Recently I nearly slept through one of my favorite concerts. It was a Sigur Ros show, and my friends managed to score front-row balcony tickets. We had a perfect viewpoint from which to watch all the sloooow-mo black-and-white experimental films while the frail Icelandic pixies played to each other at similarly laggard tempos, their sole acknowledgment of the crowd occurring only seconds before they disappeared. Each of us had literally nodded out: An ordinarily nerve-rattling, exceptionally rude venue had turned into a satisfyingly safe sonic womb.
The scene mirrors the narcoleptic bliss of the umbrella genre lately known as “chillout”—and the surrendering to well-measured absence that chillout so sensually presents. Unlike ambient, which can noodle this way and that, free from the framework of verse-chorus-verse, chillout—like trip-hop before it—measures time with reassuringly steady beats, song structures that bring you back home, the occasional vocal caress, even the odd real instrument. Sigur Ros aside, few rock bands sacrifice enough ego to get near it: Chillout blinks much closer to the continual multi-climaxes of disco, its seams dissolving into one communal anima. It’s the home soundtrack for dancers who grew up with rave’s four-to-the-floor rush and still crave its body-dissolving otherworldliness, but can no longer hack the crowds and pills.
While Enya has been settling into her role as the Eno for masses too jumpy even for Kenny G, electronica’s creativity has relocated. Trance’s ethereal anonymity, tribal house’s mechanical onslaught, and a whole lotta wack DJs on bad drugs have diluted uptempo club music to the point that dancefloors no longer demand a constant supply of innovation: Dance music has too often become as blandly interchangeable and monochromatic as the disco-sucks crowd claimed decades ago.
But some of the stylistic free-for-all offered by the Loft, Paradise Garage, and Danceteria in their heydays lives on. Chillout is the downtempo end of what Brits on holiday dubbed “Balearic”—tuneful cuts favored by DJs at Ibiza’s Café del Mar. It’s the foundation of all those wildly expensive French compilations with the glossy cardboard boxes festooned with jet-set exotica and the names of chichi Parisian nightspots—Buddha Bar, Hotel Costes, La Mezzanine de l‘Alcazar. It’s shuffling away in the background of a hundred car, makeup, and hair-care commercials, filling in the silence left by cash registers not ringing at your favorite Soho boutique, sweetly droning while Madonna does her yoga. And it’s crashing the year-end best-of lists, ordinarily slow-phobic spaces, via the Avalanches, Zero 7, and other pastoral digitized weirdos.
Created by a posse of Australian thrift-store fanatics, the Avalanches’ Since I Left You—likely the most sample-dense album ever—isn’t often relaxed. But like its more typically mellow chillout cousins, the album is extraordinarily otherworldly. Its riotously fluid unpredictability suggests what dreams might sound like if they made a noise.
At the more sedate end of the spectrum is another Mercury Prize-nominated disc, Zero 7’s Simple Things. Clearly influenced by French soundtracks from the late ’60s, English folk from the early ’70s, and Charles Stepney’s timeless symphonic jazz arrangements for Rotary Connection and Terry Callier, this reserved stunner at first suggests Air’s Moon Safari without the campy bits. Yet repeated listenings sift the two duos’ mutual inspirations, and Zero 7’s own elegant identity emerges. Like Air, this London pair and their pals layer acoustic instrumentation, analog synths, casually passionate vocalists, and melodious basslines where there would ordinarily be samples and drum programs. Rather than a Euro-pop sheen, however, Zero 7 strive for smooth soul. The haunted hooks of “Destiny” and other meditative marvels fulfill the promise of early remixes so intrinsically theirs that Zero 7 concluded recent live shows with the unlikely re-arrangement they crafted for Lambchop’s indie-gospel “Up With People.” As spiritually disciplined as Since I Left You is playfully scattered, Simple Things and its bedroom-ready pleasures can be had for the price of a sole Viagra hit and linger a lot longer.
