Monday, July 31, 2000
Josh, the Tricky song you're thinking of is "Aftermath", which is still one of my favourite tracks by the geezer.

Choice purchase of the day has gotta be the Best Of Reactivate triple-disc pack I picked up today for the price of normal cd. The package, which compiles selections from the React label's long-running and successful "Reactivate" series of compilations, is helpfully divided into three different styles: Belgian techno; techno trance; and nu-nrg trance, and thus in one fell swoop eliminates some rather gaping holes in my collection.

Actually the separation of styles is at times somewhat arbitrary - apart from a slightly more prominent acid line in places, E-Trax's "Let's Rock" sounds like it should be on the "Belgian techno" disc rather than the "techno trance" one. But this is a compromise the compilers have made in order to produce three equal discs running in rough chronological order as they appeared on the original Reactivate compilations, from T99's brutal '91 masterpiece "Anasthasia" from the first compilation up to Simmon and Woolfson's somewhat self-descriptive '96 release "Evil Queen", which appeared on the twelfth collection.

The most valuable of the three for me is most definitely the Belgian techno disc (although it's nice to finally have Jam & Spoon's mix of "Age Of Love" and Humate's "Love Stimulation" on cd with the techno trance set), which covers an era of dance music which is oft-mentioned but now seldom heard, and even seldomer compiled. 1991, which is when most of this stuff surfaced, was really the last time that new sounds and individual records could really turn the entire dance world on its head, and this brand of fiercely energetic techno is brimming with stray creative impulses which subsequent dance producers have spent the entire decade teasing out.

In this music you can hear the roots of Jeff Mills' forceful minimalist techno, the metronomic intensity of trance, hardcore's heady fervour, the sickly hysteria of darkcore and the searing coldness of techstep jungle, but in many ways it stands apart from the various directions it inspired, both in its sonic blueprint and its general feeling.

It's interesting hearing this now after having at least partially explored all the music that followed because of how simultaneously amatuerish and effective this is. Most of these tracks are devastatingly simple in construction: a simple synth hook is looped over a muddy kickdrum and some rudimentary percussion programming (are those synthesised handclaps I hear?).

Second Phase's "Mentasm", co-written by Joey Beltram, has earned classic status for creating the staple rave sound of the same name. The mentasm sound, a harsh metallic quivver halfway between a synth riff and the lazer zap of a starship, has permeated into countless different areas of the dance music, and currently undergoing its third resurrection in the drum & bass scene alone. Having heard the mentasm in so many different settings, the stark simplicity of the original - the sound looped over a beat, basically - unnerves and yet makes all too much sense.

What strikes me straight away about Belgian techno is its ambivalence. The driving synth riff that propels "Anasthasia" sounds like the operatic death rattle of a host of angels, but whether it's supposed to be anthemically uplifting or compellingly disturbing is somehow unclear. More than anything it produces a sense of alarm in the dancer, a jolt of adrenalin as the body instinctively responds to sensory overload, but that alarm has no context, no subsequent resolution to relax into such as trance's perpetual bliss or darkcore's uneasy fear.

Instead the listener is kept a state of constant tension and heightened awareness, which I think I'd find would be very physically taxing after a while. There's a sense of naivete to these tracks which make them (or made them) prime candidates to slip through the back door marked "pop" (in fact many of the tracks actually remind me of 2 Unlimited), but the big difference between this and cheesy Gatecrasher trance is that while this is easy music to make, it isn't easy music to listen to. Even playing this whole collection in one go is tiring, because there's no highs and lows, no space to breathe, only endless, remorseless panic.

I'll talk more about the other discs tomorrow hopefully, but for now it's off to bed.

Tuesday, July 25, 2000
What with the techno kick that I've been on recently, I decided to pull out my copy of Speedy J's Public Energy No. 1, which had been lying on my shelf for about a year and a half. When I first bought it I was aware of hardly any "serious" dance music, and was deep in my expansive guitar rock phase. Go figure, I was intrigued but ultimately a little scared, and consigned it to the shelf after three listens. I thought it was time for a reassessment.

Let it be known that Tom dislikes Speedy J, apparently (and correct me if I'm wrong here, Tom) because the guy tries too hard to be difficult and intelligent, in the process hamstringing any talent he might otherwise have for making enjoyable music. When I first read Tom's review/rant, I thought "Ah, so that's why I didn't get it." Now that I rather like the album, I'm forced to reassess my attitude towards the guy who made it.

Public Energy is quite openly, even self-consciously, a piece of "intelligent" techno. Furthermore, it belongs to the "parasitic" school that Simon Reynolds discusses, stealing ideas and techniques from populist dance genres, reappropriating them in such a way as to strip them of their original value. Thus the most instant track on the album "Patterns" uses the main hook of an undanceable but vaguely junglist breakbeat, which Speedy has manipulated in such a way that it's also something of a bass riff. Hovering somewhere between bass and beat, it doesn't function as either, impacting neither at your hips or in your chest but rather somewhere at the back of the neck. If that wasn't enough, he then progressively mixes it further down in the mix until it's just a distant rumble, a vague sense of discomfort.

As if in compensation, towards the end of the track Speedy introduces some sparkly synthesizer harmonies that in the proper context (a straightforward uplifting trance track for example) would be anthemic. Against such a punishing and awkward backdrop though, they only sound incongruous. I could take the view that such musical misanthopy is just pointless posturing and a waste of good source material, but instead... I like it, in spite of itself, and maybe in spite of myself. On one level, by making the attraction of the break's rhythmic dexterity and the synthesizer's spangly textures harder to just appreciate, Speedy makes the listener grasp their inherent value even more.

On the whole Speedy's work here isn't too afilliated to drum & bass (or even drill & bass), and is generally closer to Autechre's brand of hyperkinetic industrial electro. And when Speedy wants to, he can be really good at this sort of thing. On the double whammy of "Pure Enegy" and "Haywire" he constructs streamlined beatbusting electro machines out of waves of distortion, at times reminding me of Destiny's Child's awesomely mechanistic "Jumpin' Jumpin'". While I could ask here why I should bother listening to this when Destiny's Child can do it as well, I'm actually impressed that Speedy managed to fashion such unweildy elements into something that would remind me of a pop song.

The most impressive track for me is the closer "As The Bubble Expands". Here Speedy contrasts a harrowing bell toll with a booming bass and the bizarrest percussomelodic break I've ever heard. It's sort of gamelan - there's definitely an oriental feel to it - but it's gamelan gone over to the darkside, verging on unpleasant as it morphs into indecently high treble tones. I don't think that I like this track really, but I'm definitely fascinated by it.

The real problem with Public Energy is the wheat to chaff ratio: the ambient interludes are limpid and indistinctive, and some of the dirge-grooves stretch on for too long or meander into impenetrable cul-de-sacs. But the parts I like are enough for me to consider this a good album, and one which carves out in its own niche in my musical understanding. I certainly don't think that Speedy J deserves any special status, or that he has some added insight by being removed from the dancefloor. Conversely though, I can't think of a good reason why dancefloor-based experimentalism is inherently preferable to armchair experimentalism. Attempts to raise one over the other generally lead to contradictions and unexplained exceptions to the rule anyway - if Autechre and FSOL are pretentious and isolated, how is Aphex Twin any different really?

I'd like to be able to choose one side though, to have some polemic running through my musical tastes, if only so I could save money on purchases. As it is, I've come to the slightly distressing conclusion that the criteria by which I like or dislike music are largely illusory. Of course this is true - we all respond to music instinctively and then explain it logically afterwards. In that sense I guess my musical taste is a bit like physics: I don't understand it, but based on the evidence I can come up with theories, which are then replaced by better theories the more music I come across.

Still, it makes coming up with cohesive arguments for these posts bloody difficult.

Sunday, July 23, 2000
Tim's Friday Spins

V/A - Chain Reaction... compiled

LFO - Frequencies

The Blue Nile - Peace At Last

Klute - Total Self

Doolally - Straight From The Heart

Blackstreet - Another Level

The Church - Starfish

Piano Magic - Bliss Out

Aphex Twin - I Care Because You Do

Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP

Right now I'm listening to the '98 Chain Reaction compilation - excellent stuff indeed. My favourite track is still the first (both in its track placement and release), Scion's "emerge0", which demonstrates the label's general modus operandi as well as anything - monotonous four/four beats, an incredibly minimal, amusical acid line and subtle textural manipulation is pretty much all. It's not too far away from the more minimal styles of techno and trance actually, but really it's like an old acid house track stripped of any concessions to the "song", where the pleasure sensations produced by the texture and the groove are somehow remapped across the divide on the Cartesian map, bypassing the body and feeding straight into your headspace.

Actually my favourite tracks are actually those which I could conceive dancing to, like Pelon's postively funky "No Stunts" (CR-10), so titled I imagine because of its straightforwardness. These sorts of tracks are both soothing and insistant, the groove tugging at your body to move even as your brain shuts down. It's the kind of thing I'd love to hear played in a club.

It's the groove which really distinguishes this from other forms of minimalist trance and techno. Chain Reaction's output usually centers its experimental urges around an insistent house groove, which if nothing else the body recognises to be fundamentally different to a techno or trance rhythmic matrix. Techno, with its hard percussion loops, seems to create an aggressive interaction between the dancer and the beat. When I go to clubs which play straight techno I literally feel like I'm hurtling myself into the first beat and then getting pummelled backwards by every subsequent beat in the bar.

The distinction from trance is a bit more problematic, as trance's rigid 4/4 obsession is basically derived from house anyway. But trance removes the destabilising aspect of house's refracted pulse which places different emphases on different beats, instead streamlining the rhythm so that every beat is like a step forward - which produces the sensation so often associated with trance of being "on a journey".

