Oh my god. I had an incredibly long, rambling discussion of Madonna right here, but unfortunately it was so long that Blogger wiped it! That's three and half hours of my life gone... Maybe I'll feel like rewriting it later.
Because I love stealing ideas, I've added Blogvoices to my blog. Click on "discuss" at the end of each entry and pour criticism on my rambling thoughts. Thanks to Fred and Ally for finding this great little tool.
Oh, and if anyone can tell me why that annoying little "Blogscript Value" thingy is appearing at the top of each new entry, I'd greatly appreciate it. That's right, I know absolutely nothing about web programming.
Here's an interesting article by Dennis Romero on The Politics of Progressive House (sounds like something I'd write, really). I find the article's point (that progressive house has been rejuvenated by influence of the slightly more funk-tional Tenaglia-style tribal house) intriguing, but its method of getting there annoying. I'm sick of American articles self-consciously defending Moby's importance within the rave scene for one, while the suggestion that Karl Hyde of Underworld is some sort of maverick who revolutionised dance music is patently absurd (he only sings on the records, for heavens' sake). And who the hell uses the term "e-music" to describe dance music?
Anyway, I enjoy a lot of progressive house - I like Drum Club, Spooky, Sasha & Digweed, Leftfield and the Hardkiss collective - but that's partly because I missed it the first time around. In the early nineties the "progressive" part of the term was used to distinguish it from the mindless music of the ravers - hardcore techno. Since for me hardcore techno constitutes perhaps the creative highpoint of nineties dance music, I would have probably found the unqualified smugness of progressive house unforgivable. With the benefit of hindsight however this seems less of a crime and more simply typical of dance music rhetoric, as similar forms of opposition have existed between intelligent drum & bass and ragga/jump-up jungle; nu-skool breakz and big beat/2-step garage; trance and gabba etc. etc. Progressive house was an inevitable consequence of rave rather than the great alternative to it, but that's no reason to ignore it completely.
Freed from this context, prog house becomes a quite enjoyable (if limited) little corner of dance music. There's a lot of very nice aspects to combining a house beat with elements of dub, ambient, trance and an overall sense of production finesse. Romero's mistake is to once more try to erect the barrier between the "cheddar" and the "progressive", "soulful" sounds he favours. This time the cheesy stuff is eurotrance and (I'm assuming, though he doesn't mention it) hard house, which are both sufficiently devoid of creativity as to not require me to defend them, but one would think the lesson would have thoroughly been learnt by now.
It's the side-swipes at jungle, big beat and speed garage however that really give the game away, because it's clear that Romero isn't really dissing "cheesy" trance, which he quite likes. Rather, he sees the resurrection of prog house as the final, glorious consolidation of power in the hands of a certain club of elite dance DJs and producers - Sasha and Digweed, Paul Oakenfold, Danny Tenaglia, Nick Warren, BT, Faithless, etc. The sudden explosion of euro-trance returned to these guys their commercial weight, and now by replacing it with a supposedly more respectable version of the same they hope to permanently entrench themselves as the dance music aristocracy.
This is the true "politics" of prog house: the fiction that it ever went away, when in fact it has existed under various names since its demise in about '95, from BT's "epic house" to the "progressive" sound of the Global Underground DJ series, and of course Sasha & Digweed's hugely successful mix cd series. It does of course regularly throw up excellent music, and will continue to do so under the new guise Romero identifies (Deep Dish's Tenaglia-influenced "Yoshiesque" DJ mix from last year is a favourite of mine), but it hardly needs to be the next big thing. I don't protest against its existence, but when the other side of the dance coin (the underground side, that is) is constantly developing radically new sounds, the minute tectonic shifts of progressive house hardly seem worth celebrating. On the other hand, I thought the same about the resurgence of trance 2 years ago.