The aforementioned Paris DJ compilations like Buddha Bar illustrate and nurture chillout and world-beat’s bedfellow relationship, one that extends beyond Deep Forest and Enigma and doesn’t always position European studio masters on top. Although they don’t boast the Brit nominations of the Avalanches or Zero 7, Gotan Project are all over the Buddha Bar clones. The product of two French soundtrack composers and an Argentinean guitarist, their own La Revancha Del Tango mixes hip-hop, house, and dub beats with Latin Quarter accordions, African percussion, Spanish guitar riffs, and scads of cinematic suspense. Covering Gato Barbieri, Astor Piazzolla, and Frank Zappa jams with the same respectful irreverence with which they approach their own moody material, the trio—together with a knockout violinist and a suitably woozy warbler—stretch out on masterful solos, the sort long abandoned by conventional club cuts. Like most chillout, Gotan Project take you on a trip, but this one’s more about imaginary geographics than herbal or pharmaceutical travel.
As chillout becomes more commercialized, the sound’s originators have either, like progenitor Tricky, moved on, or, like Richard Dorfmeister of the Viennese remixing team Kruder & Dorfmeister, dug deeper into their underground stashes. With the help of some two dozen remixers, Dorfmeister has assembled two spin-off collections from his last Tosca project. Suzuki in Dub drenches six of the tracks from 1999’s Suzuki with the expected reggae-schooled reverb, while The Different Tastes of Honey spins 15 variations on one single cut—”Honey,” of course. The Different Tastes is particularly hilarious because the original “Honey“ offered a few pensive electric piano chords, some dazed chick moaning, “Money, I want my honey“ over a spaced-out bass, and not much else. Milking this minimalism for 75 minutes of continuous languid grooves would ordinarily inflict sheer torture, but there‘s actually more rhythmic and tonal variation here than on an average night at your neighborhood tribal or trance spot. Suzuki in Dub delivers similar stoner stuff without the punchline, and although neither album deviates from chillout’s background-as-foreground formalism, these are backgrounds in which one can contentedly get lost, Waldo-style.
When Massive Attack introduced electronica’s downtempo archetype with their 1991 debut, Blue Lines, their solution to the low energy/boredom problem was to fashion together a slew of styles and guests while presenting a unified sonic personality. British expat Charles Webster doesn’t yet boast Massive’s marquee draw, but his Born on the 24th of July walks that fine line between mix tape and single-artist identity exploration. Best known for Presence’s “Sense of Danger,” a house anthem worthy of singer Sharon Nelson’s Massive Attack legacy, Webster here coaxes several shades of slinky r&b from rubbery beats, fat-bottom bass, and introverted cries. He could make millions with a Maxwell, but instead he comes on like a boudoir DJ—accelerating tempo, slowly segueing from ambient all the way to deep house, and building tension with each cut until the jams reach a reverie of android jizz-jazz. The French are gonna le freak.
With so much worthwhile stuff from which to draw (and I haven’t even mentioned Bent, Lemon Jelly, Fila Brazillia, dZihan & Kamien, Waldek . . . ), it’s so inexplicable and yet so typical that a monstrosity like Sony could throw a few tired titles together and sell the results as something definitive. This cottage industry’s most mainstream product, The Classic Chillout Album, presents Massive Attack and late cabaret folkie Eva Cassidy alike as easy listening’s new New Age. There are better ways to lure the Pure Moods II crowd than to round up a Volkswagen jingle, Moby, and ’80s Tangerine Dream under a package featuring hideous human mannequins romantically relaxing by the fire in their cavernous chateau. Inviting Maxwell, Jill Scott, and Sade to the slumber party wasn’t a bad idea, but since they (along with Deep Forest, Chicane, Endorphin, Andreas Vollenweider, Titanic‘s James Horner, and Charlotte Church for chrissakes) are all Sony property, this act of r&b inclusivity is nothing more than licensing-lazy, star-silly, cross-marketing cheapness—dance music designed for anything but dancing can be many things, but it shouldn’t be about subjecting the man who started it all, Erik Satie (1866-1925), to twiddly jungle-lite beats.