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Friday, August 27, 2004
 
Fond Feelings:

Whigfield - Was A Time
Big big repeat-replay tune for me. What is it about shuffle/schaffel?!? I've already written so much about it but there's something about this stuff that makes me feel like there's more more always more to say, it's like a bottomless well of potential but elusive meaning. But the joy of "Was A Time" isn't just its driving glam rhythm; this reminds of one of those early uptempo Saint Etienne tunes ("Join Our Club" maybe, though the chiming Spanish guitar, twining round the beats like bright crimson wisteria, actually puts it closer to "Duke Duvet", or Basement Jaxx's "Rendez-vu"): blatantly populist and physical but also eerie and magical, but most importantly all of these things at once, all inextricably intertwined.

Whigfield has a great presence here as well, with hints of shrill imperiousness that remind me slightly of early Sinead O'Connor, but then folded back into her sweet pop persona - "da da da da" backing vocals and anxious-to-please key changes. Best of all, her departures into slightly scary spoken word! "Too. Bad. I. Can't. Read. Your. Mind!" She sees a europop hit and she wants to paint it black...

M. Mayer - Speaker
Underrated this for the longest time: who needs Mayer in non-lush mode? But I've come around to the idea that this Chicago house throwback is one of Mayer's most satisfying records, and (theoretically) a dancefloor bomb. As with pretty much all Mayer tracks the focus is on the subtle build, from the ultra-sparse opening (just a 4/4 pound and a spectral synth hook) through ominous bass riffs and skeletal hi-hats, and then a raft tiny insectile percussive effects and that stereo-panning minimal acid squiggle, squirming around your neck, ears and shoulders. The polite gentility of the robotic vocal ("I am not a talker; I'm a speaker, speaking to you") is the key to the track's success I think: Mayer never goes for the easy payoff menace that was open to him, just a gradually increasing, compulsive disquiet, a scratch you can't itch but which seems to itch itself.

And THEN! Those slightly syncopated handclaps, only just out of time with the kickdrum so that the rhythm section generates a delightful friction. I like to think that those handclaps represent some sort of the dramatic irony, hinting at something "we" know about the groove but which the groove itself doesn't. I realise that doesn't make sense. At any rate it's a wonderful record, one whose sparseness belies the enormous amount of care and attention that has gone into its construction. I've listened to it more than just about anything else these last few weeks. I'd love to play it first in a DJ set, and feel the hair on dancers' necks rise as they begin to sense just what sort of groove is actually overtaking them.

Christina Milian ft. Joe Budden - Whatever You Want
Christina's album has so many exceptional tracks ("I Can Be That Woman"! "Miss You Like Crazy"!), that it's hard to single out one, but I chose this one because it helps me to get out of bed in the morning, and indeed, may end up serving this function for the longest stretch since the tyranny of Shakedown's "At Night" in 2002. Like Mya's peerless "Free", "Whatever You Want" is a shameless, brassy disco retread, all funky bass and triumphant horns and whistles. So far so good, but it's Christina makes this track, her performance so self-assured and confident and right there that she resembles a particularly talented Idol finalist, full of live panache and wearing an outfit to die for.

Fantastic lyrics, too: "I can feel the groove when you're holding me, like to let you think you're controlling me" her multitracked vocals admit, before the "real", unaccompanied Christina cuts in, "...even though that ain't the deal - when I want I take the wheel!" with a sassy delight that's irresistible. Joe's in fine form too: "Only Mike puts up numbers like me, and he's no longer playing but"-and here somewhat remorsefully-"neither am I!" (Everyone tells me Joe's album sucks, but between this and "Pump It Up" and "Fire" he's three for three as far as I'm concerned.) Something tells me that commercially this isn't gonna be Christina's "Crazy in Love" like "Dip It Low" was her "Baby Boy" - its disco bounce fun seems too innocent and uncomplicated for the current chart climate - but I'd dearly love to be proven wrong.