Really this fabricated excitement is a reflection of the fact that today's celebrity DJs and producers are getting older and growing increasingly worried about their relevance. You can tell it in the way that Faithless's main guy complains that he doesn't understand how people could possibly like UK Garage, or how Sasha wistfully remembers the glory days of Guerilla records. Their mission is to entrench this strain of electronic music as the definitive form of dance music, while warding off any newcomers (all the sounds that hatch among the varying "hardcore" scenes across Europe) whose freshness would upset their power.
Overall, liking progressive house is not such a bad position to take - it will probably be around long after UK Garage has been and gone - but there's something annoying in the way that Romero attempts to identify what he sees as the overarching narrative of nineties dance music (including those whom he considers its major stars) that suggests an unwillingness to engage with dance music in and of itself. Perhaps he just needs to go to a rave.
I really should have bought the new Reprazent album by now, but there's just too much excellent stuff I'm finding for dirt cheap (latest treasures: ESG's A South Bronx Story and the first The Loft compilation on the Nuphonic label, both for $5 each) to justify shelling out for a full price new release. Besides, thanks to Napster I've been listening to all the old Full Cycle releases from the pre-New Forms years, and marvelling at their brilliance. I know that buying In The Mode so soon after discovering these tracks would only lead to immediate disappointment.
Of all the Full Cycle releases, "11.55" was undoubtedly the best, and as a statement of purpose it sums up what the Full Cycle crew were trying to do within the realms of drum & bass more succintly than anything else I can think of. "You could feel all the tension building up at the convention, as the hustlers began to arrive..." is the sampled quote at the beginning, and you just know this is going to be a dark, moody affair. It starts innocuously enough though, with a simple beat, a Jaco-like, questioning bass figure and bright, airy synth progressions. Then the intensely-syncopated, almost latin-flavoured metallic snares start over the top. From then on it's a non-stop trip through some of the most intense breakbeat mutilation put to tape.
"11.55" does have the jazzy elements that most people associate with Size and his cohorts, but while jazzy jungle's biggest crime was its ultimately limpid smoothness, here the jazz influences are used in tandem with the breakbeats in order to confuse the listener. Jazzed cadences reminiscent of Dillinja's "Deep Love" or their own "Music Box", sudden Oriental flourishes and becalmed saxaphone blasts all float in and out of the mix, disconnected from the rhythm and eachother. Importantly though, they're competing with sirens, sickening bass drops and the terse command "Come on!" for the listener's attention.
It creates a sort of tense ambiance, a hypnotic effect that is nevertheless antithetical to a state of motionless and calm. Rather, this is the sort of hypnotism that is achieved by a constant state of liquid motion; once your body realises that the attack never stops, it adjusts and adapts to an unending state of awareness similar to a trance. I guess that's why this sort of drum & bass is often labelled "minimalist". That's a bit of a misnomer as well though, because the breakbeat programming (surely, along with the bassline, the most important aspect of any drum & bass track) on tracks like "11.55" are anything but minimalist. "11.55", which layers chopped-up break upon chopped-up break until they're almost unrecognisable (though the giveaway wooden creak of the Paris break is a dead giveaway), glowers with a cruel complexity, and an almost melodic sense of syncopation that they subsequently came close to only with "Share The Fall" from New Forms.
I suppose I should explain that: when I say that the rhythm sounds almost melodic in its syncopation, I don't mean that it uses lots of varying beat tones, or that it's overly complicated. What I guess I mean is that the rhythm created is so unforgettable that it takes over from the melody as the first thing you remember about the song. On most of my favourite jungle tracks (Omni Trio's "Thru The Vibe", Dillinja's "Angels Fell", FBD Project's "She's So" and "Gesture Without Motion") the choruses are not vocal interludes or keyboard melodies, but sudden rhythm breaks so otherworldly and brilliant that the surrounding melodic detail seems irrelevant. On "11.55" and their other early classics, Size and Die made the task easier by simply jettisoning concepts of melody and instrumentation.
