it’s xylophones, etc. Then it's back to the Miracles and Tracks of My Tears, remixed in electro-breaks style, with a funky backbeat overlaid with a shout chorus that makes it a very engaging update. With About You, an Up, Bustle and Out remix of a Bugs track, we come upon some gritty, stripped-down vocals set against a spare background of beats and effects. This is very affecting stuff, works up to a sweat. A last look at the Miracles brings up Love Machine (Funky House Mix) which really thumps its way into your good graces … this could be sooo cheesy, but no, it’s quite beguiling despite the 70s echoes. The set closes out with a Mr. Scruff Remix of The Creator Has a Master Plan by Bobby Matos which comes with a funky style proper to its title, and Pucho and the Group giving up their version of Let’s Get it On Pt 2, which hasn’t got nearly the appeal of the Miracles tracks from the same era.
One of the numerous satisfying house sets to be found in the electronic music section on emusic.com is Volume One of the Glasgow Underground series. Studio Blue’s Just a Mood (the Andy Carrick Just a RMX version) leads off with some sweet house which, while it occasionally submits to the thumpin’ 4 on the floor, is generally more complex than that. Rick Preston’s Two Fisted Smoke starts out a yawner with a bit of cheese on the side … but taken as just a good-natured invitation to dance, it really is undeniable -- I stuck with it long enough to start liking. Mateo & Matos offer Keep Dancin’ (Kevin’s DJ Groove), a true gold standard 4onthefloor house number that delivers the beats without breaking any new ground or causing excessive excitement…. Then we're back to Andy Carrick for Kevin’s Freaky Groove mix of Freak Vibrations…more "better than average" house grooves, no innovations ... that elicits respect but not excitement. Next up, Cassio with Baby Love (Muzique Tropique’s Love the Bass RMX). In the first version of this song I came across (also downloadable from emusic), the narrative schtick in the vocal really just called too much attention to itself, detracted from the song…. But in this version, being the bassheavy thing it is, the music stands up to the vocals, they drown in the music, really…. Your serious mixer would likely drop out the vocals and work off the bassline, which is irresistible…. It's a keeper! After this workout, Muzique Tropique needs to come correct with something real to get our attention … so they do. Black America IS the hard-working groove that commands yr respect, another keeper that will give you back your energy. After a forgettable DJ Q track, Sixteen Souls’ Late Nite Jam returns control of this set to the groove. Loping, steady, tribal-inflected beats, this is like a firm hand on your back steering you thru a crowded dance floor. Do You Think You Can Love Me is the offering from Romanthony, featuring the vocals of Nadia. It’s not memorable for me.
[This CD includes Adm Collins' Friend from the Past courtesy of epitonic.com. This is a strangely compelling track perhaps because I can't readily identify its genre …. EDM, I guess would cover it, but unique really. I would like to find a mix for this.]
Now here’s a goodie: Terra Firma courtesy of Sounds from the Ground. This nine track offering is full of danceable grooves in what I'm gonna call west coast style … the opening track, Treasure, certainly has a psychedelic sensibility along with the funk. Shine picks up the pace with some lite DnB civilized with vocal filigree and inviting danceability. Material is more funky EDM but has some clichéd moves, perhaps not as fresh as it could be… but the bassline is authoritative. The Cut serves up a slice of lounge-funk, lazy and blasé. Bodega Bay has an atmospheric tinge that I usually associate with DnB, but there's none of that here… it’s a dubbed up mystery, leads in nicely to the next track, Drug Store, a moody song given a dramatic identity both with the beats and the vocal element….it’s like a trumpetless funk version of Sketches of Spain. Rye is a bit out on the experimental tip in its opening moments, but claims it’s place with this set by spinning out a subtle bassline (reminiscent of Big Muff’s in My Funny Valentine) and building slowly on that … Sounds from the Ground give themselves 8 minutes to stretch out on this one. Marshmello makes an interesting mix out of a few light sounds (triangle here, organ there) and some harsher ones (clanking metals), throws in a rock steady foundation and offers it up for your consideration. The last track on this album is Planted, which is lush, smooth EDM, tho’ it might veer off toward the new-agey too much for some…. Overall, an enjoyable album from this group.