A lot of this also tied up in the bass line and how it interacts with the beat. In a house track it is often the bassline which tells your body which beats are important, but in trance the bassline is a separate entity, instead providing a harmonic counterpoint to the melody. Some of the later CR releases, such as Continuous Mode's "Direct Drive Mode 1" (CR-17), tend to blur that line by using basslines closer to acid trance than acid house, in the process losing some of that wonderful distinctiveness (minimal acid trance is everywhere).

The unique feeling that house creates - of starting on the beat and then circling around it before returning (hence the temptation to shake yo ass in the meantime) in some sort of pushmepullyou arrangement - might seem lost in music like this, which doesn't seem particularly danceable. But I think house's continual four beat climax-release grooves produce a desire in the listener to always return to that first beat and hear the measure again; in a sense, the tensions of the groove tease the listener's ear and their body with the prospect of withheld pleasures.

This makes the prospect of listening to incredibly simplistic, unchanging ten-minute soundscapes like these so much more inviting than the endless battery or drilling of minimalist techno or trance. Of course I'd always just assumed that I wasn't incredibly interested in any minimalist dance music, so maybe on the strength of my attraction for this I should reinvestigate it all. Any suggestions?

Thursday, July 20, 2000
On a related note, you can find a sample of Posh Spice's new single here.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring to your attention the case of Jonny L. This guy was originally famous for the fabulous hardcore rave anthem "Hurt You So", which combined sparkly computer bleeps, distorted baby grunts and synthetic high-pitched vocals. Totally unoriginal and typical of the hardcore scene of course, but perhaps because of that it has become something of an anthem, an enduring symbol of those halcyon days. Then he disappeared for a while.

In '96, he suddenly resurfaced with the "2 Of Us" ep, making smooth, atmospheric drum & bass in the LTJ Bukem mould. Again, there was nothing distinctive or new about what he was doing, but tracks like "Underwater Communication", with its brisk, clean drum programming and fragile minor-key melody, demonstrate softcore jungle at its most delicately brittle.

Of course this style was on the out, and by '97 Jonny was showcasing a new, dark sound with "Piper", which was perhaps the biggest jungle track that year. Again "new " is the wrong word - the "neurofunk" sound that "Piper" used as a template had been around for about year, with tracks like Source Direct's "The Cult" and Optical's "To Shape The Future" - but with its punishingly simple 2-step break, paranoid atmospherics and baleful bass, "Piper" was the ultimate neurofunk tune, both perfecting the sound and making every subsequent track in that style seem like an afterthought. But that didn't stop Jonny from releasing the Magnetic album in '98, which is probably the best single-artist document of jungle's return to the darkside.

One would think that having finally attained a pleasing amount of both commercial and critical success in one sound, Jonny might stay there for a while. But no! Despite continuing to release hard drum & bass through his Pirahna label, in '99 Jonny unveiled a new project in a totally different style. Perhaps galvanised by "Oh Boy", Ramsey & Fen's enormous garage cover of "Hurt You So", Jonny released his own version of his original hit in the increasingly popular garage style, using the moniker of the True Steppers. At the time I thought it was a cheap cash in, albeit an exceedingly pleasant one.

However Jonny obviously caught the garage bug 'cause early this year the True Steppers released "Buggin'", which, despite the curious, hard beats and bruised bassline, is UK garage at its most pop and R&B-affiliated (as well as being the thematic twin of Destiny's Child's Bugaboo). It promptly flew up the charts, resulting in Jonny being drafted in to work on Posh Spice's album. The results can be heard on her first single "Out Of Your Mind", which despite being a somewhat naff song, has absolutely slamming beats and a lovely multilayered production, with what even sounds like a chopped up amen break in there. In a funny way it reminds me of the original "Hurt You So" with its ebullient energy and pop savviness.

Despite his uncanny ability to adapt to any style, Jonny L has never once been an "innovator", and he's never come up with a new sound or direction within the style that he's working in. However, he has the most consistant body of work of any producer in the broadly defined hardcore scene, producing excellent tracks in no less than four separate styles. In the face of this, should it matter that he's generally not "original", especially in dance music where so much progression is born out of duplication?

Jonny L is more of a producer than an "artist", the quality of his tunes being the result of, well, their quality, rather than due to any particular distinctiveness or originality. But originality is overrated - Ed Rush may get props for being the first techstep producer, but that just hides the fact that he hasn't done a really good tune since '97's "Technology". Similarly, I'd rather listen to Jonny's '96 imposter LTJ Bukem tracks than any of the pointless "downtempo" Bukem himself has been releasing since about that time.

One trump card Jonny L possesses that's shared by almost none of his contemporaries is shelf life - his productions always sound spot on no matter which style he's working in. Compared to the other typical modi operandi of maturing drum & bass producers (flip back and forth between two extremes with diminishing returns, which we shall call the Doc Scott model, or keep making the same tune again and again and again, which we shall call the Dillinja model) the money-grubbing cynicism of Jonny's approach seems like something that should be lauded.

Tuesday, July 18, 2000
Tom and Fred are both so right about Ronan Keating's new single, which in a funny way reminds me of Scritti Politti.

"We now beseech the Lord and Lady to bless us on this night," Nick says at my shoulder very suddenly, very loudly, making me jump. I'm Candle-boy, providing the flickering light by which he reads his scrawled makeshift incantation as we stand out in a deserted field staring at the moon. He starts walking around with a ritual blade, performing some silent benediction over the girls who represent both north, south, east and west and the four elements. It was like a scene from The Craft, only afterwards no-one walked on water.

Yes, on Sunday night I witnessed the full lunar eclipse, which turned the moon a blood red over Victorian skies. To celebrate, Nick, Liz, Aly, Jody, Claire and I all went up to Nick's farm to perform a mystical rite. Well, I didn't, but I'm so used to the idiosyncracies of others now that I didn't bat an eyelid when I was informed of the planned activities. In my opinion, the spell went on far too long. Holding a candle for forty-five minutes on a cold wintry night in the middle of the country is hardly my idea of fun, although the spectacular views of the moon were definitely worth the effort.

What I enjoyed most though was the element of escape that permeated the detour for me. Firstly, I was going with people who I either didn't know and therefore could just be comfortably social with or were such old friends that any issues I might have had were long since forgotten. Secondly, it was a brief pause from the torturous (and tiring) cycle of work, seeing people socially, and getting depressed about both.

I've largely reconciled myself to the fact that whatever new experience I hurl myself into, I'm not going to feel comfortable, relaxed or content. I am going to be tense, confused over what I want and likely to hurt others while I thrash about like an uncontrolled waterhose. Going to Nick's farm contributed nothing to the personal narrative which is coalescing around me despite my best efforts to the contrary, and as such I jealously enjoyed ever moment.

I need more time like this. More time seeing old friends. More time blogging. More time waiting for my emotional maturity to catch up to my intelligence (news flash: never approach emotional disputes using logic). Ah well, at least I can console myself with better-than-expected mid-year uni results.

Saturday, July 15, 2000
Work is not a pick up joint. In fact work and sex operate in spheres so far apart in my mind that even having the two in the one sentence seems almost risque. And yet, what do I find tonight but that someone from work tried to pick me up? Even worse, a quite old and somewhat prominent person from work tried to pick me up. How did it happen? Let's see...

It's seven o'clock this evening (Saturday). I've finished my shift and I'm walking down the long corridor that connects the staff room to the outside world. He (balding, fat and in his late forties - I've never had an actual conversation with him before) was just behind me and walks briskly to catch up. "Finished your shift?" he asks innocently as we walk. I suspect nothing. I answer his question. He asks if I'm going out anywhere tonight. I say that I'm so tired that I'll probably just go home and sleep. He replies "that sounds like a good idea" but sounds disappointed. I wonder briefly if this guy is just trying to get a handle on what the younger generation do for fun.

Short pause. "I'm finishing soon as well," he states, slowly and with emphasis. "Any plans?" I ask out of bored politeness. "Well, I might just go back to my place," he starts, pausing to turn and give me a significant look. "Maybe watch some videos..." he pauses again, and this time the look is a filthy smirk. Alarm bells start going off in my brain. "On the other hand, I might go out as well." Another pause, another look. "Maybe to a club.... in Commercial Road maybe...." (Commercial Road being a mecca of gay clubs situated about fifteen minutes' walk from my house) " check out the men... I think you'd like it."

Suddenly a hundred thoughts flashed through my brian. This guy was seriously attempting to seduce me! And he thought that because he's in a position of power I'd go along with it. What's more, something about his lecherous tone of voice leads me to believe that he assumed he'd stumbled on some poor lost lamb, confused and uncertain and ripe to be exploited. I'm not out to everyone at work, so this whole venture was based on a risky presumption of his, but if I had been out I don't think he would have been interested.

Anyway, I'm instantly offended on so many levels (my thoughts primarily being "what kind of low standards does he think I have?") that I feel almost nauseous, and yet I find the whole thing utterly hysterical. Luckily right at that moment the corridor finishes and I manage to force out a strangled, overly cheerful "Have a nice night!" before sharply turning away. Once he's out of eyesight, I double back and tell my friend Nicola, who's still working, all about it.

A couple of hours have passed, and I'm still shocked, but I'm not sure what else. Should I be outraged that he would attempt something like this, or pity the man his obvious shortcomings? More importantly, how can I go back to work and keep a straight face?

I'm listening to a compilation of all of the biggest Eye Q (prominent European early trance label) tracks between 91 and 96. I think I've expressed before my feelings of ambivalence towards trance, but I'm really liking this collection, from the scary 303 miasma of Hardfloor's "Acperience" to the swoony piano cascades of Zyon's amazing-for-'91 "No Fate". I think what saves this early trance is that it isn't quite as instant as the current chartfilling style (four bars of a catchy synth hook followed by breakdown), avoiding short attention span acceleration and instead concentrating on reaching spacy pre-orgasmic plateaus where your ears are errogenous zones, alternately scraped and caressed by the hard/dreamy arrangements.

