Back in the Day

Masters at Work have a droll sense of humor. The title of their new CD is Our Time Is Coming, when the music contained within is so very much of the past. This is a pure disco record, old-school, no irony or winks. And they‘ll be slammed hard for it. The Masters are on a mission to celebrate an era and sounds now taken for granted, misrepresented or ignored. Despite the proliferation of breathless media hype that accompanies the arrival of every new British or French DJproducer, the fact remains that American dance music (techno, disco, house) is rarely considered substantive in its own right. It’s still raw material for international hipsters to crib from in order to re-upholster hip-hop, rock, electronica or rhythm & blues. Its history is raided for samples and sound-bite legitimacy when new jacks schmooze the press, but its future is continually hedged on desperate trendiness -- ”new“ sounds for the lifestyle posturing of the desired youth demographic.

But producer-musicians Louie and Kenny have gone retro with a vengeance -- and a purpose. They‘ve trolled both American oldies revivals and the profitable Japanese R&B tour circuit to give the likes of James Ingram, Stephanie Mills and Patti Austin another stab at above-the-title gigging. The great and transcendent India -- whose voice is simultaneously shrill and sexy, powerful and commanding -- turns up on the disc’s two best tracks and makes you fiend for a full set from her and her boys. The Masters‘ most sly and successful move was to return the dance song to the realm of the feminine in order to mine its strengths. That’s not a small gesture considering how much dance music has continued to devolve into fare for the hetero lads. Consider the new, ill-conceived Funky Green Dogs CD, Super California. Save for two or three tunes, the thing plays like a 2 Unlimited tribute to the Murk boys. It‘s clanging, thudding Euro-crap like you’d hear on a sitcom if the kids from Growing Pains or Who‘s the Boss? disobeyed Dad and snuck off to a rave before learning some generic life lessons. There’s no small irony in the fact that the Dogs‘ last CD, the underrated Star, dipped into the disco archives to achieve the sublimely funky, high-gloss escapism that Our Time also aims for. With Super California, though, they’ve devolved.

By contrast, the Masters are more layered, more nuanced, more female- and fag-friendly. They‘re more generous toward anyone in love with melody, the artful build of a groove and the act of moving on the dance floor. They not only achieve all this with lyrical content -- India’s woman-betrayed-but-triumphant on ”Backfired“ (which nods toward Debbie Harry‘s old song of the same name) and Mills’ slick but ultimately tedious ”Latin Lover“ -- but also with a lush, flowing production and gorgeous arrangements. The disc‘s strength is its softness, its unabashed reach for beauty. Background vocals are creamy and placed high in the mix, providing a rich back ’n‘ forth with the leads. The title song, featuring Roy Ayers, is vintage funk-on-a-blunt, driven by lovely vibes and a taut male chorus. The musicianship throughout is sterling, a holdover from the duo’s more adventurous last project, Nuyorican Soul, with the legacies of the Salsoul Orchestra and the Philly International crew, as well as Tito Puente, clearly evident.

Yet Our Time falters as much as it succeeds. Too many of the songs begin to sound the same about halfway through the disc. That monotony takes its toll, flattening out the songs within the grooves. The barely varied tempo, with production so sleek and polished that it becomes stifling, and the notable absence of grit or coital heat, all add up to a collection of tracks that bleed generically into one another with few real payoffs. Even the more blatant attempts to vary the dynamics are largely a disappointment. The tribal sonics of the single, ”Work,“ are embarrassingly dated -- it‘s like Goodmen’s early-‘90s club hit ”Give It Up“ crossed with David Morales’ ”In De Ghetto“ -- while ”MAW Expensive,“ their tribute to Fela Kuti, is a little too world-music-cocktail-party to truly pay tribute to the expansive cool of the man himself.

What‘s needed on Our Time is the obliviously off-key sangin’ of some old-school New Jersey house bitch, a little dirt in the Vaseline -- something less than perfect to up the human ante. You get some of that on the epic import-box-only closing cut, ”To Be in Love,“ which features India on lead and a smooth, cloud-nine chorus that‘s been nicked from Evelyn King’s ”I‘m in Love“ and slightly retooled. The track cruises from heartfelt testifying and flat-out belting to a sparse musical breakdown, then back again, with a thick ribbon of bass as the spine holding it all together. It begs to be played loudly and gives a glimpse at what should have been.


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