Anyway, being reminded of the brilliance of their early work, as well as a sizable chunk of New Forms (particularly the consistently great second disc), I find it doubly annoying to come across so many innacurate accounts of Roni Size et. al, which usually pinpoint their achievements as mainstreaming jungle and fusing it with R&B etc, never mind that the only thing that distinguished New Forms for non-scenesters from countless other jazzy jungle albums was the Mercury Music Award, or that it's one of the least commercial jazzy jungle albums I can think of. Never mind that the story did not start in '97, but rather three years earlier, when the Full Cycle were making some of the most inspired breakbeat music of the nineties.
Incidentally, as well as "11.55", the other early Full Cycle releases I suggest you look for are (in descending order of neccessity) "Fashion", "Timestretch", "It's A Jazz Thing", "Angels", "Phizical", "I Remember", "Destiny", "Set Speed", "Friday Nite", "Music Box", "Dayz" and the original "Breakbeat Era"... all priceless moments of breakbeat seismology.
Josh, your argument that hi-tech production in pop is the equivalent of special effects in big budget movies seems to rest on two apparent "givens": one, that pop music is the equivalent of big budget Hollywood movies, and two, that pop songs are narratives to which production provides a sort of tangential spectacle.
What seems to be taken for granted is that just because, say, a Britney Spears song sounds expensive, it's therefore expensive to produce. This is clearly untrue - sure Max Martin will get a hefty cheque because he's a commercially successful producer, but there's nothing in Britney songs technologically beyond the grasp of a bedroom techno producer. Timbaland's R&B might sound futuristic, but so do UK Garage white labels made for pence.
The indie film culture is at least partially underwritten by the idea that aspiring filmmakers who are denied access to the sort of funding that a studio will provide will necessarily compensate by concentrating on those aspects of the film that don't require a big budget (script, direction, acting), which is given scant attention in Hollywood films. However, in indie music, the preference given to "natural" or "lo-fi" production is an aesthetic, not economic choice. It's generally driven by a set of ideas not unrelated to heirachal dualism, dictating that low-fi sounds are somehow more honestly musical than hi-tech ones. But since a reverbed guitar or a dusty sampled hip hop beat add essentially the same sort of musical colouring as a crunchy Max Martin backing track, arguably those who listen to indie rock/hip hop are just as interested in "special effects" as pop fans.
Furthermore, I'd be the first to admit that generally pop song lyrics are less than insightful (though it's all about context - Mya's lyrics in "Best Of Me" would mean nothing to me on paper, but within the song they sound great), but they're hardly supposed to be. While scripts for films can stand up quite well by themselves, who honestly sits down and reads the lyric sheets for songs with the expectation that enlightenment awaits? I mean, apart from Morrissey fans.
Ultimately I reckon what producers like Max Martin bring to a pop song is similar to what auteurs like Quentin Tarantino bring to the films they direct but don't necessarily write - stylistic and thematic concerns that perhaps aren't present in the script but later come to dominate the final product. And those concerns include special effects, but are hardly limited to it. The only recent film I can think of where the special effects could be held up as comparable to the production in pop is The Matrix, which used its special effects in a stylised fashion that dominated even intellectual discourse surrounding the film, and like the production in successful pop songs has been copied shamelessly since its release.
I love the internet. Here's two great sites that my wonderful readers have told me about: Hollow Earth is another mp3 site with excellent hardcore/jungle tracks on display, including the ultra-rare Illegal Mix of Foul Play's "Finest Illusion". Go get it now. On the articles tip, check out the marvelous Hyperdub, a dance music (but mostly UK garage) site with a post-stucturalist bent, chasing the rhizomatic threads of what they've dubbed the "hyperdub virus" (the constantly morphing continuum from hardcore to garage). Particularly nice are Kodwo Eshun's articles on Wookie, Zed Bias and Groove Chronicles.