Ciara ft. Petey Pablo - Goodies
Houston - I Like That

I love love LOVE R&B-crunk crossover (someone on ILM labelled this stuff "bubblecrunk"!). I think back when I first heard "Yeah" last year I posted here with the guilty confession that I kinda preferred it to "proper" crunk. That remains true, except that I no longer feel guilty - who couldn't love these deliciously melted collisions of slinky song and hardcore grunt. If much crunk proper has a slightly uncomfortable aggressive air to it, tunes like "I Like That" and "Goodies" (not to mention Pablo's "Freek-a-Leek") blur the edges with soft tunefulness, so that their high-impact hi-jinx have a flushed sensuality, still deep-thrusting but more consensual, still a penetrative force but akin to a probing, questing tongue.

Like probing tongues, these tracks rest on that sexual/sickly divide. "I Like That" positively slithers, its overstuffed profusion of synths prickling and sticking to the skin on the inside of your ears. It's hard to think of another recent R&B tune that sounds so immediately large, so inviting from the very first note. And I love the array of lead vocals, backing vocals ("Wo Wo Wo Wo!") and guest raps seem to overlap eachother - everything about this track seems to suggest a certain spilling over, a wasteful excess that I love.

"Goodies" is closer to the weedy-in-the-best-sense Lil Jon blueprint (and indeed he produced this): enormous handclaps, an addictive synthwhistle hook and of course those ubiquitous rave riffs. Ciara (a singer? a group? it's hard to tell) remind(s) me of En Vogue circa Masterpiece Theatre, combining breathy allure with a cynical priggishness that verges on a generalised dislike of men - or perhaps rather the unwashed masses. For Ciara (as with En Vogue), being classy necessitates being classist, and they affect an almost aristocratic pretension here - including a brief outburst of shrill, almost operatic vocal melodrama. Which is why the clash between Ciara's faux-refinement and the unrepentant baseness of Lil Jon's production is inspired: totally undermining Ciara's claims to respectability, the cheap and wanton groove leaves them resembling bad actors in a sexploitation film, protesting in vain that they musn't, musn't give in, all the while allowing their blouses to slip further and further.



Sunday, August 15, 2004
 
I was trying to thrash out exactly what it is that makes Tiefschwarz's recent string of remixes so startling and intriguing, and how it is that they cohere as something we might call a "body of work" when they cover such a broad range of sounds and approaches - in essence, why Tiefschwarz are to 2004 as Ewan Pearson was to 2003, awarded the title of Remixer-I-Want-To-Canonize. Listening to their mix of Mocky's "Mickey Mouse Motherfuckers" (as part of Ronan's excellent DJ-set as Omnipotent Baby, What Goes Wrong When Trying To Make Friends) it struck me that a good deal of the attraction lies in Tiefschwarz's essential crudity. Which is an odd thing to say about a duo who started off making luxuriant, "classical" deep house and now make fractured, complex electro-house epics. I guess what I mean is that, at least in their current incarnation, the duo aren't afraid to be obvious in their "juvenile" appreciation of the varied abundance of sonic tricks that litter dance music history, deploying them with all the subtlety of a "shock and awe" bombing campaign. The main attraction of "Mickey Mouse..." is a bouncy percussive bassline that reminds me simultaneously of early Warp and Technotronic, over which the duo lace a meaty, cut-up house beat and drizzling synth explosions; these are aural equivalents of Mocky's Peaches/Gonzales-style swearing, their primary purpose being to convince you that there's nothing the duo won't stoop to.

Warp and Technotronic (or early house-pop generally) are big reference points for Tiefschwarz, as they are for quite a few producers in the post-electroclash scene - it's surely only a matter of time before some French wag makes an instrumental "edit" of "Pump Up The Jam" so that Ivan Smagghe can put it on one of his mixes. Both sources are notable for the way they inextricably intertwine populism and brutalism (it's easy to forget how much "Pump Up The Jam" broods) with sonic hooks that are both abrasive and accessible, and (in the case of house-pop) songs and vocals that try for a sort of mock-toughness, a steroid sexuality. What I particularly like about Tiefschwarz though is that they don't over-emphasise the brutalism at the expense of the populism. On ILM Jess said in relation to Smagghe's Death Disco mix that if artists are going to revive early Warp then they should take their cues from LFO's "We Are Back" and not Sweet Exorcist's "Testone", and I know what he means (the greatness of the latter record notwithstanding). "We Are Back" is actually a harder, heavier record than "Testone", but its enormous, slightly silly computer chorus and ungainly galloping groove are more instantly inviting than the latter's slightly abstract menace and steely precision. As Smagghe's Suck My Deck mix shows, abstract menace and steely precision can have their own considerable benefits, but it's the way that Tiefschwarz circumvent this general tendency towards default minimalism that distinguishes them from even the best Black Strobe affiliates - and, indeed, makes their thick, voluptuous remix of Phonique's "The Red Dress" a peak moment in that set.