Of course it still makes me want to groove to bad-ass centric drum and bass afterwards, today's antidote of choice being Fresh and Vegas's overwhelmingly funky "Otto's Way" from '98.

Thursday, July 13, 2000
So tonight at work the candy bar majordomo Helen couldn't make it, so I had my first full shift as a supervisor (sorry, "Entertainment Service Provider Level 2"). Woo hoo, I hear you say with a hint of sarcasm in your voices, but after a year being stuck at the same level in my job it was a really weird feeling. A good feeling though, at least until the night progressed and I ran into a couple of problems; I hate counting money, ergo I'm given the job which involves counting and sorting money over and over again. I made a few minor stuff ups, but nothing irreversible thankfully.

The nice thing about being a supervisor is that you can delegate. Not that I went mad with power and became fat and lazy or anything. In fact with all that money counting I worked pretty hard. The point is that if there was something that as a lowly worker I would have done automatically, thinking "it's my job to do that", now I could pause, wonder, "should I get someone else to do that?", and then decide "No, I'll do that because I want to. Because I know that if I've done it, it's done, and properly." Thus the unused opportunity to delegate makes the completion of the same tasks less annoying and fulfilling. Also, I think I was a pretty good motivator for those under me, albeit a constantly self-deprecating "don't listen to me because I'm clueless" sort. I enjoyed that, more than I expected, and maybe more than I feel comfortable with.

I know that in the grand (or even the moderately-sized) scheme of things this is a tiny amount of responsibility, but it really made a difference tonight. I've been growing increasingly despondent and irritated over work, because it seemed pointless and directionless. For the first time in, well, a year, I felt like what I was doing had a small purpose. I really could have been doing these sorts of shifts months ago, but I haven't pushed for them because I thought that getting locked into the heirachy of a business I feel no personal interest in was misguided and pointless. But I reckon I'm now going to angle for these shifts regularly, if only to make work seem less overwhemingly meaningless.

Wednesday, July 12, 2000
Tom wonders why it's fashionable to diss Lester bangs these days. I can think of a very good reason: he's The Clash of rock crit. With the latest bio released, I've read countless claims that he's "the only music critic who's ever mattered", and yet the justification for this absurd claim is generally that he "lived the life" of a rock star. If I want to read writers who do that I don't have to go any further than the NME. Sure, Bangs was an amazing writer, but the criteria on which he is often lauded strikes me as being quite similar to prefering Aretha to Madonna because she's "suffered".

It's a bit of a vicious cycle really - the same writers who cannot or will not engage with the actual music when they write about rock find it similarly difficult to understand the point of really insightful music criticism. They end up grasping at straws and in the process create immovable straw men.

Damn Fred and his plans for world domination! This blogging in the round (or should that be the Bloggers of the Round Table?) business of his is making me feel all small and puny. Twice and thrice damn his immortal soul. Obviously the only solution is to lie my way in and bring STB crashing down from the inside. Ha ha!

Greg, I'm so not! Seriously, this is the pure, unadulterated truth, and I don't really care enough to be so needlessly vindictive as to make it up (not that there's anything wrong with her lifestyle choice etc. etc.)

If I was the sort to carry unsubstantiated tales, I'd let you all know that apparently Jesse Spencer aka Billy is gay, but while that rumour is so absolutely rife as to be treated as the God's truth over here, I haven't confirmed it with my own eyes, so you won't hear a peep about it from me. I'm not one to just come out and say something like that if I don't know it's one hundred per cent true. No, not me! Especially since his mum was a prominent spokesperson for the horrible rascist/homophobic One Nation party and probably wouldn't appreciate such nasty things being said about her darling boy.

Incidentally, all of my friends (straight and gay) find the "who has just come out of the closet?" game endlessly amusing, but I now find it pretty boring. And the really surprising revelations (eg. the brainless jocks or the evil bomb experts) which make my friends howl with laughter just depress me. Who let them in? Don't we have quotas? Background checks?

Tuesday, July 11, 2000
So, jungle.

Despite all my pronouncements of its cul-de-sac status, jungle is still the music I go out and dance to the most. Partly because there's no UK garage nights in Melbourne that I know of. Partly because there's a great jungle night at The Lounge on Thursdays, which is my big socialising night. Mainly though, it's because jungle is still such fun to dance to.

Despite being into it for about two years, I've only started hearing jungle in a dancefloor context in the last six months (age concerns, see). It's pretty much changed my perception of the music. Where originally I gravitated towards jungle suited to home listening (complex breaks, well produced, evolving tune), the dancefloor makes all the single-bar stormers which sound amusical and mindless at home seem brilliant.

This means I've been exposed to the harder end of jungle much more than I would have if I had relied solely on purchases, and while generally familiarity breeds contempt, here it seems to have promoted tolerance and, eventually, fondness. Mind-numbingly simple, stiff 2-step breaks and nasty acid basslines repeated ad infinitum? Bring it on, I say! Well, not really. Obviously as with all genres there's a high chaff/wheat ratio here, but where previously I pretty much disliked the entire modus operandi of post-techstep jungle, now I'm almost completely won over.

What struck me once as pointlessly unpleasant sounds I now realise works fantastically on the dancefloor, as if you're being moulded by the agressiveness of the music. Where before the breaks seemed depressingly repetitive, I now get off on the incredibly minute shifts in break patterns. Actually, saying "techstep" is a bit of misnomer, as the scene's being edging away from the techstep sound (metallic drones, mechanical beats, factory noises etc.) for about two years now.

The new term for the hard jungle sound is most commonly "hard rave", and a casual listen (and especially dance) will demonstrate the reasoning behind the name. There's currently a big retro vibe to a lot of the latest tracks - amen rinse-outs, ragga chanting, rave stabs, mentasms, even the occasional 4/4 kickdrum (in jungle!). The "hard" in the name refers to the fact that all of these retro/rave elements are filtered through the punishment aesthetic of all harder jungle sounds post-techstep, making this rave music that is closer to "dystopian drug-noise" than the original style ever was.

Dystopian may be the wrong word though, as while this is desperately hard, heavy music, it doesn't have the morbid moroseness of techstep or the anal-retentive misanthropy of neurofunk. It's almost happy music. You can sense that in the crowd when the DJ drops a really heavy track, 'cos the crowd beams and cheers, dancing against the noise with smiles on their faces as if they were participating in some body surfing competition with the music as the wave. Tracks by last year's scene heroes Bad Company are the hardest jungle tracks you'll ever hear, but they don't have the gloomy edge of Ed Rush and Optical, who ruled supreme in '98.

Now that jungle's audience has shrunk substantially, its audience isn't made up of those who explicitly like darkness so much as those who couldn't possibly imagine dancing to anything but jungle. That's why all the old sounds are coming back - it's a celebration of continuity in a scene which has taken the concept of the "changing same" to its logical conclusion (the brink of creative rigor mortis). I'd hate to see the amen break become the staple of each jungle track again, simply because it has been done to death, but when a small snippet is slotted into the middle of a track it gives you a little rush by triggering an instant memory of every amen you've heard before in so many different contexts.

The other thing I notice about this "hard rave" sound is how groovy it is. This is pretty much because, since the scene has contracted, all the producers have decided to realign their vision with eachother. Thus half of liquid funk is as hard as hard rave, and half of hard rave is as funky as liquid funk. The DJs tend to just play them as if they were the same style, which is in my opinion a very good thing. The bass lines groove but also sear through you, and the breaks (when not amens) are hardhitting but with a slight sense of looselimbed jazzy improvisation.

I'm not sure whether any significant new directions are going to be spawned by the current sound, but perhaps, much like house, jungle no longer needs to be experimental to be vital. The fact that the scene is actively trying to reincorporate every aspect of its sound over the last eight years suggests that is comfortable with itself, and ready to be great dance music, plain and simple.

Best track? Gotta be Dom and Roland's still excellent anthem from last year "Can't Punish Me", which I've danced to more energetically and unselfconsciously than anything else ever. High pitched synths mimicking James Bond horn stabs, compulsive breaks, pumping bass, a mix cluttered with spectral effects, and those female vocals. This could almost be a hardcore track, only it's faster and harder, but it's also a bit of a pop song as well. Check it out.

Greg reminds me of some of the more annoying habits of Brits who meet Aussies, which can largely be summed up as treating us as though it were still 1850. Of course it cuts both ways: my perception of Americans divides cleanly between loud-mouthed New Yorkers and Jerry Springer audiences, while all British women are of course tarty molls who say things like "Freshen yer drink, Guvner?" (or British Airways flight attendants who patronisingly murmer "Tea or coffee?" - thanks Claire). The problem with Australians being misinterpreted is that we don't really have a strong identity to begin with. We don't even want to become a Republic, apparently, though that little joke of a referendum owed its result to stupidity and paranoia more than anything else.

However, a fear of independence is deeply engrained in our history. In 1937 Robert Menzies complained about the UK's 1931 Statute of Westminster (which gave us political autonomy) saying "I know that quite a number of responsible people are troubled about the proposal to adopt the Statute of Westminster for the reason that they feel it may give some support to the idea of separatism from Great Britain." Well, duh! The UK was trying to get rid of us. Tellingly, we didn't ratify the statute until 1941.

I think a lot about Australia's lack of a cohesive character, especially because it's increasingly fashionable to complain of how we're being Americanised. I think we are, but I don't have nearly as much of a problem with it as most. Sure, there are some aspects of American culture I definitely dislike, but I feel that America's cultural influence over Australia has been as positive as it has been negative. Partly that's because I don't think I would have been happy in the Australia-of-yore, and partly because Australia also draws a lot from its ethnic and multicultural communities which offsets the deadly onslaught of McDonalds and Coca-Cola (which are by common consensus the embodiment of evil - how exactly?).

