I have something of a love/hate relationship with mix tapes these days. On the one hand, I love the idea of a mix, and as one of Miami’s numerous “Will Spin For Food” DJs, I love making them. My buddies and I (the majority of whom are DJs as well, and much less hungry), are constantly swapping mini-discs, burned CDs and the occasional good old fashioned magnetic cassette tapes, with mixes full of wonderful musical obscurity we can push on everyone we know. Like sonic crack dealers, we try to push samples of our (supposed) good taste onto everyone we meet.
Needless to say, most of us enjoy getting other people’s mixes just as much as we love pushing our own. This is probably why whenever I scan upcoming albums to review, some force compels me to hone straight in on compilation albums. The “hate” side of the equation comes in to play at these times, as I seem to dislike most of the “professional” mix albums that slide across my desk as of late. Maybe it’s just that I find them impersonal. Or, that their agenda is to sell copies, as opposed to solely being about introducing new music, like a homemade mix tape. Don’t get me wrong, there’re some great published DJ mix albums out there. Last year’s Miss Kittin’s Radio Caroline Vol. 1 is a great example of that. And of course, not all homemade discs are good; even some people I’m known to call “friends” have used my own computer to churn out disc after disc of horrible compilation sacrilege.
Directly between those two extremes lies Neurodisc’s new Café Lounge album. Touted by the label as apparently having “sonic recreation and relaxation,” “a supremely hip vibe,” “future funk,” “subliminal deep house,” “upbeat progressive house,” “a swanky lounge vibe” and “being unlike any other chillout trip,” I was at once scared by the implications of so many trendy music buzzwords, as well as intrigued to find out just what this mix was all about. Label blurbs aren’t the best way to experience an album, usually that’s done by listening to the damned thing, which is of course what I did next.
Popping Café Lounge into my stereo and plopping on my headphones (the family in the apartment next door has issues with thumping bass at 3:00 am, though I don’t know why), I leaned back ready to take in what the album had to offer. Inside, I found … nothing. I spent a while trying to think of what I could write about this album, and I was quite stumped. See, when I say I found “nothing” inside this music, I don’t exactly mean that in a bad way. If the album was awful, I’m sure I’d have pages upon pages to write, telling you exactly why I found it horrible. Likewise, if an album is great, I can rant just as long on it’s behalf. With Café Lounge, it’s so middle-of-the-road that I’m finding it hard to grasp.
I will say that when everything is said and done, this is a wholly forgettable album. If that makes it bad, then so be it. But it wasn’t bad in the sense that I was consciously holding myself back from turning it off, as to save my ears from such a travesty (as Putumayo’s African Groove compilation had me doing last month). On the contrary, I found my attention constantly drifting as I tried to pay attention to the music. Getting distracted by playing with my cat, getting up to make a sandwich, wondering whether Christopher Walken could beat Gary Oldman in a fight; there was nothing on this album keeping my attention focused on the music. This isn’t the sign of a good compilation. Before long, the album had looped around and was halfway through itself for a second time, which I never even noticed.
This lends itself to a main problem on Café Lounge. For thirteen different tracks from thirteen different artists, so many sound so similar, to the point of driving me to check the track number every five minutes, thinking to myself, “I could have sworn I heard this same song, two tracks back.”
What makes this so baffling to write, is that none of this is inherently bad music. It’s just repetitive background music. Half-way through the disc, the down tempo tone is changed for a moment with Bluefoot Project (“Observations”) and Rey (“Over My Shoulders”), a pair of more upbeat, house tinged tracks. Though the change in tone is welcomed, the tracks do tend to stick out, as opposed to feeling blended in seamlessly with the more down tempo tracks. Beyond that, “Observations” doesn’t jump out at me as particularly noteworthy, and “Over My Shoulders,” while not offensive to my ears in anyway, sounds like any other four-on-the-floor electronica track one might hear in the background of, say, a Neutrogena commercial.
Repetitive acoustic guitar riffs (substitute piano riff where applicable), overused monotonous beat patterns, swirling “wave sounding” white noise, indistinguishable female vocals, enough “echoes” on vocals, beats, and instruments to do Vincent Price proud… pick any three out of the five (or more), and you’ve basically got any track on Neurodisc’s Café Lounge.
To me, the sign of a proper mix album, should be to make your listener feel torn between wanting to keep listening to the great song they have on at the moment, and also wanting to hear what great song you’ve got in store for them next. The previously-mentioned Miss Kittin was a recent electronica DJ mix which did just that. Not being able to decide which of two great tracks to put on, wishing somehow you could listen to it all at once, simultaneously through four different sets of ears, piecing together the great work of many artists into one disc, with the DJs own personal touch to it; this is what keeps me coming back to a mix. This is specifically what Café Lounge lacks, the inability to make you care about what you’re listening to. With Radio Caroline, I found myself checking the CD insert every two minutes, to find out exactly what I’m listening to, since the music just gave me an urgent need to know everything about it. Meanwhile, whenever I checked the track listing on Café Lounge, it was to see if I’d already heard the song once before.
The tracks were spun by DJ Pierre Marquez, in a half beat-matched fashion, which is understandable for many of these tracks which don’t lend themselves well enough to manipulation. Or maybe it’s the result of the machinations of Neurodisc who wanted the tracks to be as un-manipulated as possible, and for the disc to sound “mixed and flowing,” while still having a definitive beginning and end to each song. Whatever the case, in some areas it works well enough, in others you might cock your head to the side for a moment after an awkward fade, or slightly mismatched beat. It’s not atrocious when it doesn’t flow right, but likewise, there’s nothing particularly moving when it does.
Then again, that seems to be the modus operandi of this entire compilation. If you’re solely looking for background music, something forgettable … you probably wouldn’t be reading about it here in the first place. If you’re looking for an album to give to someone as a gift, say perhaps, your new girlfriend’s mom, or anyone else you’d like to give inoffensive, hard-to-hate, great-for-dinner-parties music, feel free to run out and pickup Café Lounge. I can truly think of more than a handful of people I know who would enjoy this album, as it’s really not too bad. I can also tell you, those aren’t the same people I’ll be trading my own mix tapes with next week.