So two Sundays ago I'm hanging with a friend, and I'm driving us to an out-of-the-way music shop he knows about, one that carries superb old vinyl. En route, I put on some music I want him to hear. "Check this out," I say, slipping in an advance copy of 4Hero's Play With the Changes CD. The languid music fills the car, complementing the lazy afternoon of sporadic snow showers. We ride in silence for a few miles before Jeff speaks up: "This is making me sleepy."
That isn't the usual effect of 4Hero's music. And I don't think Jeff was paying much attention to it anyway. In the early '90s, the British band, spearheaded by Dennis "Dego" McFarlane and Mark "Marc Mac" Clair, pioneered the drum 'n' bass sound, which swept up dancers in clubs around the world.
On Play With the Changes, the group's seventh CD and first since 2001's Creating Patterns, McFarlane and Clair keep things in chill mode. The music is relaxed, yes, but never boring. The richly percussive sound that garnered the band international acclaim has morphed into a smoothed-out approach that still retains some energy.
"We were trying to get out of the drum 'n' bass thing," says McFarlane, who last week was chilling at his London pad. "We had to get into something new."
That new bag reflects the band's maturation. In the years away from making albums, Clair (who was unavailable for an interview) got married and had a son. He and his family settled outside of London. McFarlane remains in the city and admits to being completely uninterested in contemporary sounds. "I'm most of the time stuck in the '70s with Roy Ayers and Minnie Riperton," he says. "While making [Play With the Changes], I was listening to Cameo things, Ashford & Simpson, some Stephanie Mills records."
The new CD is also the first one the pair produced separately. But unlike OutKast, the once-inseparable hip-hop duo whose creative differences have turned recent albums into artistically schizo affairs, 4Hero manages to assemble a fluid set from start to finish. Each approach - McFarlane favors tight, synth-based arrangements; Clair creates sweeping, orchestral productions - complements the other.
"It wasn't a problem working separately, because we know each other," McFarlane explains. "We've done different projects over the years, but we know how to get that 4Hero sound."
Play With the Changes isn't an abrupt, oh-my-god-what-is-this kind of shift in style. It's actually a better-realized extension of the group's orchestrated, down-tempo direction heard on 1998's Two Pages. But where that album was bloated and went on too long over two discs, Play With the Changes is streamlined and better focused. There's a nice balance of the lush and lean.
"We wanted the album to be more song-based," says McFarlane, 37. "We had done a lot of instrumental and self-indulgent stuff."
The album still features instrumentals, but they work as colorful interludes between the melodic numbers. Highlights include "Give In," made sultry by Darien Brockington's silken vocals and Clair's ebb-and-flow strings. "Take My Time," a sassy McFarlane production, struts along on a pulsing, synthesized rhythm. 4Hero also revisits Stevie Wonder's "Superwoman," sticking closely to the original's shifting, jazz-infused arrangement.
"It's a nice change," McFarlane says of the album. "We're grown men. You should hear that on the album. I think we're getting better musically. It's a step up."
To hear clips from 4Hero's "Play With the Changes," go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.