The advent of house music during the late 1980's gave way to the rise of many prominent club DJ's as sought-after producers and remixers. Frankie Knuckles, David Morales, and the late Larry Levan are just a few players whose contributions to the genre remain relevant today. Aside from the unique musical and engineering components of popular recordings by the likes of CeCe Rogers and Kym Mazelle, the vocalists themselves helped to define what would evolve into "soulful house." Programmers and instrumentalists could elevate a groove to new melodic and rhythmic heights around the singers' intuitive phrasing and spiritually rousing performances.
While a steady supply of anthemic single releases has earned soulful house a reputation as a continually relevant force, acts in the sub-genre capable of selling full-length sets have been fewer recently. German-bred, South Africa-based DJ and musician Ralf Gum has a solid shot at upping those figures with his second CD, Never Leaves You, released through his own GOGO Music label. One of the main challenges with a long-player of its kind is to maintain consistency in both bodily enticement and mental stimulation. With an artfully conceived blend of subtlety and conviction, Gum and his collaborators duly accomplish this task by fashioning a variety of international influences into a seemingly effortless motive soundscape.
The presence of a distinctively expressive vocalist on each track is the tie that binds the collective material into a cohesive whole that—well, never leaves you. Whether the musical mood is decidedly low-key ("Take Me to My Love"), celebratory ("Greater Love"), or sensual ("Linda"), the listener is engaged with soulful singers whose essence comes through by way of intent passion and style. Selective ears will recognize the rich tones of former Soul II Soul vocalist Caron Wheeler on the loungin' "So Good," while house devotees will instantly pick up on the unique phrasing of Robert Owens on "Fly Free." It is, however, the opening and closing tracks on the disc—showcasing the commendable vocal talents of up-and-comers Jocelyn Mathieu and Jon Pierce—which leave the most indelible impressions. On the breezy "Everything," Paris-born Mathieu evokes classy swag, while the reassuring "Never" finds Chicago native Pierce injecting his smoothness with an appealingly gruff edge.
Throughout Never Leaves You, the voices are continuously surrounded by a flavorful array of instrumentation. Adding flair to Gum's mixing, programming, and percussion prowess, musicians such as Tobias Weldinger (flugelhorn), Phillip Niessen (guitar), and Kafele Bandele (trumpet) help to create an atmospheric experience not only on the dance floor, but also in soothing the senses. Combined with fluent lyrical messages (most penned by the featured vocalists), it all results in a pleasing palette from start to finish.
by Justin Kantor