Where much of Suck My Deck proposes a new sort of compulsive dark-electro purism - stripping away the exterior peculiarities of electro, house, acid, bleep 'n' bass and techno to produce a sleek, shiny homage to physical menace - Tiefschwarz celebrate a profound impurism, gleefully mixing and matching the most paradigmatic, temporally-confined tricks from different styles. The music is retro, yes, but rarely do any of their mixes call to mind a particular moment in musical history; instead, the effect is closer to that of bootlegs, or the work of particularly skilled multi-genre synthesists like The Avalanches, Richard X or Daft Punk. Richard X might be the best reference point actually: if his productions imagine a world where the synthetic aesthetic of the early eighties never died, Tiefschwarz attempt a similar feat in resurrecting the rudimentary sonics and technology of dance music from the late eighties and early nineties. It's a conceit I'm sympathetic with: the fact that arrangements are now more sophisticated and subtle than those of early house-pop with its stuttering snares and pseudo-acid basslines doesn't take away from how powerfully effective that music remains, how gloriously ambitious and novel it sounds.

Of course, neither Tiefschwarz nor any other contemporary producer has made anything as shiny and unambiguous as "Vogue" or "100% Pure Love", and I wonder whether it's something they can successfully attempt. As with Kompakt-style pop-techno, the attraction here is the negotiation of two extremes: on one end, slithery electro minimalism, on the other, brash, bold-stroke dance-pop. If Tiefschwarz's work didn't attempt to master both of these extremes simultaneously I can't imagine it would be as compelling as it is. Your advised to not take titles like their "Black Box Remix" (of Chicks On Speed's "We Don't Play Guitars") too seriously - the "Black Box" as such is a spectral echo in a dubbed-out, rock-grunty house mix that even includes a weird rock/rap breakdown section.What Tiefschwarz cannilly absorb is not the disco vocals or glittery piano riffs, but science of house-pop, the physical impact that underscored the sweet hooks.

Perhaps the duo's best remix to date - and incidentally their biggest LFO moment - is their take on Spektrum's "Kinda New". I use "accomplished" deliberately, because despite their aforementioned crudity, this track is marked by its strategic use of restraint, delay, build-up and finally climax. The most immediately remarkable aspect of this record is its pompous swagger: the opening rough snare tick suggests a certain level of impatience, as if the track is biding its time until it can get going, but wants you to know that it's not one to be trifled with (like a man tapping his foot ostentatiously in a queue). Tiefschwarz build on this with awesomely resonant metallic bass hits, used sparingly to indicate that the track's full force is approaching - this time reminding me of scenes in monster films where the beast's incessant approach is marked by growing ripples on the surface of a glass of water - interspersed with these erupting bleep riffs that seethe across the surface of the groove, a tightly restrained panicky euphoria that can't help but bubble up in momentary lapses of restraint. The song's vocals, a bit too sneery in their original form, are interwoven with these effects, creating a new narrative: the smug self-satisfaction of the groove itself. "Cos you know this feeling... is something kinda new...." it whispers, later cackling "Tonight I give it up to you!". At which point the rudimentary bass groove unfurls with these glorious (but never soft) mirage-like flourishes of synth shimmers, accompanied by searing, stereo-panned Vitalic riffs and the vocalist murmuring ominously "let it in-side-you!". It's a homage to the triumph of its own inevitability - how can you resist a groove like this?

