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Cover Art Various Artists
Xen Cuts
[Ninja Tune]
Rating: 9.1

Some time around 1987, I bought a 7xCD box set called Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974. I think this was the first time I realized that certain record labels were identified with a specific "sound." The hugely influential R&B singles cut during those years by people like Joe Turner, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles are rightly identified with their performers, but the music definitely shared a sensibility. After all, these tracks were recorded in a small handful of studios, with many of the same producers, session musicians and songwriters. So, though it was nowhere near as mechanized as Motown later became, Atlantic R&B had an aesthetic, and this meant that the heavenly box set was a unified listening experience, with each disc flowing like melted butter.

The fantastic Ninja Tune retrospective Xen Cuts, celebrating the label's 10-year anniversary, has a similar cohesiveness. Though the several dozen artists on these three discs come from at least four continents and work in different genres, there's always some thread that's still vaguely "Ninja Tune." It must have something to do with the kinds of records that turn label founders Jonathan More and Matt Black on. We can guess that they appreciate '60s exotica and Blue Note jazz, and they especially dig the hip-hop of the late '80s-- the time when they made their first recorded impact by remixing Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full." Consciously or not, they've kept their ears open for artists with a similar quality, even though the roster they've accumulated is as rich with variety as it is with talent.

Fine DJs that they are, Coldcut know how to select and sequence tracks, further upping this collection's listenability factor. Each disc here seems to have a loose theme. The first showcases the hip-hop side of Ninja Tune, with a good chunk of the 18 tracks featuring Native-Tongue influenced MCs. Highlights include Lyrics Born and Lateef of Bay Area rap duo Latyrx turning in their best rap ever over a groove by the Herbaliser on "8pt Agenda." Kid Koala offers "Emperors Main Course," his beautiful, funny and previously hard-to-find reworking of Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne's theme from The Last Emperor. And Luke Vibert's funky "I Hear the Drummer" is a slice of drum programming perfection. Hard as it is to believe, there really isn't really a weak cut here.

The second disc gives a nice overview of Ninja Tune's various other personalities, from the rare groove-inspired funk of Clifford Gilberto to the sampling virtuosity of Amon Tobin to the exotic trip-hop of Funky Porcini. It's mostly a downtempo affair, never straying too close to the kinetic drum-n-bass some of the artists here dabble in. Though they're all keepers, special props go to the percussive jazz grooves built by Neptune on "Soul Pride," and Up, Bustle & Out on "Los Locos Cubanos."

The final disc contains rare and unreleased tracks, and it's a testament to this collection that, while it's a tad more schizophrenic than the other two discs, it's nearly as strong. John McEntire's mix of Coldcut's "More Beats & Pieces" bubbles with rhythmic ideas. Kid Koala's live "Drunk Trumpet" (recorded at Chicago's Metro) is a useful indicator of the depth of Eric San's talent, as he improvises turntable jazz that's actually melodic without the benefit of the studio. Fourtet finds the dark heart at the center of the Cinematic Orchestra's drifting "Channel 1 Suite," further distinguishing him as a major remix talent (check out his EP with Pole). And DJ Food's "Peace Pt. 1" is an all-out bongo-heavy party jam. As a label retrospective, Xen Cuts does indeed have something of the Buddha nature; instead of thinking back as we listen, we are blissfully immersed in The Now.

-Mark Richard-San

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RATING KEY
10.0: Indispensable, classic
9.5-9.9: Spectacular
9.0-9.4: Amazing
8.5-8.9: Exceptional; will likely rank among writer's top ten albums of the year
8.0-8.4: Very good
7.5-7.9: Above average; enjoyable
7.0-7.4: Not brilliant, but nice enough
6.0-6.9: Has its moments, but isn't strong
5.0-5.9: Mediocre; not good, but not awful
4.0-4.9: Just below average; bad outweighs good by just a little bit
3.0-3.9: Definitely below average, but a few redeeming qualities
2.0-2.9: Heard worse, but still pretty bad
1.0-1.9: Awful; not a single pleasant track
0.0-0.9: Breaks new ground for terrible
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