Getting nowhere with Al Green, in 1973 singer Sylvia Robinson took “Pillow Talk,” a song she’d written for the R&B superstar, and recorded the tune herself. That 22 orgasms were supposedly counted on Donna Summer’s later “Love To Love You” don’t mean jack after a session with Robinson’s elegant erotica, which even today could teach females a thing or two about makin’ a man rock-hard, even if he’s gay. Sadly, foreplay and seduction as a central theme in music eventually fell out of fashion; nowadays, it takes way too much imagination to bother with stuff so subtle and complex. That is, until branding and lifestyle became a means to an end for club culture and dance music. Enter Naked Music Recordings.
While Brit superclub labels like Ministry of Sound and Cream package and sell wild ’n’ crazy lifestyles of DJ-worshippin’ Anglo keds X’ing to the beat, Jay Denes and his Naked partners Dave Booneshoft, Bruno Ybarra and Miguel Migs are comin’ off a whole ’notha tip. There’s no way in hell the Naked crew could not be straight-out disciples of the dimmed-light, pre-coitus grooves laid out on “Pillow Talk.” Which is why the Naked label, inanely slotted into the house-music category, really isn’t dance in the strictest sense. Instead, the music is more like a patented formula of mid- to up-tempo liquid soul/jazz moods soaked through ’n’ through with oxytocin (the hormone a woman secretes when sexually aroused, if you have to ask). Think Playboy music if Hugh Hefner had thought of it first.
Naked evolved after the release of ’98’s What’s on Your Mind (Om Records), produced by Denes and Booneshoft. A light-jazz ’n’ R&B affair that played up the almost forgotten virtues of stripped-down mellow soul, the album quickly became an essential among urban hipsters. It wasn’t long before Denes convinced Om’s back-then A&R man Bruno Ybarra to jump ship and join him and Booneshoft in establishing Naked Music. Since then, the label has earned the respect of other deep-house boutique labels for serious groove lovers that rose out of the ’90s, such as Pan Handle, Guidance, Francois K.’s Yellow, and the U.K.’s Glasgow Underground, Soma and Peng.
For the past three years, Naked has offered a delectable assortment of CDs, EPs and 12-inch-vinyl singles that are slippery-warm-in-love-juice symphonies concocted from the deepest of soul and the swankest nu-jazz house. After signing a distribution deal with Astralwerks, the label recently reissued five of its seven previously released albums, along with the unveiling of its newest creation, Nude Dimensions 3. But this long-awaited addition to the Naked family is a disappointment — well, its only real crime is that it isn’t seeped in the same baby-doll sexiness that Nude Dimensions volumes 1 and 2 shamelessly flaunt. A 16-track ä 38 shout-out to the party people, Dimensions 3 is more percussive and up-tempo than the rest of its Naked siblings combined, sashaying toward the dance floor rather than cocktails ’n’ dry-hump action on the sofa. The set’s most attractive quality is the generous mixing options it endows to the truly imaginative jock. A back-jacker like Soul Patrol’s “Keep It Country,” if caressed by Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” would incite hallelujahs. Or how ’bout a li’l Missy Elliott rockin’ hips big-ass style with Aqua-note’s “Nowhere?” Likewise, some love from a classic like Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” oughta send the Morgan Geist’s “Lullaby” through the roof.
Yet, mix mileage ’n’ all, these tracks just don’t yield the naive blue-light soul that bubbles forth from the label’s very first single, ’98’s “Breakin’ It Down.” Featuring Oakland-based singer Ledisi, the song serves as an excellent opener for Nude Dimensions Volume 1. But while Naked Music tags Bare Essentials Volume 1 as its unofficial “best of” album, there are those who’d beg to differ. After all, wasn’t it on Dimensions 1 that we were first introduced to the masterful production skills of Bay Area sound architect Miguel Migs, a.k.a. Petalpusher? And what about Catherine Russell? Cradled in the emotional bass rhythms of Blue Six’s “Music & Wine,” Russell’s rich, unadorned contralto brings long-absent luster and excitement back to the club-diva arena. While Nude Dimensions 1 and the Bare Essentials sets each boast two mixes by Jay Denes, a.k.a. Lovetronic’s classic “You Are Love,” the Afrotronic version on Dimensions 1 worked overtime spreading the gospel of Naked as one of the year 2000’s top deep-house anthems.
