Neville Watson is one of dance music's elder statesmen, and Songs to Elevate Pure Hearts, his debut album, comes almost two decades into a career that's seen him run his own record store, a label, and put out an impressive array of 12"s under his own name and a glut of pseudonyms. Though new producers these days are seemingly picked up for full-lengths before they're old enough get past a bouncer, Watson has followed a classic career path, and Songs to Elevate Pure Hearts is the work of a producer steeped in dance history.
Watson's sound is unapologetically analog, loose, and unshackled. There's a roughness to Songs to Elevate Pure Hearts, a grit and crackle that dates the production but also makes it stand out amid the sheen of the overproduced norm. In recent years, Watson has forged a successful live partnership with KiNK—a Bulgarian producer whose records revel in bombastic energy—and though there's little of KiNK's main-room buzz at work here, Watson does seem to share his production methodology of making things feel live; tracks like the sardonically titled "Everything I Know About House (I Learned On Facebook)" flow with an elastic energy, the machines' whir almost audible beneath chuntering drums and an oscillating low end.
Much of the album's charm lies in Watson's ability to do a lot with the sparsest of elements, and unlike many of the producers pushing '90s house revivalism, he displays a keen ear for melody that lifts his work beyond simple rhythm workouts. The title track centers on a serpentine bassline, hi-hats that clatter like a cutlery drawer being tipped down a fire escape, and the occasional "Ooh baby" trailing off in dub echoes. It's a spartan sonic palette, undoubtedly, but its judicious deployment is the product of a hand that knows the value of restraint. "Against the Tide" adopts the same "less is more" philosophy, a late-night jam with filtered synth stabs soaked in reverb and peppered with the product of a vintage MPC. Watson's elegy to the early '90s, the aptly named "Son of House," provides the record's standout moment, coupling the simplest of synth leads with a bassline crafted for Balearic terraces at sunrise.
Though his success at targeting a dancefloor is undoubted, Songs to Elevate Pure Hearts stumbles when Watson switches his focus away from the club. Beatless workouts like opener "Dark Star" or "The Girl from Kowloon Tong" are undercooked, and feel more like efforts in box-ticking the prerequisites of an LP than genuinely interesting moments. "Axiomatic" is more successful, its pitch-shifting hi-hats hammering over rubbery bass notes, but again it's a strong idea that fails to evolve. This is Songs to Elevate Pure Hearts' overriding weakness; it feels less like an album, and more like a collection of very good EPs bolted together.