It's also very fashionable to align oneself with British culture in the process of dissing America. This worries me. Albeit it's not a full-blown return to colonialism, and more of a Cool Brittania kind of thing, but any reiterations of some sort of higher bond with the mother country seems like a couple of steps back to me. It's not that I dislike British culture - my life is pretty much based around it - but it seems imperative to me that Australia realise that it's not some final outpost of imperial white civilisation, and embrace the geographical and ethnic realities.

I'm currently reading this excellent book Engagement: Australia Faces the Asia-Pacific by our rather brilliant former PM Paul Keating, who I was very sad to see go. Keating's emphasis on foreign policy, particularly that of forging greater links with our closest Asian neighbours, was widely criticised by short-sighted conservatives as an attempt to make Australia an Asian country. In response, he said:

"Australia is not, and can never be, an 'Asian nation' any more than we can - or want to be - European or North American or African. We can only be Australian and can only relate to our friends and neighbours as Australian."

Keating's emphasis on Asia was not the result of some special sentiment for the region, but almost the opposite. Keating realised that Australia's position on an international level should be based on logic rather than sentiment. It is logical that we share the closest relationships with our nearest neighbours, from whom we stand the most to gain economically. It is sentimentality that keeps us tied to the apron strings of Great Britain, or even to some extent America - some belief that because we are predominately of Anglo or European descent, we share a more viable connection with countries on the the other side of the world from us.

This emotional blindness has caused Australia to behave on an international level in ways that undermine us. Keating correctly identifies our relationship with America as being one that swings from forelock-tugging obsequiousness to adolescent resentment. Our relationship with the UK fits the parent-child even more closely, with us desiring independence but also wanting to be nurtured and validated by an authoritive figure. It's this sort of ambivalence which hamstrings us and prevents us from attaining a real concept of ourselves - one which we could use to challenge the half-baked opinions of us flaunted by Brits like Greg.

Oh, and Greg, about Neighbours: you know Hannah? She's about my age minus however many months you are behind. Anyway, here's a little scoop for you: she's had to leave the show because she's a lesbian! Not many people know that, but she has this girlfriend who's about ten years older than her, and I keep seeing them together (you know, together) when I'm out and about. It's all very funny, especially because she behaves like a bigger star than she is.

Monday, July 10, 2000
So anyway, as I was saying I bought another UK garage compilation the other day, Pure Silk: The Third Dimension mixed by Timmi Magic of The Dreem Teem, and my is it good, so I thought I'd talk about some of the excellent tracks on there. It's not really the purchase I'd recommend for those new to the style, as it's a bit light on the hits (with the exception of the ubiquitous "Little Bit Of Luck", the closest it comes are N&G's "Right Before My Eyes" and B15's "Girls Like This"), but for the established fan, this is about the best single purchase I can think of.

A big factor in my buying this was the presence of some new stuff by Dem 2, specifically their single "Baby (You're So Sexy)" and their remix of Basement Jaxx's "Jump 'N' Shout". Both are brilliant, and reveal something of a new direction for the duo. "Baby" paradoxically contrasts their previous style of intense minimalism with a maximalist approach - the mix is cluttered with sonar pings, tinkling glockenspiels, random clanking, cut up and patched together vocals, and above (or perhaps below) all lots of drony, dirgy bass. Despite my earlier comments, hearing something new from the duo has made me realise that they're not operating so far away from the garage massive after all. I mean, they still sound very weird, but their style has progressed in tandem with the progression of the entire scene, incorporating the same tricks and techniques in their own inimitable style.

The remix of "Jump 'N' Shout" is along the same lines, taking a much less dancefloor-friendly approach than that of the Stanton Warriors mix. The duo butcher Slarta's vocals, looping small ticks and gargles, and isolate specific one off sounds from the mix so that this sounds more like a nightmarish hallucination of the original than a remix per se. It's ambiguity is heightened by the use of bass again, both of the metallic elephant fart variety and a particularly baleful midrange boom. It's captivating, if not particularly pleasant. Listening to these tracks in the context of much more welcoming fare, Dem 2 seem very admirable, but in a certain sense not very likeable.

They're spot on though in their realisation that the bassline has overtaken the 2-step beat as the most important aspect of garage these days. In fact all my favourite tracks from this compilation stand out due to their basslines more than anything else. I reckon this is because the use of bass pretty much defines a track's position within the scene; while beat complexity is really up to the individual producer, the underground prides itself on the rudest bass sounds possible, while the more R&B-flavoured popular crossover tracks tend to employ fluttery treble sounds

Maybe it's because they're pretty much the ambassadors for the scene to the English populace, but The Dreem Teem seem hellbent on reconciling these two divergent urges within garage. I read DJ Spoony saying recently that he really felt that the R&B song structure was the future for garage, but "it's gotta have a nasty b-line!". Nowhere is this compromise more evident than the style of their own recent tracks, which is a far cry from the ethereal sensuality of their classic remix of Amira's "My Desire".

The Dionne Rakeen track "Sweeter Than Wine" (co-written and produced by Timmi) is unambiguously sunny, soft-centred 2-step R&B: a rousing string intro, soothing female vocals and a plangent guitar backing. Which is why nothing can prepare the listener for the shivervescently funked-up metallic bassline that drives the chorus. It's the kind of bass that you can generally only find in harder drum and bass tunes, where it would practically be the entire track. In the context of a honeyed R&B ballad, it makes for deliciously conflicted listening (and indeed dancing).

Less confused but more punishing is the altogether more propulsive Dreem Teem mix of Neneh Cherry's "Buddy X". This is so hard! The bottomless bass is mirrored by these amazing mid-range mentasm-style synth riffs which impact you physically, as hard as anything by Zed Bias (whose "Neighbourhood", featured here, has a bassline like a building exploding), while my dad reckons it's got a bit of a latin groove to it (it still finds time to explore a bit of a dub tangent towards the end). And yet, the whole thing is quite obviously an R&B track, as much as Neneh's original. In fact I'm surprised this wasn't the hit people predicted it would be.

Other excellent tracks? There's quite a few actually. M-Dub's ragga anthem "For Real" makes an appearance, while The Artful Dodger offering a gorgeously aristocratic take on Gabrielle's "Sunshine". Wookie's contribution "Down On Me" is a seriously unstable midtempo number, with compulsive snares, a distressed diva and one funky bassline. It's pretty much a Groove Chronicles track, only it's better than anything Groove Chronicles have ever done (no mean feat). Put this up against "What's Going On" and "Battle" and it seems clear that Wookie is the most talented all-rounder within the scene. Meanwhile the award for "most charmingly individual producers" must go to New Horizons, whose reggae-flavoured '97 anthem "Find The Path" still manages to confound with its minor harmony bleeps and cross-hatched vocals.

The Stanton Warriors continue their winning streak, proving they've still got the best beats on the block with their Busta-sampling collaboration with DJ Skribble "Everybody Come On". I guess these guys are like the Urban Takeover of garage, adding elements of hip hop and big beats (all those build ups and breakdowns, plus the papery authenticity of their breaks). Considering that they're far too populist to go weird like Dem 2, they really do stretch the limit of garage's definition as a subset of house. Which makes their mix of Jocelyn Brown's house classic "Somebody Else's Guy" an unexpected proposition that I approached with some caution.

I needn't have worried though, because the remix is utterly fantastic. This alone justifies my desperation for someone, anyone to start up a garage night here in Melbourne. Apart from Jocelyn's untouchable vocals, this is little more than breaks and bass, but it makes that combination sound so fresh, so new, and so unavoidably danceable that it's as if the Stanton Warriors went and erased hip hop, jungle and big beat from history in order to start with a blank page. For anyone into house or big beat who is unsure how to approach garage, this is what you need to hear.

But that's not even the best track here! That honour simply has to go to Richie Boy and DJ Klasse's "Madness On The Street" from '98, which has the most peerless bass sound I think I've ever heard. Seriously, the sub-sub-sub-sub-bass being employed here has not only ruined my speakers, but its effect when played loud (and properly - I fear the sample I've included won't do it justice) is both to make you feel like you're dancing on a cloud and wading through a river of treacle. It also somehow manages to frame the spare beats perfectly, leaving them sounding austere and hyperreal, so that every microhesitation sparkles. If that wasn't enough, add the sly saxaphone, an entirely bizarre baroque piano interlude and the female MC's ridiculously catchy cries of "London MASSIVE", and you'll understand why I've just played it five times consecutively.

The one influence I pick up in tracks like "Madness On The Street" that I hadn't noticed before is that of the mid-nineties dark Chicago house put out by labels like Cajual. In particular I'm thinking of Dajae's brilliant Cajmere-helmed "Get Up Of Me", which "Madness..." mirrors in its shadowy, subdued sense of contained hysteria. It's that, rather than just overt experimentalism, which I think I want to see surviving within garage's image of itself. Luckily, with tracks like Wookie's "Down On Me" it looks like it will. The exploitation of the bass line though basically guarentees this in one sense anyway. Unlike jungle, which had to spawn a whole new scene (techstep) to retain that edge, garage producers seem to be inately aware of the dangers of blandness. All of which bodes very well for the future.

Anyway, a wholehearted recommendation for the Pure Silk compilation, which has pretty much made my week (oh yes, my life is sad!).

Tom responded to my last entry, in the process highlighting some of the vaguer aspects of what I was saying, so I'll clarify a bit...

Is Aaliyah's "Try Again" really that weird?