Turning now to Ambient Rhythms and their release Nu Urban Elektronika, which delivers a happy mix of funk sensibility and rhythmic adventuring. Cubizm leads off with a very deliberately-paced breaky downtempo track, the insouciance just rolling off in waves…. Warp Blue tries harder for your love, throwing you little unexpected curves into FSOL territory; this one succeeds nicely and carries on just long enough. It’s the "downlow" of this collection. In an excess of confidence, then, Urbania seems to slack a bit, and the finger hovers near the >| key. Patience is rewarded when Playing With Fire fires up, a buoyant dub bonbon that repays your love with mighty proper beats. Must-have! Below the Bass is an average contribution to the set that you’ll likely soon forget. The set closer, Liquid, tho not complex, has charms as an outro.
The next compilation, Audio Alchemy, leads off with special guest (as I like to say when I've folded-in something from another collection -- in the case, from the Guidance High Fidelity House Imprint 3 set) Homebase weaving their Constant Love around you … gold standard downtempo rhythms, poignant synth layers to attract your emotional attachment – they got it all goin’ on with this track. The Ubiquity artists represented on the Audio Alchemy set share the space with some spoken word interludes which can be safely ignored. So then, Cut Chemist leads off with Layered Laird to entice you, which the bass (reminiscent of a slowed-down Roni Size) accomplishes effortlessly. And then the Chemist layers on the raga flourishes. This one will hold your attention. Following that, numbers by Bugs and Mumbles are fairly strong but not keepers … they just don’t wear well. Qburns’ Last Stand comes off sounding quasi-Asian and not at all serious (whatever that means!) … you sense you won’t need to hear it again. Then Terra Deva tears it up with/for Skyjuice on Creeping Up, putting an emotional layer over the track and riveting your attention on it. After the next "interlude" there’s Gritos by T-Cisco which is difficult for me to categorize, but not because it's terribly experimental … lowkey delivery of some sonic embellishments along with the beats. I'd call it more interesting than enticing. It’s the first in a short run of tracks that offer more in the way of ideas about music than actually compelling music, including a spoken word presentation. But with Lost in the Funhouse, Mumbles brings us back to focus on the groove … this is particularly downbeat in tone and tempo, a shuffle beat setting the pace. Another dropdown in tempo comes with Omega by the Sharpshooters which employs a darkest-Africa vocal sensibility as part of its style.
The Audio Alchemy 2 collection I burned got a couple of Lemongrass tunes added on to fill space – these are from epitonic.com, so they don’t qualify for this review of emusic tracks … but for the record, Sunrise on Fujijama is tres smooth and stylish, and provides 7 sweet moments of ripe downtempo rhythms. The close-out track, Journey to a Star, sets up w/ a retro vocal touch, perfectly balanced by the addition of persuasive beats as the track unfolds. Both of these are natural choices for a downtempo set. The actual Audio Alchemy compilation starts off with Thievery Corp’s Weightless, yet another small gem from the masters of the lounge. Then DJ Z-Trip brings some his hip-hop and scratch skillz to the mix with Rhythmic Metaphor. Bugs uses syncopated beats and a minor key gloss to provide identity for their EDM number, Colors and Squares, working up a tasty treat (with just the barest hint of cheese) in the process. Shortwave from Square is a DnB flavored morsel, also sporting a minor key, very sparse arrangement, just intriguing enough to maintain interest. Maintaining the minor key thread that runs through this compilation, DJ Ming and the Mac rustle up Sugar Kane, which utilizes a dialog layer to emphasize the ominous sensations produced by this track. Solid State brings the smoothly effected, jazzy downtempo joint State to State to the table – we’re still in that semi-ominous mood, but in this track, it’s a purely musical effect. Likewise with Dr. Strange by Darkhorse, another whose mood matches the minor key already established for this collection, and relies on lite DnB / hip-hop beats to convey its musical message. A complete change of pace is provided by The Infinite Posse in Gia, an almost music-box sweet trifle. Robotic Dog by Q-Burns Abstract Message also veers a little close to the rinkydink sound, but a quirky underfunk is what’s important on this tune, so you’re persuaded to forgive and listen … once, anyway. 16 Kilos of Chill by Skyjuice is the track you’ve been waiting for: hook-rich, enigmatic vocal adding depth to the shuffle-and-bump beat underneath. A must-have track and a natural set conclusion! But Ubiquity didn’t end it there on their compilation: they threw in J Boogie’s Atmosphere just because they could, giving us a sitar intro and a hip-hop chorus under the chanteuse. In itself, not a bad side-ender.