And yet for all this inevitability, the interplay of effects still has a certain unrehearsed quality, like you're listening to a junior school orchestra where the possibility of everything falling to pieces hangs over each bar like a dark cloud. Unlike with typical school orchestra fare, the dance music Tiefshwarz create benefits from this ramschackle quality; the rough rubbing together of each component deployed generating a friction that makes the groove seem to spark with static electricity. As with "Prototype", "Timecode" and "Lovelace", this emphasis on sonic interplay reminds me of Orbital, but an alternate universe Orbital where, instead of growing more sophisticated and "musical", their skill at negotiating different ideas actually devolved, resulting in tracks as lumbering beasts, drunken sphynxes (or Voltrons) whose clumsy advances demolish everything in their path quite by accident (Orbital themselves hinted at this possible new direction in their underrated late-nineties rave-homage "Know Where To Run").

This model of dance groove - grooves with transplanted sonic organs that the "body" might reject at any moment - is one which appeals to me at the moment, popping up frequently in the rough'n'ready, gloopy bass grooves of Areal tracks, or in the globular microhouse and schaffel of Robag Wruhme and the Wighnomy Bros (see particularly "Bodyrock", or, in a similar vein, Losoul and International Pony's "International Snootleg", which cycles between lush and spiky with a delicious asymmetricality). It's a model which encourages artists to think out new ways of making grooves work, precisely because they don't have to make the groove cohere, and this lower threshold allows for some inspired bits of amateur sonic surgery, suturing together ideas that can't easily be fused (remember the rat-pigeon made by Bart's identical twin brother?). Being good students of deep house and Black Stobe style electroclash, Tiefschwarz haven't abandoned sleekness completely (and why should they? Amatuer surgery isn't necessarily better than the shiny seamlessness). Instead, this and their other great tracks and recent remixes (of Hell's "Listen to the Hiss", The Rapture's "Sister Saviour", Minimal Compact's "Next One Is Real", as well as their own "Blow") negotiate a charming middle ground: a glittering electro futurism where the intestinal inner workings are proudly displayed on the outside of the reflective glass walls.



Friday, August 06, 2004
 
The New Thing: playing hard-dance (as in that interzonish hardcore/hard house/hard trance stuff) at 33 not 45. Seriously! Try it with UK Hard Sixteen's "Fucking Voodoo Magic"/"In Complete Darkness" (great 'ardkore-ish titles or what???). Slowed down, "In Complete Darkness" sounds especially great, a lurching throbbing goth-electro monster with slivering synth riffs, Speicher meets Vitalic meets EBM. Maybe it's just that my head is fucked with the flu, but it sounded great to my ears.

(ps. a belated welcome back to jess and andy. I loves you guyz!)



Saturday, July 17, 2004
 
Angus likes Rex The Dog's "Prototype" and Justus Kohncke's "Timecode", and I enjoyed his description of them as "glitterball-friendly". It's the kind of thing one can only say after having listened to lots of fuzzy tech-house and microhouse, because these records are by normal standards fairly distant-sounding. They are big, they are anthemic, but there remains a sense of steely abstraction - it's not by accident that the front cover of Kohncke's Zwei Photonen depicts a glass skyscraper at night. And yet "glitterball-friendly" feels right. These records - to which I'd add Ada's amazing "Lovelace" - feel like they're coalescing into some sort of fusion of disco and tech, only perhaps not the most obvious kind. All three strike me as explicitly emotional records: the bubbling acid in "Timecode" feels like an irrepressible gush of love or joy rising through your nervous system; The forward propulsion and sheer largesse of "Prototype" imagines the excitement of first seeing a metropolis etched out against the skyline, the overwhelming sense of euphoria, displacement and freedom. Best of all is "Lovelace", with its by turns prickly and forlorn melodic motifs, gentle siren calls and warm bass churn, combining the evocations of the previous tracks and adding an astonishingly light gossamer web of sadness: the first thing I thought when I heard it was that this is the record actually playing in the background of The Streets' "Blinded By The Lights".
 