Not as an R&B single, no, and there are plenty that are much stranger, such as Destiny's Child's awesome "Perfect Man" from the same soundtrack, which has surpassed even "Caught Out There" in my opinion as being the most futuristic R&B track ever. What surprised me and surprises me still about "Try Again" is that it's snuck through the back door marked "mainstream pop" and hit the center stage. Perhaps my reaction is informed by living in Australia. The success of "Try Again" might not be as profound to Americans or British who think nothing of genres like hip hop and garage flooding the charts, but in Australia, where Mariah Carey started to flop the moment she invited rap artists onto her records, it's a genuinely new phenomenon.

Over here there are none of the urban infrastructures surrounding R&B that regularly lift it to the top of the charts, so each artist succeeds and fails on the basis of their pop savviness. Therefore the radical redefiniton of R&B over the past few years has gone unnoticed here. If you remove "Try Again" from the context of post-Timbaland R&B and view it solely pop (say, in a line-up with Celine Dion, Boyzone and Steps), it begins to seem pretty bizarre after all, even ignoring the acid gurgle, which was actually the last thing I was thinking about..

The most subversive aspect of "Try Again" is that it's pop music trying desperately hard not to be pop. It doesn't comply with most of the preconceived models of the pop song - neither a bouncy "Wannabe"-type number or a weepy ballad. It doesn't even have the warm sexiness of most R&B that is successful over here. Instead "Try Again" is cold, not in a sterile mass-market sense but in a deliberately mechanical sense, and Aaliyah's vocals are so restrained and emotionless that the distinction between the verses and the choruses is pretty much theoretical. Just getting someone like my sister (who doesn't have great taste and who I most emphatically do not envy) to accept Timbaland's assymetrical beats and his gruf rapped intros is a pretty major achievement.

That achievement was made possible by every interesting song that has graced the charts before it, rather than Timbaland alone. The song doesn't make a radical break from everything that's gone before; rather, it simply extends the slight innovations that have been occuring in so much pop "filler". There's heaps of pop songs that I consider to be fundamentally "strange" and "bizarre": "Bills, Bills, Bills", Jordan Knight's "Give It To You", hell, even "Backstreet's Back" after all this time. Compare any of this stuff to the bland, washed-out crap that passes for Australian chart pop (see Leah Haywood's "We Think It's Love", S2S's "Sister", Bardot's "Poison" and "I Should Have Never Let You Go) and it sounds off the planet. Pop music as aural sculpture.

The success of "Try Again" as a pop song puts me in mind of how Simon Reynolds described the link between house and UK Garage, with garage being "what house sounds like when almost every defining characteristic of house music has been eliminated or tweaked until near-unrecognisable." Garage still flies under the banner of house music by association more than anything else, and to draw conclusions about one from the other would be utterly foolhardy. Which brings me back to my original question: what is pop these days anyway? Can we really define it in a meaningful sense? And if we can't, can there really be any grounds upon which we can exclude it from the critical evaluation it deserves just as much as yer' most unheard of indie record?

This is why sites like NYLPM and Surface vs Depth are so important. There's a recognition there of a new musical confusion which the smug canon-affirming conservatism of an Addicted To Noise or the tunnel-vision "us vs them" polemic of indie sites like, well, Us against Them by their very nature cannot or will not acknowledge. For all of its reputation as a "pop weblog" (this despite all the reviews of weird British indie singles!) NYLPM is really more about an attitude of musical inclusiveness and free association (up to a point - no prog-metal yet). What's the point of having both Belle & Sebastian and Britney Spears if you have to choose between them? Similarly, I love the way the top ten lists at SVD contrast obscure post rock with pop songs and harcore and garage records, with no implied judgement of which are more "important", "lasting" or "meaningful".

I reckon we're living in a peculiar time musically, when a lot of the preconceived notions of how we assess music are being questioned. MP3s and Napster herald a new era where people will encounter music on a track by track basis, free of the kind of artistic/stylistic loyalty which most listeners develop due to economic considerations of buying twelve or so similar tracks all at once (case in point: the first three MP3s I ever downloaded were My Bloody Valentine's "You Made Me Realise", TLC's "Silly Ho" and Dusty Springfield's "Son Of A Preacherman"). Using MP3 technology made me realise that the real musical innovations aren't (or at least aren't always) happening on an album-scale, but rather within specific tracks. It's changed the way I listen to music significantly - only a year ago it would never have occured to me to nominate a single song like "Perfect Man" as the most forward-thinking piece of pop music I'd heard. Of course it doesn't hurt that so much of music right now is advancing on a track by track basis (see my criticism of Carducci for more on this).

Reading NYLPM is the critical equivalent of a night in with Napster, or like what such a night has the potential to be once people start swapping music purposefully - an open-hearted, open-minded exploration of music free of the crushing weight of the "canon" or pointlessly limited definitions of what makes music "worthy". The "paradigm" I suggested may be limited right now, but with so many forces seemingly converging, I think NYLPM and other sites like it have the potential to be the prototypes for a new model of musical criticism to match a new method of music listening. Maybe it's more of a vague hope than anything else, but it's one I feel is worth working towards.

Sunday, July 09, 2000
Surface Vs Depth is back online, which is I can tell you unreservedly a good thing. He hasn't really updated, but if you haven't already you should definitely check out his article on current chart music. Something of a fusion of Simon Reynolds and NYPLM (funny how Tom's humble little blog is already in the process of defining a paradigm), it basically sums up my own opinions perfectly, so there's no need to repeat them here. Just read the thing.

Tom recently mentioned that he had actually been less inspired by pop (by which I assume he means "pure" pop) music this year than he was last year. I suppose I agree - sure, there's Billie Piper's "Day and Night", but that's about all, really. On the other hand, I'd say that 2000's conception of pop is very different to that of 1999. Pure pop (of the Britney/Backstreet variety) may be faltering this year, but the sonic wizardry of last year's output has forced a wedge into the Westlife-dominated popscape, allowing a steady stream of other great music in. "Day and Night" is pop in the Smash Hits sense, sure, but I don't think you could write about pop today without also mentioning Sisqo's "Thong Song", Wookie's "What's Going On" and Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady". And that's not just the intelligent alternative-based thinker's definition of pop, but also the apparently crucial thirteen-year-old kid's definition too.

I saw the video for Aaliyah's "Try Again" today, and apart from noticing that Aaliyah looks fucking stunning with black eyeshadow, it struck me again how absolutely bizarre the song is. I realised this when I first heard it of course, but now that it's a bona fide hit even here in relatively R&B-shy Australia, its subversiveness is even more striking. How did something so alien end up smack bang in the middle of the pop landscape? I think that as much as I'd like to say it's due to Timbaland's brilliance, the real cause is that kids have been primed for his uberfunk magic by the popcentric reappropriation of his tricks on songs like Christina Aguilera's "Genie In A Bottle".

In Melbourne (and indeed the rest of Australia), where the closest thing to a "street sound" is commercial house booming from car radios on Chapel St, it's clear that it's been up to pop music to "educate" my younger sister Joanna and others like her, slyly conning her into accepting things like the robotic severity of "Try Again" by throwing up enough vaguely similar songs that she also liked, taking her away from her original expectations of pop to someplace entirely different - from "Baby, One More Time" to "Genie In A Bottle" to "Bills Bills Bills" etc. I imagine Joanna wouldn't understand the importance I place on the rhythmic innovation present in the pop she likes, but where once it was a surprising eccentricity, increasingly she'll begin to see it as a natural, even expected component of the music she listens to.

If UK Garage ever explodes over here (and it might - "Rewind" is a radio hit at least) she might decide that it shares enough with what she already likes to warrant investigation. From there she could go anywhere. The crucial point though is that this is not solely her journey (indeed, Joanna's actually tasteless enough to miss the point entirely, and at thirteen is already so far gone down the path of adolescence as to buy the "authenticity" of Moby and Macy Gray). If a thirteen year old's vision of pop can encompass Eminem and Wookie, why can't our vision of "acceptable music" encompass Billie Piper? Those who define themselves against pop aren't doing so because they refuse to adopt the mindset of a thirteen year old girl (which is a preposterous concept and probably very difficult to achieve anyway), but because they're afraid of being confused for one. And if you're basing your taste in music on what others think of you, then the battle's already lost.

PS. Incidentally, the wedge driven into pop doesn't just cover "urban" music like R&B, hip hop and garage. Sonique's "Feel So Good" (or whatever it's called) is half-surprising in that it's a shameless pop song made by a dance DJ, and half-surprising in that it has been successful due to a passing resemblance to Cher's "Believe". I kinda like it, I think. More listens required.

Someone at work noted that I "never smile anymore", and that when I do it's a false smile. I've never been one to smile that much anyway, for a couple of reasons: firstly, it takes so many muscles to keep one on my face that I quickly get tired; secondly, I have really big lips and quite a thin face, so when I do smile it takes over everything, at which point I grow self-conscious. The truth is though that I have been smiling less lately, and I don't know quite why. Has my life taken a turn for the worse? Is it just that I'm getting older and sadder?

Maybe not. After a lot of consideration I've decided that nostalgia for the simplicity of youth is a self-deception born of the fact that we assume that we regarded childhood issues when we were children in the same way that we would as adults. But I know that not being able to tie my shoe laces at the age of six caused me as much stress as an existential crisis at the age of eighteen does, and resolution seemed just as distant.

Still, I think perhaps I've developed a habit of turning to sobering thoughts rather too frequently, and it hasn't been solely due to soured romance. Actually I'd describe it more as a sobering lack of thought. I'll be in the middle of some reverie, and suddenly everything falls away and I almost hear this voice saying "What now? What next?". Then I'll have five minutes of thinking nothing, feeling... empty I guess. It's like the engine of my mind is giving warning sounds to indicate that unless drastic action is taken, it's going to grind to a halt. So I have to distract my mind from its flagging reserves, whether it's by drinking myself into a stupor, dancing myself into a quivering heap, or being a complete bitch (and yes, that side is growing exponentially).

