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It’s hard to tell whether the title of Masters at Work’s latest is meant to be self-promotional or self-effacing. On the one hand, Our Time Is Coming certainly sounds like a boast, and the Bronx-based duo has the rep to back it up: “Little Louie” Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez are one of deep house’s most influential and beloved production teams, former hiphoppers who grew up immersed in the groundbreaking beat culture of early-’80s New York. On the other hand, MAW have been around for 15 years now, consistently proving that dance music doesn’t have to be dumbed down to move the masses. If ever there was a time when Vega and Gonzalez’s time was coming, it was the previous decade, when, along with artists such as Blaze and Joe Claussell, MAW helped save the burgeoning house genre from devolving into nothing more than loud, melodically deprived, four-on-the-floor pitter-patter. With their 1993 debut, The Album, and their eponymous 1997 project as Nuyorican Soul—not to mention dozens of remix jobs—Vega and Gonzalez reconnected the music to its soul and disco roots, simultaneously advancing it by demonstrating its kinship with drum ‘n’ bass, hiphop, and traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms.
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But now that the future is here, Our Time Is Coming seems a little too late. Instead of pointing to new directions in deep house or shedding light on Vega and Gonzalez’s own, more idiosyncratic musical path, the album merely adds to MAW’s voluminous, generally high-quality output. Except for a pair of infomercialish bookends, “Mr. V” and “Michele’s Message,” and a brief interlude here or there, there’s not a throwaway track on Our Time Is Coming. All of the tunes are artfully constructed around soaring vocals, groovy bass lines, and infectious beats. Collectively, however, they don’t make a compelling album. Our Time Is Coming seems more like a compilation of unrelated 12-inch singles.
On Nuyorican Soul, Vega and Gonzalez achieved things that few dance-music artists have before or since. First, the disc was a proper album, in which the music ebbed and flowed in tempo, instrumentation, and experimentation without sacrificing overall focus. And though the duo recruited an orchestra’s worth of heavyweight players—the late percussionist Tito Puente, pianist Eddie Palmieri, saxophonist David Sanchez, soul diva Jocelyn Brown, guitarist George Benson, and vibraphonists Roy Ayers and Vince Montana—ego and ambition never got in the way of accessibility and execution. It’s not every day that an album covers material as disparate as Rotary Connection’s “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” and Palmieri’s “Taita Caneme” with equal excitement and authority and then throws in a grand finale as good as “You Can Do It (Baby),” which featured some of the best guitar work from Benson in nearly two decades. With Nuyorican Soul, Vega and Gonzalez gave house its Abbey Road.
Our Time Is Coming is more conservative, if no less lovingly produced. Whether they’re tackling disco, R&B, soca, Afrobeat, Afro-Cuban, or straight-up house, Vega and Gonzalez approach the music with respect and resourcefulness. Employing MAW mainstays such as bassist Gene Perez, guitarist Mike Ciro, drummer Vidal Davis, and keyboardist Albert “Sterling” Menendez, as well as a few high-profile guests, Our Time Is Coming has a warm, vintage sound that oozes authenticity. Like Quincy Jones, Vega and Gonzalez know how to make mundane material sound marvelous by bringing out the best of session vocalists. Indeed, not since their appearance on Quincy Jones’ 1980 album, The Dude, have Patti Austin and James Ingram sounded as passionate and self-assured as they do on Our Time Is Coming’s “Like a Butterfly (You Send Me)” and “Lean on Me,” respectively. And Stephanie Mills’ quivering voice is treated to one of the best sonic settings of her later career on “Latin Lover,” which lets her sound forceful without resorting to melismatic histrionics. Over a discofied backdrop of insistent polyrhythms, rubbery bass, and swelling backup vocals, she sings the song’s throwaway lines with perfect aplomb: “What is it like to be with you/I heard you make all dreams come true/You got that thang/You got that thang, baby, make it alright.”
By themselves, all of these tracks, as well as “Backfired,” featuring India’s gospelly growls, and “Every Now and Then,” which highlights Billie’s gorgeous alto, are moments of pure dance-floor ecstasy. But when heard strung together over the course of an album, they begin to sound less distinguished and more formulaic. Once you get halfway through Our Time Is Coming, you can pretty much predict exactly how the lead and background vocals will interact, the placement of the organ solos, the timing of the song’s climax, and the moment it will decrescendo. After a while, it’s hard to tell whether you’re listening to “Our Time Is Coming,” “Life Is but a Dream,” or “Back in the Day.”
The disc’s sameness breaks briefly with the soca rave-up “Work”; the salsa-driven “Pienso en Ti,” which features Luis Salinas’ divine singing and guitar work; and the Afrobeat stomp of “MAW Expensive.” Originally intended to be a part of a full-length collaboration with Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died of AIDS in 1997, “MAW Expensive” finds vocalist Wunmi leading a group of fervid background singers through a rendition of Fela’s politically charged “Expensive Shit.” The 12-inch version, released in 1999, duplicates all the rhythmic intensity, powerhouse brass, and dramatic call-and-response vocal delivery associated with Afrobeat, but here on Our Time Is Coming, the song is truncated to under five minutes. Both the wonderful Rahsaan Roland Kirk-
inspired flute work from Dave Valentin and the brawny saxophone solos from John Scarpulla are omitted—which hardly makes the track a must-hear. Indeed, listening to the 4:47 take on “MAW Expensive” is almost as annoying as listening to the 45 version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” which edits out Ray Manzarek’s and Robbie Krieger’s legendary organ and guitar solos.
Of course, anyone who isn’t a deep-house DJ or a dedicated vinyl collector probably won’t have the same reaction. They’ll hear a perfectly serviceable, Afrobeat-tinged rump-shaker with some sensational vox. And that’s exactly the problem with Our Time Is Coming: It’s fine for novices, or for folks who just want to dance to a good tune or two, but it’s a letdown for those who know what Vega and Gonzalez are capable of. We’ve grown to expect nothing but the very best from Masters at Work, and with a record titled Our Time Is Coming, we should get something much more inspiring and dynamic than this businesslike effort. CP