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Back to the future an uneasy trip

Ursula 1000
Kinda’ Kinky
Eighteenth Street Lounge

The Herbaliser
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ninja Tune

It seems that everything must come full circle, in true karmic fashion. Ever since the origination of “downtempo” music in the early ’90s, the “post-rave” fashion seems to be slowly reverting back to sounds of the past, and not only that, but to the obscure sounds of quirky soundtracks, strange back-alley jazz and secret agent B-movies. Of course, this trend has been going strong for about 10 years now, even if it’s only really picked up in the last few. But retro seems to always be cool about 20 years after its origin, as we look to move forward by looking back.

Recent releases by two of the bigger labels in the game, London-based Ninja Tune and Washington, D.C.’s Eighteenth Street Lounge, attempt to continue this legacy. Even after listening to Ursula 1000’s Kinda’ Kinky and The Herbaliser’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, one wonders if they can keep up with the incredible growth of labels loungin’ with the downtempo clique in recent years, even if they continue to produce some solid work.

Alex Gimeno, aka Ursula 1000, is a bit of a kitsch musical connoisseur, using pieces of go-go exotica and sexy Latin rhythms to mesh together with hip-hop, electro and even house beats to form a new musical m퀌�lange of retro cool, which is what his persona is all about. Surely, it was no mistake that he chose the elements he did, however, as such musical formulas are savory material of hipster stardom, and his debut The Now Sound is considered to be one of the best “club-pop/loungecore” albums out there.

So if you’re into swinging martinis and unflattering skirts, then this may be an album for you. But for the rest of us, there’s quality to be found on this album too, and by the end you’re left wondering why you didn’t think you’d enjoy this more.

The opening title track has those raygun Moogs and seductive female voice that we’ve come to expect, and “Boogaloop” sounds like it was recorded by the B-52s one afternoon when they were taking downers. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not the most spectacular either.

It picks up with “Beatbox Cha Cha,” which is surprisingly groovy with its funky breaks, while “Jackie Go!” is some pumped-up tiki rhythm that grows on you by the end. “Smokebomb” takes us for a ride with its heavy double bass and hi-pitched flute that makes you hum even if you don’t know the words.

“That Kindu That You Do” features some late ’60s “ethnic” fusion that misses the point, while “Samba 1000” does better, incorporating some breezy house. “Mucho Tequila” could have used a bit less of Cuervo, while “Nightcap” feels like it was stolen off some Hawaiian lounge record at the local thrift store.

“Les Techniques De L’Amour” is like the instrumental version of that ’80s ballad that you wished you’d seen the video for, while “Continental Break Fest” is like the dance floor filler that preceded it. The ’60s Mod gets some respect in “Tigerbeat,” while “Riviera Rendezvous” wears its big sunglasses and button-down silk shirt to a fit. To add even more eclectic flavor to the mix, “The Girl From N.O.W.H.E.R.E.” is the long-lost theme to some Brigitte Bardot sci-fi movie, which in some ways describes the album itself.

The Herbaliser’s Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba do not have such extravagant notions of hipster kitsch, but still dig in the crates for old ’70s funk jazz themes that at times make you wish for a new direction. This is not to say that Something Wicked This Way Comes doesn’t have its share of quality cuts, but rather that it does not propose very much new ground as an album.

The title track, which also leads off this record, is one of the strongest songs, with Seaming To providing the chilling vocals, and some gentle string plucks for an invocation. Expectations are diminished somewhat with “Verbal Anime,” featuring Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples bringing nothing especially new to the table, something true of most of the vocal tracks, with Blade’s “Time 2 Build” doing not much better with hip-hop clich퀌�s. “Good Girl Gone Bad,” despite Wildflower’s intriguing London street accent, doesn’t sound very indistinguishable from the rest.

NYC legend MF Doom keeps things interesting with his abstract rhyming on “It Ain’t Nuttin’,” even if it isn’t his best work. Respect also goes out to Phi Life Cypher – who toured recently with experimental pop group Gorillaz – on “Distinguished Jamaican English,” which reminds one of Roots Manuva’s better work, with darting verbal choices that truly have “drama hotter than Botswana” and a chilled-out instrumental with a cinematic quality that truly is “tighter than elephantitis.” A similar filmic mood is given to the interlude “The Hard Stuff,” even if it is some trip-hop Coen Brothers movie shot in Bristol.

The Herbaliser brings in an intense ’70s groove with “24 Carat Blag,” which feels a little uneven, but “The Turnaround” certainly does just that with its jumpy shuffle, while “Mr. Holmes” makes you wonder if Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson didn’t have a hand in that one. The lost soundtrack to Pam Grier’s mid-decade movie is found with “Battle of Bongo Hill,” inciting her to kick some oppressing ass, while “Unsungsong” is for that romance in between the plotlines, before she saddles up to take on Clint Eastwood with “Worldwide Connected” in the sequel nobody ever saw (and didn’t need to).