OK, ready for some House Music once again? Good – Guidance’s gotcha covered with their Hi-Fidelity House series – and we’ll check out Imprint 2 first. [As usual, I’ve layered in a track actually picked up from epitonic.com – Johnny Fiasco’s First Time (Mood Mix). It’s really just a standard house track, not bad, not special ….] The actual Guidance compilation begins with Obligato by DJ D. It’s sportin’ a full complement of cheese, but I find myself withholding the REJECT command for just a moment to suss it out: it’s a Euro style vocal and rather slow development considering the end result, but it’s not unpleasant. The hot times begin with Abacus who come correct with a funky killer, We Cookin’ Now. An archetypal house track with Baptist Sunday Morning vocal embellishments and the matchless chorus: "Sumpin smells good: we cookin’ now" setting the stage for deep basslines and synth washes. I’m likin’ it. Then Mark Grant turns in a smooth sweeping funky house track, Spirit of the Black Ghost, that maintains the mood without matching the performance of Abacus … not that it would be easy to match that. Grant is followed by the spare, samba-ish beats of Alton Miller’s Progressions … but wait, it doesn’t really progress, ya know? Kevin Yost makes things right with the impeccable 2 Wrongs Making it Right, another gold standard example of a genre. He manages to do some FourOnTheFloor house without getting an overly "thumpy" sound (a sound which is actually fine at top volume in a club, but can overwhelm a song at lower, living room levels.) Who better to carry on from Kevin Yost than Glenn Underground with this track from his Lounge Excursions CD, G&S Motion. Refusing to settle for a limiting FourOnTheFloor identity, there’s lots of rhythmic interest and layering of sound, if not the suave sophistication of 2 Wrongs…. Hmmm, the Toka Project, whoever that might be … they offer up Be Free, and within moments, I’m beguiled. Smooth as silk, steady like the waves comin’ in, sweet vocals … they’ve definitely got it goin’ on. Then Chris Brann, who does good in so many different guises, appears with Way Past the Clouds, an impeccable dance track that’s intelligent too. Following Brann, Callisto offers the strangely (and improbably) named Junkle I -- a bit of light DnB in a soaring spacey setting calling to mind some LTJ joints. Finally, who better to close out the set than the silky sophistication of Kevin Yost, and in So Far Away, the emotion overflows as well. Whatta great track this is….
For a bit more of an eclectic set, and unknown to me prior to encountering them on emusic.com, consider Buzz Bomb. First they turn in a very atmospheric DnB joint most reminiscent of Omni Trio, entitled Springtime. Two more light DnB tracks follow, Journey Through Asia freighted with effects and vocals meant to suggest the land referred to in the title, and Urban Trip relying more on audio drama to entice you in and the vocals to pull you along afterward…. This strategy succeeds. Breakdown serves up another helping of drama and a portion of crazy breaks to wake you up …. A sense of the eclectic range of this group surfaces in Like a Rollin Drum, which lulls you with childlike vocals before establishing the light DnB nature of the track. The live performance embodied in Greenwich Village comes carrying the bands street cred, and actually shows more sophistication than some of the other tracks would suggest they have – like for instance, Champion which follows: good energy and individually fine elements, it doesn’t have the authority of the live take. The Big Sleep spends it’s first couple of minutes on a quickly-wearing narrative bit, and what follows – effected DnB – is not compelling. Evil of the West has a pretty irritating vocal intro, but it does develop musically for the better….hard slappin’ bass-y beats reminiscent of FSOL. Skip to The Thrill of the Bass, another Omni Trio clone that pulls you with a spare beat and vocal, picking up the tempo once you’re firmly committed to the ride.
[The interlopers on this set include: Byte Off by Itchy Pet, which I downloaded from the emigre typography website, and while it’s got a CBGB’s energy to it, it doesn’t end there… it starts going some kinda crazy Turkish-goth on ya. Woof! There are also two tracks from Jhno, from epitonic.com: Unlimited has a jazzy DnB feel, nothing complex, but it’s cool. At the end, we find Drum and Java, which is a decidedly abstract DnB outing.]
And that’s just the first 15 CDs out of over 100 I acquired as a result of this subscription. As I work my way through this impressive stack of CDs, I’ll post more reviews: you can read the next batch here.