There's a couple of reference points I can think of for these tracks, such as Underworld's occasional blast-off into synth-laden anthemia (e.g. "Cups" if it didn't hold to such a strict division between its lush house and rave apocalypse sections). But mostly - and most curiously - I'm reminded of Orbital getting physical: "Lush", "Impact", "Spare Parts Express","Nothing Left" etc. In part, it's the interwoven melodic and harmonic complexity at work, and the fondness for shiny, rubbery post-electro synth sounds. As well, there's the way these tracks move quite openly between different melodic or sonic motifs, always "tracky" but in a maximalist fashion, denoting an attempted architectural grandeur whose tackling of the big emotions is never subtle. For "microhouse", it's definitely "big room" material, but this stuff is too rife with sedimentary material from the best dance music of the last few years (especially its most tuneful moments: French house, Metro Area-style nu-disco, electroclash, Kompakt techno-pop etc.) to be a simple capitulation into grayscale tech-house or prog house - and indeed, if you listen to an c. '93  Orbital track and, say, most of Guerilla Records' output at the same time, what leaps out is how drab and uneventful the latter often sounds tunewise, for all the fancy dubspacious arranging at work. At any rate, I'm all for this trend towards open-armed and open-hearted anthems - please let me know if you're aware of any others in this vein!




Wednesday, July 14, 2004
 
Part two of that dancehall round-up has been delayed because, right after writing that first installment, I began to feel the effects of dancehall-overdose: unconsciously choosing to listen to anything but dancehall. As a result, the write-up (which, because it requires "close listening", neccessitates intense exposure) has been delayed. Instead, I listened to almost nothing but pop-crunk for a week, then almost nothing but rock for a week, and since then it's been Kompakt Kompakt Kompakt. Doubtless in a few days time I'll suddenly find myself shuddering at the prospect of a repetitive 4/4 beat and craving some new riddims, so I better jot down any thoughts I have on the former now.

A Kompakt (and related tech/microhouse) obsession has of course been facilitated by the sudden and overdue expansion of the coverage of Limewire (mac download client of choice) into music outside the top 40, which has allowed me to hear all manner of stuff I'd resigned to missing out on, chief amongst them being the glorious Michael Mayer 12" combo of "Privat" and "Amabile" from last year. This was timely - I'd been overdosing on other Mayer classics lately ("Hush Hush Baby", "Amanda", "17 & 4", "Pensum (A2)", "Falling Hands", "Love Is Stronger Than Pride") and trying to articulate the underlying methodology that unifies these disparate tracks. I think Andy K said somewhere that Mayer reveals his DJ sensibilities in his work, which frequently focuses on the introduction and incorporation of new, complementary ideas throughout the course of a track. This is definitely a big part of what makes Mayer's material so effective: think of the way "Hush Hush Baby" moves from its light, airy burbles into that hypnotic bass churn, or how the cloud of amorphous sirens in "Falling Hands" seems to peak in intensity, only to be dragged down by a single-note bassline pulsing almost ominously. If I recall, Andy's comments were actually directed towards the Speicher track "X", where particles and fragments of sound are arranged into a lustrous chain that seems to flicker and twist constantly.

"Privat" bears all the hallmarks of a "classic" Mayer track: a lush, melancholy downbeat house number that pulses with gloomy romanticism, lonesome guitar peals recalling the mournful expanses of Superpitcher's "Tomorrow". But I slightly prefer the shuffly "Amabile": at first blush coming on like a more restrained take on the balearic glam of Mayer & Reinhard Voigt's "Unter Null" - owing to its bleepy synth hook and buzzy bouncy bassline - it slowly reveals itself to be an even more majestic tribute to melancholy than the a-side, with its viscous swirl of softly bruised synths and the gargly distant sighs of drowned children. One of the aspects of shuffletech that makes it so endlessly involving (many covered in detail here previously) is the capacity for the beat itself to be suffused with emotion and resonance so easily. This ability isn't alien to house - I've talked before about how on songs like Daft Punk's "Digital Love", or Kylie's "Love At First Sight" or Luomo's "Could Be Like This", the beat itself plays a crucial rule in shaping the emotional content and character of the song; Alexander Kowalski is a master at this as well - but, perhaps owing to the peculiar and relatively unfamiliar nature of its groove, shuffletech seems particularly well equipped to have this effect. On "Amabile" the sensation is one of spiralling downwards, of incompletion, the beat always arriving too early or too late for any sense of fulfilment or closure. Which is why those muted background vocals make me think of drowned children: there's a real ghostly effect to this track, a sense of existence suspended, wrongs unatoned or stories unfulfilled, a vision of neither heaven nor hell but instead purgatory. And so much of this is derived not from the musical devices Mayer draws on but rather the beat itself.

