Recording of May 2001: Sleepwalking

RAE & CHRISTIAN: Sleepwalking
GrandCentral/Studio K7 K7096CD (CD). 2001. Steve Christian, prod., eng.; Mark Rae, prod.; Rick Cowling, Graham Harwood, Howard Payne, Dejuana "DK" Richardson, Philippe Simonin, Eric Steinen, engs.; Mike Ball, Chris Owen, asst. engs. AAD? TT: 47:05
Performance ****?
Sonics ****

There is nothing wrong with your stereo system. Do not attempt to adjust your equalizer. Rae & Christian are controlling the transmission. They will control the treble. They will control the bass. They can sharpen the focus from a soft ambient blur or to crystal-hard hip-hop. For nearly an hour, sit quietly and they will control all you hear. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the outer limits of R&B.

The work of Mark Rae and Steve Christian, two record hounds based in Manchester, England, exemplifies the fluidity with which today's digital tools allow adventurous young producers to control the full spectrum of the listening experience. The duo combines live musicianship, programming, and, yes, sampled bits of esoteric recordings, finding unforeseen commonality among disparate sounds and fusing them into a rich, soulful whole. For anyone intrigued by the new electronic pop—the sample-based hits of Moby, the club sounds that Madonna has experimented with lately—there may be no better point of entry than Sleepwalking, Rae & Christian's sophomore effort.

Like their widely praised debut, Northern Sulphuric Soul (1998), much of Sleepwalking consists of true songs, not the repetitive stuff of house music's soundbyte divas. The singers here include reggae favorites the Congos, soul survivor Bobby Womack, and rap heavyweights the Pharcyde, as well as a host of somewhat lesser-known female vocalists, including Tania Maria, Kate Rodgers, and Siron.

It's appropriate that the album's first song, following a brief hip-hop-style overture, features Cedric Mynton and his group, the Congos. The Congos remain among the great unsung heroes of reggae, a genre that today's electronic pioneers regularly claim as spiritual heritage. Heard here on "Hold Us Down," Mynton's voice is piping high, as emotional as it is grizzled, an inimitable sound that provides the perfect foil for Rae & Christian's loving construction. The balance is not without precedent—think of Donald Fagen intoning atop Steely Dan's studio fusion, or Mick Jagger's most extravagant falsetto riding the Rolling Stones' blues-infused rock.

"Hold Us Down" starts with an echoed snippet of the Congos' horns, a nod to the hallucinogenic dub experiments that prefigured electronica. Then the beat comes down hard, in step with Mynton, who is half speaking, half singing. The pairing's accomplishment can't be overstated—Mynton's voice is unruly, organic, fresh from the human body. Rae & Christian's rhythmic girding suggests that they've discovered the secret blueprint to the Congos' rootsy art. The Congos' harmonies don't float above the backing music; they mesh with it.

With Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield gone, Bobby Womack may be the last great soul singer of his generation. His voice has an edge serrated by experience, but the knife still cuts decisively. Womack wrote the lyrics for "Get a Life," the first of two songs he performs on Sleepwalking. (The other is an attenuated cover of the soul classic "Wake Up Everybody.") Again, the track's magnificence is clear from the start: an acoustic guitar strums a lovely figure for about 10 seconds before the drums come down authoritatively. The ensuing thick production may derail the guitar's opportunity for folk-like reflection, but it doesn't bury the sound. The strumming continues throughout, upper-register chords ringing amid the lush backing vocals. Gamble and Huff would be proud.

Womack, meanwhile, sings a strange narrative, simultaneously intimate and dramatic, about a late-night phone conversation. This is the sort of thing Tony Rich experimented with in 1995 on his popular Words album, reducing the impact of decades of overproduced R&B to the music's essentials: a groove, a strong vocal, and a decisive portion of studio effects. By the time Womack's powerful "Get a Life" fades out, you're convinced Rae & Christian couldn't be garish if they tried.

Two lean collaborations with the rap outfit Pharcyde ("It Ain't Nothing Like" and "Let It Go") likewise highlight Rae & Christian's spare production, but the duo isn't afraid of lushness, just of vapidity. Check out "Not Just Anybody," an ethereal pop song in the manner of Everything but the Girl (built around a segment of Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Earth Ship") or the album's two instrumental tracks, "Trailing in the Wake" and "Ready to Roll."

The presence on Sleepwalking of legends like Womack and the Congos make it clear that Rae & Christian are music fanatics, fortunate to be at a moment in their careers when they can work with some of the folks who inspired them in the first place. "Not Just Anybody" shows how digital tools can help realize a producer's musical imagination: Where formal collaboration isn't feasible, sampling can more than suffice.—Marc Weidenbaum