REMEMBER THE HEADY 1990s, when trip-hop arrived to save us from a purgatory of rock and roll boredom? For this music fan, the sounds of Massive Attack, Tricky, DJ Shadow, and just about everything on the Ninja Tunes label made life seem good again after all that nihilist guitar nonsense of grunge.
Combining elements of hip-hop (turntable scratching, looped beats, a profusion of samples from old records), trip-hop was primarily an English phenomenon that added its own variants: a reggae sound system aesthetic, a touch of dub, and an anything goes approach to sampling. At its best, the largely instrumental genre created great new tunes from the detritus of groove history, and all at a head nodding pace more atuned to after-party relaxation than frantic tail-wiggling.
George Evelyn, aka Nightmares On Wax, was one of its prime exponents, releasing its classic Smokers Delight album in 1995. But the record’s title proved indicative of the genre’s limitations, too, the music often falling into a safe, comfortable groove with a few tasty sonic curlicues to ensure the most audio satisfaction for the THC set. Ultimately, trip-hop became trapped by its own lack of ambition, and led to all those awful ‘chill out’ packages that lacked the grit, grooves or invention of its early exponents, and by the dawn of the new millennium, it was dead in the water.
So, then – in 2013, should we expect anything from Nightmares On Wax? Surely, their moment had passed. I’m as surprised as you will be, dear reader: Feelin Good, despite the generic title, is one of the more enjoyable records I’ve heard all year. I embarked on this voyage feeling deeply cynical, and fundamentally uninterested, bored before I began… and found myself warming to Evelyn’s warmest of musical concatenations as one catchy little sucker segued into another.
Apparently, Evelyn has moved to Ibiza, and that’s why he’s feeling so good, and while my inner bullshit detector wants to sting him with flying rubber bands, the Balearic sunshine really does seem to have washed off and infused his grooves with a happiness that just can’t be lampooned or lambasted.
Weirdly, the record sounds more 1995 than 2013. You won’t find lavish attention to sonic detail, great attention to mastering, or fancy drum programming, but there are subtle advancements that make all the difference.
Many of the tracks have vocals, to some degree or other, but Evelyn knows just how to keep them as part of the architecture of the piece, rather than making them the centrepiece. And thereby lies his victory: where so many of his contemporaries have just smoothed out their edges, becoming increasingly anonymous in the process, Nightmares On Wax still get their groove on from enjoyably raw reggae and funk rhythms, and even on a 1960s-oriented honey-vocal soul smoocher like ‘Give Thx’, the way the instruments and/or samples are mixed gives it a psychoactive quality that appeals hugely to people like me, who don’t indulge in marijuana, but quite like it when music replicates the experience!
‘Tapestry’ is a good case in point. A rare uptempo tune with enough velocity to dance to, the way it’s mixed – including its stereo panning of percussion – is much more akin to that of a reggae sound system or a creative mixer like Adrian Sherwood than to that of a conventional performance/sound stage. It twists your senses and warps your perception, and that has to be a good thing.
If nothing else, Feelin Good deserves high rotate in cafes and bars across the nation, because it’s an ideal background to idle pauses and social times. No, it’s not a challenging listen, but there’s more here than initially meets the ear, and at least it’s not bloody Shapeshifter. GARY STEEL
Music = 4/5
Sound = 3/5