"Amabile" offers a vision of shuffle entirely removed from the prevailing models offered so far - the labyrinthine dub perfected by Thomas Fehlmann, or the glam of Raumschmiere/Naum/Goldfrapp, or the gentle pop of Superpitcher's "The Long Way". Instead it charts a more ambivalent course between techno trackiness and abject emotionalism in a manner somewhat similar to the glistening neo-trance sound of The Modernist, Kaito and Magnet. But whereas those three acts have patented a smooth, cruise control glide, there's an inevitable spikiness and rupture to shuffletech that cannot be erased; instead of floating on the surface of the groove I find myself inserted within it. avoiding the rigid "grid" sensation that Reynolds targets as being trance's Achilles' Heel in Generation Ecstacy, shuffletech is at once hypnotic and internally fractured - the interrelatedness of its components has a certain dynamism that allows producers to exploit subtle shifts such that their impact is seismic. Think of the way "Unter Null" shifts back and forth between emphasising the Jam & Spoon guitar loop, the glam riffs and the droning bassline, and how much this changes the entire feel of the track. This opens up a space for shuffle to be a complement to techno, tracky and not songful but explicitly emotional, big and anthemic but nuanced and complex. I'm not saying I want all shuffletech to be like this (and indeed if anything I can only see shuffletech stompin further down the glam path - check the new "We Are Glitter Mix" of Goldfrapp's "Strict Machine", which manages to be simultaneously more shuffle and more grrr rock than the original, a forceful assaultive grind laden with heavy guitar) but it's a nice complement to the other directions in which different artists are taking it.

Joachim Spieth is also doing stuff in this vein: his "Nie Mehr Allein" from last year's Total 5 comp is a hidden gem, its shuffle beat rocking unsteadily like a row boat on a swell while around it a gorgeous collusion of gauzy keyboards and soft string stabs slowly unfurls, and a dreamy shoegazer female vocal wonders "Do you remind me?" It really is shoegazer shuffle, gorgeous but somehow distracted. More urgent is his remix of Mayer's "17 & 4", which has the menacing bassline of a glammier shuffle track (eg. The Orb's "Masterblaster") but whose appeal is much less obvious - here it's the contrast (or conflict) between Spieth's ensemble of micro treble sounds and a slowly rising, sorrowful synth wash. The result is, again, reminiscent of trance - especially early Eye Q or Harthouse - but, once more, the effect is entirely different owing to the nature of the shuffle beat. Perhaps I enjoy this slightly more tech-oriented material because - contra the song stuff - it's so engrossing, so easy get lost in, while never flattening out into a deadening 4/4 pound. It's the same logic that renders the soupy Perlon/Musik Krause material so irresistible, but whereas with microfunk it's difficult to avoid or circumvent an opposition between quirky detail and energy, something like Spieth's "17 & 4" remix can pound away manically while still being a feast for the ears.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum you have something as defiantly non-tracky and yet downright brilliant as the Justus Kohncke's "Hot Love" remix of Freiland's "Frei". I won't talk about this much because it's been covered pretty sufficiently elsewhere, except to say that I love it love it love it, and that it rewards repeated listens much more than I could have hoped for - a vision of shuffle-as-glam that's not afraid to be silly and delirious and actually camp (cf. Goldfrapp's still enjoyable "camp" as stylistic accessory). It's been in my head for the last week; my boyfriend thinks I'm singing along to the T. Rex original of course. If you can track it down, fan