So what drastic action is needed? A new direction, maybe. A new job would be nice. Ultimately though I think I need a passion. Not someone else (though God knows that whether that sort of thing happens or not has nothing to do with whether you want it), but something else. Something that would stop me from being paralysed the moment superficial distractions are removed, so that I wouldn't need to do something eventful each day just to feel like I'd lived. So that I wouldn't build a minor issue into a mini-series just for the hell of it.

In a way music has been my substitute passion for a long time, and blogging for the past two months, but I'd like something that wasn't just a secret side of me I revealed to electronic souls at the dead of night. It's not that I need something to define myself by, but rather some sort of defence mechanism, a sort of "when in doubt, Tim concerns himself with this" clause. I've always disliked tunnel-vision political activists, largely because I've envied that sort of single-minded devotion to one idea. Maybe I'm just falling into the same trap that I complained of the other day (trying to make my life a story) but at least then I'd be writing deep and meaningful blog entries about something, rather than deep and meaningful blog entries about nothing.

Saturday, July 08, 2000
Bushwacka! - Cellar Dwellas

I should have known by the fact that this album is credited as "Another 'Bushwacka!' Production" that this was not going to be Bushwacka's real follow-up to Low Life, last year's excellent album made in conjunction with Layo, co-owner of The End. The "another" has implications for the release: it's one of many, a collection of songs that should be viewed in the context of the artist's entire back catalogue rather than an individual work. In fact I did know, and besides which the title "Cellar Dwellas" hardly suggests a particularly charismatic, definitive collection. It didn't stop me from snapping it up though, reasoning that even if these tracks didn't approach the anthemic status of "Deep South", they'd still be excellent produced and quite a bit of fun.

And given the nature of these expectations, I'm not disappointed. When it comes to laidback breakbeat excursions, you'll find little that matches these tracks for sheer sonic inventiveness. Bushwacka's knack is for making the utterly bizarre sound completely normal: "Life Goes On" manages to construct something approaching soulful house out of mutated vocal samples, unpleasantly phased sounds and ungainly breakbeats. "Baseball Bat", like The Orb on fast-forward, lays spacy keyboard work over a sprightly-yet-undulating aquafunk groove which changes its break pattern more times than is decent. "Bluntski" is cinematic electro reminiscent of Orbital circa. Snivilisation. "V.O.A.T." rides a constantly mutating acid line swiped from psychedelic trance over a sea of compulsive electro breaks. This isn't dance music, but on every track except the tellingly titled "Ambient Dub", Bushwacka patches together dense polyrhythmic grooves which undermine any chances of a backslide into the headnodding torpor of most breakbeat.

And yet these tracks still suffer in comparison to those on Low Life, and I've been trying to work out why. Perhaps the first thing I noticed was that these tracks aren't nearly as physically impacting as those on Low Life, which I recently realised bases its low-end seismology heavily on Miami Bass, adding an almost punishing element to the tracks which made the duo's bittersweet arrangements all the more effective. The bass here is still prominent, but it doesn't have the resonant boom that I now know defined my favourite tracks from the last album. The punishment aesthetic worked brilliantly - tracks like "Spooked" and "Dead Man Walking" get harder and harder until they're almost deliriously heavy. In contrast, the tracks on "Cellar Dwellas", despite generally having a climactic point, sound like they have nowhere to go.

Perhaps it's the more frequent use of sampled breaks, which add a slight element of fustiness to the music which the clean, programmed breaks on Low Life didn't. There's nothing at all wrong with sampled breaks, but there are so many anally retentive breakbeat artists out there working at similar or slightly slower tempos to Bushwacka that when I hear them I automatically think of old-skool pietism and the associated creative dead end.

Really though, I reckon that the absense of the more tech-house focussed Layo has upset the crucial balance that gave the duo their edge. These tracks tend to meander a bit until they reach their logical conclusion, lacking the streamlined drive of the more propulsive tracks on the last album. The tension between experimental urges, pop concessions and dancefloor loyalty is what made Low Life distinctive. Here, the experimental urges rule supreme. When I think about it, nearly any of these tracks could quite easily fill in for the more laidback or experimental moments on Low Life without affecting that album's quality, and their placement within the context of the more dance-flavoured cuts would increase their appeal enormously. Bundled all together on one release, they sound both too easy and too afraid to rock out.

My conclusion? If you liked all of Low Life, you'll like this, although probably not as much. If you were generally itching for more of "Deep South" or "Dead Man Walking", approach this release with care. If you've never heard of these guys, go out and buy Low Life today. It's fab.

Yes, I have tinkered with the main page, just to make it look a bit more, y'know, "vibrant". All other sections have remained the same for the moment, simply because I'm suffering from Blogger-template induced apathy. Should I stop now and go no further, or introduce these sweeping changes across the entire site? Tell me what you think.

Friday, July 07, 2000
So there's been an assorted hoo-hah over the Indieshite website and its unbridled offensiveness and negativity. Some of the stranger accusations can pretty much be dismissed out of hand, like Signal Drench's complaint that it "seems to solely be aimed at American publications covering indie music, instead of England's own NME and other Brit publications who have regular transgressions of hating American bands for being simply that." For goodness sakes, is Independence Day making everyone go stir-crazy? It's pretty obvious that these guys are attacking pretty much whoever they read (or rather who they secretly enjoy reading), and specifically people who are likely to notice and care (and by God has it worked). Everyone attacks the NME. Nothing changes, so why bother?

What do I think of the Indieshite page in general? I enjoy it a lot. I don't know how I'd feel if Skykicking was attacked, although my site's unbridled amateurism means it probably flies underneath their radar - hell, I'd take it as a compliment that somebody noticed. Admittedly there's little that's responsible about its slagging - the group's recent attempts at constructive criticism have not only been paltry, but in my opinion have actually sapped the force of their convictions - but I don't see why responsibility is a requirement.

In much the same way that Tanya at I Hate Music is quite obviously biased in her dismissal of all music, the entire purpose of Indieshite is to be blindly malicious. By seeing every aspect of musical criticism as a flaw, Indieshite challenges the reader to ask themselves what they consider to be the qualities and pitfalls of criticism. Rather than expecting Indieshite to spell out the obvious and offer suggestions as to how they should improve, those sites which fall under the magnifying glass should ask themselves if the flaws Indieshite points out are in fact flaws or really strengths. If they can be established as the latter, great, work from that angle. If they can't, then Indieshite's done you a service and you know what needs to be done.

After discovering the very endearing Bedhead Loved Macha split ep by the two said bands, I chanced upon this review by Pitchfork's, um, enigmatic Brent DiCrescenzo. It's the funniest review I've read in ages, though I suspect that I'm laughing at him as much as with him. A mathematics teacher instructs eager students on how to review records using a parabola formula, but a spanner is thrown in the works when a student finds an old review by Brent Dicrescenzo on the Bedhead Loved Macha ep which confounds the formula. It's the most preposterous and silly basis for a review that I can think of, but it's just about saved by the reverent awe that greets the student when he mentions that the review is by Brent. Unsurprisingly, very little is revealed about the music itself, but I hardly care. I mean, no-one goes to Pitchfork to actually find out about music, do they?

My thoughts on the ep? It's pretty excellent, really - if more US indie was as good as this I'd be seriously hopping on the Westernholmes/Signal Drench/Us vs Them bandwagon. It's also a testament to the fact that the communal focus of indie, where pat-on-the-back compilations and split singles are the norm, can actually be more than just smug self-congratulation and produce something greater than the sum of its parts.

I've only heard dribs and drabs of Bedhead's backcatalogue, and I'd never even heard of Macha before, but the skeletons of the songs (provided by Bedhead) sound a bit rougher and more, well, skeletal than usual for Bedhead. Which would be somewhat pointless (Bedhead's magic lies in their seamless ebb and flow) if the spaces weren't filled so brilliantly by Macha's celestial noisescapes and gamelan arrangements. The use of gamelan, which seems to be Macha's general modus operandi, is more restrained than I imagine it to be on Macha's own albums, but the background tickles provide just the right amount of otherwordly magic required to lift these songs from the realms of "great indie tunes" to a level of haunting disquietude. The only other indie/alternative group using music so inventively right now are The Beta Band, but the more straightfaced, straightforward approach taken here offers more hope that such inventiveness might eventually filter down to (paradox alert) mainstream indie.

As for the cover of Cher's "Believe", it's something that I'd usually disapprove of - the whole point of superficial pop songs are their burnished production, so why bother making a scratchy lo-fi version? However, the woozy, Sparklehorse-like arrangement and vocals matches the bittersweet victory of the original perfectly. And extra kudos for the makeshift emulation of the tricksy robotic vocals, which only adds to the sense that the singer's about to faint from hea(r)tstroke.

So, the deal: I feel the overpowering urge to post something, but am too tired to think of anything substantial (probably a good thing; I'm generally somewhat maudlin in the wee hours of Friday morning. Thank the stars that I didn't post last week). Therefore I've decided to post a list of songs I'm liking write now. Some are old, some are new. Some are long-time favourites, some are new discoveries, some have sat on my shelf staring at me balefully until I noticed their charms. Whatever...

Dreem Teem vs Neneh Cherry - Buddy X '99

Macha/Bedhead - Hey Goodbye

Jay-Z - Pop 4 Roc

Jocelyn Brown - Somebody Else's Guy (Stanton Warrior's Vocal Mix)

Dom and Roland - Can't Punish Me

Low - Do You Know How To Waltz?

New Horizons - Find The Path

Spiritualized - Spread Your Wings

Gersey - The Floor Came Up To Caress Me

Dionne Rakeen - Sweeter Than Wine

Stereo MCs - Connected

Belle and Sebastian - Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying

Aphex Twin - We Are The Music Makers

Richie Boy and DJ Klasse - Madness On The Street

Aaliyah - Are You Feelin' Me?

