We gave it a B
Used to be the only tunes you’d hear in a hotel lobby were the sterile, beckoning strains of Muzak. Go to a restaurant and you’d get piped-in classic rock. Someday soon, though, you may walk into a Holiday Inn or a suburban diner and be caressed by the soothing funk swoosh of the curious electronic subgenre known variously as nu-lounge, downtempo, and chill-out. And you’ll have the French to thank for it.
They’re the folks who put Brian Eno’s two-decades-old concept of ambient music for public spaces through une grande mutation with the success — major in Europe, underground yet influential over here — of CDs like the Buddha-Bar and Hotel Costes series. Springing from actual, achingly hip locations (both the above sites are in Paris, but the virus has spread to London, Ibiza, Miami, New York, and even Las Vegas), the discs tout the place first, the DJ second, and the musicians who create any of the individual grooves dead last.
But the fans who put Buddha-Bar III in the top 20 at the Virgin Megastores chain last year, or the pop/fashion names like Madonna and Donna Karan who are giving the double-disc set to friends as gifts du jour, aren’t necessarily devotees of Rollercone or Rinocerose. They’re buying the soundtrack to a lifestyle: rich, indolent, blissed-out. This is Gap store music for the soul, shallow and luxuriant. It can even, occasionally, be deeply wonderful.
DJ’d by aging Parisian sybarite Claude Challe, the first two Buddha-Bar compilations opened the market to the point where rip-offs quickly appeared (the company behind two identical-looking sets called Kharma Beats and Buddha Beats is being sued by Challe). The Hotel Costes series, DJ’d by Stephane Pompougnac, perfected the sway-‘n’-chill formula: If you want to feel like you’ve died and gone to Euroswank heaven, pop in the incredible Costes Etage 3 the next time you’re dusting the playroom. The segue alone from the club mix of Shirley Bassey’s ”Where Do I Begin” to the head-spinning Balkan harmonies of Cosmos Sound Club’s ”Les Chrysanthemes” can kick you into lazy ecstasy.
Hotel Costes Quatre, Pompougnac’s latest, is almost as fine. As with others in the series, the beat slowly builds toward hippy-hippy-shake territory over the first half of the 73-minute mix, then slopes back off to blissful ennui. It’s the slower cuts that click: Variety Lab’s ”London in the Rain” unfurls like a pickup scene in an Antonioni movie, while Gotan Project’s ”Epoca” floats on a combination of winding French accordion and Brazilian-babe vocals, and Shantal’s dreamy, ambiguous ”Whatever” is the sound of falling asleep on the world’s most comfortable couch. As for the disposable uptempo middle cuts: Well, how often do you dance in a hotel lobby?
You can dance in a bar, though, and Barfly III, mixed by the Paris boite’s resident DJs JC Sindress and F.K. Junior, smartly feeds into the cheesiest cliches of ’70s disco and rejuvenates them through sheer nerve. The gutsy vocals of Simpson Tune’s ”Bring It Down,” the Love Unlimited Orchestra-on-steroids strings of In Direct’s ”Gold Rusch,” the sampled Billie Holiday of Alex Gopher’s ”The Child”: You’ve heard these ingredients before, but like a good cocktail, Barfly III swirls them into something startlingly new.
Little Buddha Cafe, by contrast, is one sour Sex on the Beach. Mixed by D.J. Sam Popat for an Asian restaurant located in Las Vegas’ Palms resort, Little Buddha skews to the world-music/New Age side of Challe’s groundbreaking equation, and it’s the lamest sort of ersatz-Zen noodling, with cuts like Feng Shui’s ”Right Mindfulness” devolving right back into fern-bar Muzak. Much better is Nikki Beach Vol. 1 — a Chillout Session, J.P. Rigaud’s mix for the nightclub/restaurant on Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive. This is generally smoochy, swooning stuff — Zihan & Kamien’s ”Ocean Air” sounds like movie music for the scene where the hero sails off a cliff — but random vocal samples add a touch of louche comedy to the vibe, as though you were eavesdropping on a tipsy model the next towel over. Pepe Deluxe’s ”The Beat Experience,” in fact, opens with a dialogue snippet that could stand as a motto for the whole subgenre of hotel/bar/restaurant theme music: a man’s voice lazily intoning ”More and more, I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere…and that is a pleasure.” Hotel Costes Quatre: B- Barfly III: B Little Buddha Cafe: D+ Nikki Beach Vol. 1: B+