Mixed by Mauricio Aviles, Dimensions Volume 2 offers vocal jewels like “Always” with Lisa Shaw and Aquanote’s Zoe Ellis on Petalpusher’s “True Love” mix. Petalpusher also does a fine job with his reworking of MJ Cole’s “Sincere.” Other stompers include Astro Jaxx’s “Losing Control,” James Perri’s “The Power” (Atjazz mix), Cooly’s Hot Box “Could You Love Me?” and Solar House’s “Got 2 B U.”
There are a good many of these titles on Bare Essentials Volume 1 and this is where it all gets a bit repetitive; most of the tracks on the album are really reconfigured mixes, or the original versions of songs that have already been introduced as remixes on earlier compilations. Nonetheless, the record serves as a good Naked primer, and undeniably the best tester disc before droppin’ coin on the others. In fact, Bare Essentials does greater justice to some of these tracks than the three discs released before it. “Music & Wine” re-emerges even more beautiful, shrouded in the dark, melancholic soul of Attaboy’s vocal mix. Same with Denes’ much lighter “Conga Lounge” touch-up of the song, which billows in an airy tropical breeze. Denes also smoothes over the harder edges of “Breakin’ It Down” with his Jay’s Blue vocal cut. The disc’s most euphoric moments, however, live in the sheer elegance of “Pure”’s original edit, which makes a good argument that not every song needs a reworking. Petalpusher’s irrelevant take on the cut (Dimensions 2) easily drives that point home.
Tired of remix roulettes? Naked’s Carte Blanche Volumes 1 and 2 keeps it simple and adventurous all at the same time. That’s ’cause the emphasis is more on exotic jazz delicately upstaged with breakbeats, funk and slithery four-to-the-floor. If the lazy beatnik funk of tracks like “Global Communication,” “Only Child,” “Molasses” and “Heartbeat” on Blanche Volume 1 can’t ease your pain, child, nothin’ will. Mixed by Ybarra and Gabriel Rene of Aquanote, the set also features a nice barrage of sassy-ass movas like “Isolee,” “Soulmate” and the earthy, rapturous grooves of Aquanote’s “Only.” Ybarra’s and Rene’s Blanche Volume 2 swan-dives into jazz terrain with the light blaxploitation licks of “Flute Salad.” It’s a chillin’ fruit-smoothies session from here on out, featuring cuts like “Sunday 17th,” the horn rich “Flight,” the acid jazz love of “Soul Magic 98” and the luxuriant jet-set madness of Wai Wan’s “Goddess.”
If all this wasn’t enough, get ready for the January release of Jay Denes a.k.a. Blue Six’s first full-length drop, Beautiful Tomorrow. Egged on by NYC DJ/producer kingpin Francois Kevorkian to just shut the fuck up and quit whinin’ ’n’ moanin’ about the horrible state of today’s music, Denes humbly put together 14 Naked-ized tracks, including dub versions of “Pure,” “Grace” and “Music & Wine.” These are solid re-mixed versions of his previously released cuts, and the new tracks showcase the talents of Naked vocalists Lisa Shaw, Catherine Russell and Lysa. Some of the latter tunes seem bogged down in what has become the signature Naked sound, though. While Russell works well with the gentle backing of “Very Good Friends,” Shaw’s vocals are simply layered over more Naked fodder on “Let’s Do It Together,” and Russell suffers a similar fate on “Beautiful Tomorrow.”
With Shaw and Migs both set to release their own full-length projects on Naked in the spring, one can only hope that, unlike Denes, both artists have the intuition to musically surpass Naked’s long-established groove. While Beautiful Tomorrow is by no means a bad listening experience, it doesn’t much further the journey, either. And that’s what made Naked stand out in the first place.
Collectively, this music travels on the spiritual side of sensuality, elegant dance-music aesthetics and sophisticated rhythms for adults only. It’s like Prince says in his cut “Get Up”: “Letta woman be a woman and a man — be a man.” That’s right, keds, put down the Day-Glo and the X. Time to grow up, getta job and for heaven’s sake git Naked.