Golden Girls - Kinetic (Orbital Mix)

Primal Scream - Accelerator

Peshay - On The Nile

Aretha Franklin - Respect

Bark Psychosis - All Different Things

Wookie - Down On Me

Moody Boyz - The Pygmy Song

The Paradise Motel - Rise Road

Michael Moog - That Sound

What does this list prove, other than that I've been listening to a lot of UK Garage (and you would be too if you'd just bought the fantabulous Pure Silk: The Third Dimension triple album)? Not much, maybe, except that I'm listening to music more than ever before, and loving it more as well. Um... so you don't care, but a post is a post is a post as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, July 05, 2000
Nu-Birth - Anytime

I just chanced upon this rather excellent UK Garage single from way back in 97, which motivated some thoughts about the current direction of the genre. This being so old, the original is actually speed garage I guess, with turbocharged-but-jumpy 4/4 beats, soulful vocals and dubby "dredbass", and some surprisingly nice saxaphone. It's more relaxed and spacy than most speed garage though, closer to American counterparts like Masters At Work rather than the straight-up obviousness of 187 Lockdown.

The dreamy remix by the ever-reliable Rhythm Masters teases out this trans-genre affiliation by suggesting a hitherto unnoticed link between speed garage and progressive house: the beats are more regimented, the bass line is undulating and metallic in a way that resembles much trance, the vocals are soothing and drifty and the mix is filled with stately synth washes and stereo-spanning effects. Still, it's undeniably speed garage and as such works brilliantly. I'd love to hear more tracks in this vein.

The Tuff Jam Kick Dub mix is similar in quality but less distinctive. It's a solid combination of electrofunk synths, clodhopping beats and Todd Edwards-style crosshatched vocals, but nothing we haven't heard a hundred times from these erstwhile kings of the garage scene. The reason why 2-step has emerged as the dominant form in garage can be traced to the proliferation of tracks and mixes like this early on, which although working excellently on the dancefloor, really do sound the same. Because 2-step derives its songfulness from R&B rather than US garage per se, and generally uses original and unheard beat arrangements for each track, it has an infinitely longer shelf life than speed garage, which is really just one method of constructing a house track.

Of more interest are the rather prescient 2-step mixes from Crazy Bank and Dem 2. The former is similar to many of the early stabs in its hesitancy to stray from the 4/4 norm (a mindset which now seems ironic considering the subsequent total reversal), and so instead of actually adopting a 2-step rhythm it fills the spaces in between the 4/4 beats with jackhammer kickdrums and trippy snare rolls. Which, bizarrely, reminds me of the percussadelic filagree of artists like Hybrid and Tsunami One who have since emerged out of the nu-skool breaks scene. It's a signpost for a path that garage producers didn't take, perhaps wisely, but I can't imagine that there won't be some convergance between garage and nu-skool breaks in the future.

Dem 2 meanwhile are looking more and more like the lost heroes of the garage scene. After being the first on the block to really exploit the potential of 2-step beats in late 97 and 98, they have been almost silent for over a year - although I'm hoping to grab last year's single "Baby" and their mix of Basement Jaxx's "Jump And Shout" soon. Their near-disappearance makes a certain sense listening to their "Nice 'N' Sleazy Mix" of "Anytime", which, like "Destiny" and the totally bizarre "Don't Cry Dub" of Groove Connektion's "Club Lonely", still sounds totally unlike anything else in the garage scene.

It's fantastically off the wall. The frisky-but-juddering electro breakbeats that push this track are almost dancefriendly, but still stretch the limit of garage's basic kick drum/snare/hi-hats combination in their compulsiveness. The musical filler is a string sample phased and reversed into a piece of soundsculpture that could have been stolen from Orbital, and the vocal, "I'm looking for some love/I'm gonna give you love" is warped until it sounds like a sickly threat.

What really distinguishes Dem 2's productions though is that they don't comply with the song structures of most garage. Their mix of "Anytime" has no melody to speak of, and no crowdpleasing hook or chorus. It's full of holes, spaces of silence during which you wonder if the track has just disintegrated into nothingness. Ultimately, despite garage's much-touted popular appeal, this is defiantly uncommercial dance music. Context is all however; Dem 2's tracks and remixes predate "Sweet Like Chocolate" and "Rewind", and the realisation that garage wasn't so much a dance style as the UK response to R&B. The slow self-awareness that has crept over the scene has been great in stimulating new ideas and directions for the style, but the slightly restrictive nature of the current model has pushed producers like Dem 2 who don't comply with its rules to the outer edges.

In a sense Dem 2's tracks resemble some of the more bizarre hardcore techno from '93, like Hyper-On Experience's "Lords of the Null-Lines"; tracks which though wildly experimental and innovative, were pushing other boundaries than the cut-up breakbeats/sub-bass axis which dominated hardcore's transformation into jungle. Most such tracks were consequently written out of the "narrative" of the scene.

In the year 2000 garage is now resembling jungle circa 95, with artists, fans and critics all rallying behind different figureheads who represent their conception of real garage. It's quite obvious that MJ Cole is the equivalent of LTJ Bukem as the producer that those not into the scene check for. However, it also seems clear to me that Wookie is fast becoming the Roni Size of the story, garnering both critical and underground credibility; that M-Dubs are the garage Ganja Kru (hip hop loving producers with delusions of being in the Wu-Tang Clan); and that the Artful Dodger are currently mirroring the fragile shot-in-the-pan beauty of 94-95 era Omni Trio.

What this all means is that the directions in which garage can now go are already being locked into place, which is inevitable but slightly disappointing, especially when I listen to the alien brilliance of tracks by Dem 2. Happily the more flexible nature of the scene (with all those models mentioned above being unified by a songfullness that Dem 2 lack) will keep it whole and thus more vital than jungle proved to be, as producers exchange ideas rather than simply refining their own style into a creative dead-end. But as the UK continues to bump-and-flex through its summer of garage, I can't dismiss the possibility that the "golden age" of the scene may already be drawing to a close.

Yes Josh, I do deliberately use the UK-spelling of "Spiritualized" against the band's own wishes. I'm prepared to accomodate somewhat for illiterate Americans, but people from God's own mother country behaving in a similar fashion is just willfull contrariness.

Tuesday, July 04, 2000
It's with a vague sense of disquiet that I notice that Guy has managed to shut down his blog Blahness from overseas, replacing it with a short motivational message which seems to be a barely veiled swipe at those who confuse blogging with "real life." Maybe it's me reacting personally to the implication that I'm wasting my time, but I cannot accept that "real life" (which is such a meaningless term anyway) has some inherent value which distinguishes it from the meaningless pasttimes we otherwise occupy ourselves with - blogging, listening to music, watching tv. I'm tuning into the latest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tonight as always. I refuse to believe that this is automatically time that would be better spent out socialising or (shudder) getting in touch with nature.

I've had some "real life" issues recently which have pushed blogging, music, tv and all the other "distractions" in my life down slightly in my priorities, but my life hasn't been better because of this. I am not a better person because of this. My life and my nature are the same, I'm just against a different backdrop and using different props. Ultimately, I don't think that there are truths that can be learnt living your life one way but not another. We grow merely by experiencing life, in any of its forms.

In fact, I reckon that the struggle to have a "real life" is symptomatic of a mindset that I have been guilty of, but am increasingly regarding as misguided; that is, the desire for one's life to have a story line. "Jump out of a plane! Fall in love! Have kids! You need to do these things because... well, you don't, but we reckon that chapter twenty-three of your autobiography needs a better title than "the next two years during which I just existed"."

But life doesn't have a storyline. It's just events tied together by the fact that I am experiencing them. These events don't exist to explain me (although if they did, that would make me God, which would have its advantages). Rather I exist to explain them. Everything I do and perceive is coloured by my personality, that ineffable core of me which remains whether I'm blogging or hiking in the Himalayas. If life does have some sort of coherent storyline, it is because we act according to our natures, and thus our lives will follow a sort of mysterious logic anyway, from the banality of our daily routines to our grand dramas.

You can only live your real life by being yourself, and placing artificial value judgements on which parts of your life are important and which aren't isn't going to change that. So turn off your computer, or leave it running. Fall in love, or dedicate yourself to destroying humanity. See the world, or sit in a cafe eating pickles. Be your own guru.

A bit of clarification

Josh asks how I can like Pure Phase more than Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Well, the answer is that I don't. Ladies and Gentlemen... is far and away my favourite album of any by Spiritualised or Spacemen 3. And it's possible that when I pull out Laser-Guided Melodies again it will slide gracefully into second place, at least for Spiritualised albums. The thing is though that I'd only ever "really liked" Spiritualised rather than "flat out adored" them. Buying Pure Phase changed that because I'm currently at a stage where I'm more receptive to the band's style than I was when I first got into them, but I wouldn't have realised this if I hadn't had to immerse myself in a new (to me) album by them.

Listening to Pure Phase made me realise that I love the band on a purely musical level, and then when I relistened to Ladies and Gentlemen... I wondered what made that album seem so much more intimate and personal; hence the thinkpiece. I often find that each album I buy from a band or artist teaches me something about the other albums I have by them, or at least my relationship with them. The most obvious example of this is the way I usually don't completely reconcile myself to a new album by a favourite artist until the next one arrives and demonstrates to me, through its differences, what made the previous one so special.

Having said that, I do think that Pure Phase is a fantastic, sorely underrated album. More stately and ghostly than Ladies and Gentlemen, but more conflicted than "Laser-Guided Melodies, it pretty much captures everything that's fantastic about the band precisely by being a compromise between its earlier and later incarnations. The alien beauty of "The Slide Song" affects me more than anything similar from the first album because it follows the catharsis of "Medication" and precedes the alien noise of "Electric Phase". I love the drifting ambience of the title track because it allows me to breathe between the straight rock of "Good Times" and the swelling strings of "Spread Your Wings". And while there's nothing to match "Broken Heart" for emotional resonance, correspondingly there's nothing on Ladies and Gentlemen... as meaninglessly beautiful as "Electric Mainline".

Because Pure Phase doesn't reduce me to a nervous wreck like Ladies and Gentlemen... does, but at the same time doesn't zone out so completely as Laser-Guided Melodies I actually find it to be the band's most approachable, friendly album. That doesn't make it my favourite album by the band, but it has certainly changed my relationship with the one that is.

I'm meeting Simon (sometime poster for this very site) for a traditional coffee and bitch tomorrow (this evening?). Good. It occurs to me that I haven't spoken properly to any of my old friends in ages (well, a week and a half, but that is ages). Which is a problem, because only old friends know you instinctively - they don't need to know everything that's going on to understand you because they've observed your actions and reactions for such a long time as to be able to relate on a sub-conscious level.

Working constantly doesn't help. I have people who I consider to be close friends at work, but they're only friends with one aspect of Tim. I don't pretend with them, but nor am I fully myself. When I don't have a real conversation with anyone for a couple of days, I begin to feel washed out, unreal maybe. You can lie about your life to yourself far more easily than you can to someone who knows you. I'm experiencing life, but if no-one's there to notice me experiencing it, is it substantially more meaningful than a dream of life? How do I know what is real and what isn't?

Maybe you're noticing it somehow, but since Sitemeter tells me my audience is shrinking faster than something that shrinks really quickly, blogging only adds to that sense of vibrant disconnection. It seems that now, when life is more pressing than at any time that I can remember, and when I'm feeling more creatively stifled than ever, I've suddenly found myself without any channels of release. I have no mouth and I must scream.

I've been listening to Spiritualised a lot recently. Partly because really liking Pure Phase made me pull out Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space and actually connect with it properly for perhaps the first time. Partly because there's no better moping music than Spiritualised. Listening though, I'm struck by how much the group stand out from the trend towards expansive maximalism they helped spark among alternative guitar bands (everything from The Flaming Lips to Mogwai).

Something like "I Think I'm In Love" (still in my opinion the best distillation of the band's qualities - a shimmering, blissful arrangement, a sense of lysergic weightlessness and lyrics I not only wish I'd written but actually forget I didn't write) shares perhaps less with most post-rock or drone as it does with the futuristic pop, garage and R&B I'm always harping on about. The hook is deceptively simple, but in fact created out of disparate elements: a streak of guitar, a short piano dip and the uneasy whine of a harmonica. The use of repetition is not motivated so much by a desire to switch off as the realisation that nothing else is needed, and the graceful percussion hems and lattices the song as effectively as any spasmodic breakbeat.

What endears Spiritualised to me most though is not the band's musical individuality so much as the tangible emotion their work embodies. Where post-rock usually dedicates itself to vague disquiet or numbing depression, Jason Pierce is unabashedly devoted to the bigness of emotions, whether they're stimulated by lovers or by drugs. It's why the deflating call-and-response used in "I Think I'm In Love" is so memorable: the music actually captures the feelings which Jason's alter-ego knows to be false. The contrast between the feeling and the reality crosses over into the music - these songs are gorgeous, but in a way they don't even sound real.

Jason is a slave to the empowering process of feeling. It's a position I find myself respecting. "No God, Only Religion", with its title if not its actual music, sums up that state where believing in something (be it love, or just the effectiveness of drugs) surpasses the object of belief as the primary form of sustenance and source of pleasure. I think we all go through periods in our lives where the routine of placing faith in something dominates us long after that which we placed faith in has ceased to be important. It's an uncomfortable realisation, or at least it has been for me this week, but if Spiritualised can tell me about my weaknesses then listening to them must be something akin to spiritual rearmament. At least until I get into Christian Rock.

Monday, July 03, 2000
Tonight on the train home from work (which is my current natural habitat, sadly), I was attacked by four drunken teenage girls. Well, sort of. First one of them burped in my face as I walked past them. Then another one hit my bottom with her handbag as we were alighting off the train. When I asked them to calm themselves they tried to sneak up behind me and knock me over, but gave up when they realised they were too clumsy to catch me by surprise. I was shocked, disturbed and somewhat scared by all this, but I walked away with a smile on my face that lasted longer than any other has in a while. Last week being surrounded by wonderful, sensitive people left me feeling incredibly depressed. Maybe then immersion in utter insensitivity is exactly what I need.

Because I was feeling guilty about a lack of recent contributions to NYPLM, I posted a review there instead of here. Er, go read it while I think of other stuff to talk about.

Saturday, July 01, 2000
Again Robin inspires me into verbosity. Filling in for Tom at NYLPM, he ponders DMX, that strange half-man, half-canine rapping machine who rules both the Ruff Ryders camp and America itself in the year 2000. Robin makes some fantastic points about the guy, perhaps largely because he doesn't feel comfortable liking him.

I like DMX. Admitting that isn't difficult for me, though he seems to actively offend the intelligence of so many hip hop listeners. Definitely his rhymes are incredibly simplistic and artless (eg. "You can't fight a coward/if a coward be a coward") and his morals are questionable, but I find myself simply not caring. I think in a way I enjoy the fact that DMX isn't an incredibly smooth, lyrically gifted rapper - instead he allows his personality to literally crush the flow of his words.

One of the problems I have with hip hop artists who place an emphasis on the nuances of their rhymes is that they end up sounding like they're lifelessly reading someone else's text rather than building a concrete image of themselves in the listener's mind. Every DMX track sounds the same, you might complain, but at least every DMX track sounds like DMX - and we know it's DMX because we recognise his pissed off mood, and we have an image of him, his facial expression, what he might be thinking and what he just might do to us which thoroughly transcends the banality of his lyrics. DMX's delivery might be as unsubtle as his rhymes, but it's a powerful one, and it draws its power from its inarticulacy and vulnerablity.

Yes, vulnerability - where other rappers use words to cloak themselves in an invisible armour, DMX is completely surface-level. His voice is full of rage and frustration, but I rarely find it menacing. It's the roar of a lion stuck in a cage, having scored itself deeply by throwing its body against the bars too many times. The music reflects this; on tracks like "Some X Shit" and "What's My Name", Swizz Beats' production simultaneously recalls Belgian techno and early techstep drum & bass: it's simple, brutal, effective and, as Robin pointed out, totally devoid of any funk whatsoever.

In the same way that you could trace a tenuous link between the heavy, black-sounding r&b of the sixties and the even heavier, whiter-than-white sound of punk, the Ruff Ryders style takes the agression of hip hop, intensifies it, and then strips it of its blackness, leaving music that is cold and inflexible. The effect is heightened by the practice of eliminating the middle frequencies in the tracks, concentrating on the contrast between heavy bass kicks and high-pitched synth blares. But inflexibility can also mean brittleness, and so Swizz's tracks always sound like they're on the verge of collapsing or shuddering to a halt. The beats are like blocks of sharpened wood immersed in liquid nitrate: they smoke impressively but in truth they're hardly holding together.

"Come Back In One Piece" (DMX's Timbaland-helmed duet with Aaliyah on the Romeo Must Die soundtrack) is funky though, and it's a nasty, nasty sort of funk: the bass line snarls and the beats ricochet like bullets. Despite this though, the strong narrative of the song - Aaliyah pleading with her wayward man to always return to her no matter what he does - reminds me of a showtune from West Side Story or something. DMX is playing a role, but he's also very obviously playing DMX.

It makes me think that his redeeming quality is that he is a character rapper. Like Ol' Dirty Bastard or Missy Elliot, DMX's identity is perhaps more important to the hip hop community than the songs he writes, because it establishes a parameter for what hip hop can recognise within itself, while at the same time providing a thesis which can create dialectic conflict with other, antithetical representations of black people within hip hop. "Come Back In One Piece" works marvelously because of the tension between the characters of DMX (the dog) and Aaliyah (the shy, unsure girlfriend - a role she's built up in tracks such as "Are You That Somebody?" and "Try Again") - two more dialectically opposed characters you'll rarely find.

Because self-promotion (and hence the formulation of identity) is such an integral part of black music, there is an opportunity for these sorts of character-driven stories which have the capacity to transcend the cliches of their subject matter. Sure, hip hop is dominated by the gangsta ethos, but at least when DMX is telling it, the same-old-story still has the potential to thrill precisely because it is DMX's perspective. In a sense hip hop (and, for that matter, r&b and its obsession with relationships) isn't so much going over old ground as building up a collection of arguments about particular ideas and concepts. It's almost as fascinating to watch this process from a distance as it is to hear it close up.

I contrast this with, say, Divine Styler, whose album from last year, Wordpower 2: Directrix I picked up in order to give underground hip hop another chance. With the exception of a couple of cool Timbaland-inspired disjointed grooves, the limpid, proudly sparse nature of the music doesn't really appeal to me. More relevantly though, while I know that Divine is a far superior lyricist to DMX, he could really just be anyone to me. His rapping certainly tells me about the black experience, but it doesn't really show me anything, and it certainly doesn't inspire me to think like DMX. Maybe I'm just weird and too unused to rapping as a medium to convey information to see how much better Divine Styler obviously is, but until I'm taught differently, I know which records I'll be reaching for.

Sorry about the lack of updates, folks. Some personal crises have kept blogging levels at a low ebb, although it seems like the worst of things is over. The upshot (well, you decide) is that when the Moping Soundtrack piece does go up, it'll strangely be the most personal thing I think I'll have done here. Anyway, despite the deathly grip of manual labour closing over my shoulder, I'll try to raise the traffic level in here over the next few days.


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