After trying to give Robin an overview of early Simple Mindshere, I went back and listened to their Empires And Dance album. I was struck again by how the first track "I Travel" so explicitly attempts to combine post-punk with disco. Most attempts to mix rock and dance music during the nineties have been about creating the most hedonistic music possible, or creating elaborate ironic gestures, but Simple Minds were always incredibly serious about the process - Empires And Dance seems to be an extended meditation on Europe, capitalism, politics and cultural imprisonment, and what better way to represent that than with icy Kraftwerk-inspired keyboard arrangements and a regimented Moroder beat?
Their early work perhaps represents both a peak and an endpoint of a modernist urge within pop music, and in the light of subsequent evolutions within pop and rock and the band's own inexplicable deterioration, it now sounds both intriguing and self-consciously portentous. What I'm wondering is whether, if similar music with a similar message was being made today, I'd like it as much or even take it seriously. The obvious contemporary comparisons are Radiohead and Primal Scream, I guess. Draw what conclusions you will, but both examples are only contemporary incarnations of established bands who have earned enough credibility with the press to release whatever they like to overwhelming praise.
What I am certain of is that I underrated this album in my exposition for Robin; its an incredibly detailed, ambitious and accomplished left-of-center take on the synth-pop/post-punk axis (see, for example, the bizarre, woozy funk groove of "Constantinople Line") with some awesome basslines and great, impressionistic guitar work nestled among the electronic flourishes. After making the Radiohead comparison, I suddenly notice how the seven minute bleep-fest "This Fear Of Gods", with its droning bass and incorporation of experimental jazzy horns, is a huge precursor for "The National Anthem" - further heightening my opinion that Kid A is a great album not because of any innovation but because of its synthesis of an array of exellent influences.
The answer to why bands like this don't exist anymore may come down to the fact that ever since post-modernism reared its ugly head, it's been almost impossible to take such earnestness seriously (If I weren't a Simple Minds fan I'd say that in the light of "(Don't You) Forget About Me" it's almost impossible to take Simple Minds seriously, but that's another issue). Today there's such an awareness of how a band or performer's identity is constructed that it's taken for granted that it is necessarily a construction. Notably, intelligent techno is very light on "image", and therefore there's a far greater acceptance of intellectual rhetoric from its practitioners, though that might be obvious from the genre's label. But while in the early eighties Simple Minds were riding the crest of post-punk's social dissection and Cold War paranoia, today they'd likely be dismissed as pretentious, self-indulgent and merely pseudo-intellectual.
Even I find the second half of this album, with its thoroughly fractured musical settings and Jim Kerr's increasingly, er, idiosyncratic vocals, to be a tad unconvincing. The point however is that the musical environment of the time, while not perhaps entirely welcoming of this sort of experimentation and intellectual rhetoric, was at least accepting enough to allow a miniature movement to form around it (see particularly Magazine). If similar bands sprung up today, would they be given a chance?
One great advantage that (cough) "lesser talents" have is that they can shamelessly act as barometers for the styles of the time. While yer big innovators are consciously under pressure to either be ahead of the pack, or going against the grain, these also-rans only have the pressure of coming up with something worthwhile, and so the arsenal of contemporary tricks and gimmicks is fully available to them. Of course this is going to work more often in the world of pop and its associated satellites (R&B, street hip hop, UK Garage - chartin' stuff, basically) where populism is an obvious plus, than in a genre like rock, where it often seems self-contradictory or hypocritical (did anyone say Coldplay just now?).
The misleading perception held by many is that this "lesser talent" is necessarily directly related to the quality of the artist's work. Pink is clearly a follower, stealing all her tricks from Destiny's Child, and yet her Can't Take Me Home album is in my opinion the R&B album of the year, beating out even Kelis, whose Kaleidoscope clearly shows both a more striking and individual performer and a more innovative songwriting/production team in The Neptunes.
What's the secret to Pink's success? A combination of outstanding consistency (each track on the album is at least moderately good - a near impossible feat on an R&B album) and a willingness to co-opt and imitate any trick or style if it increases the quality of the songs. As a result, Can't Take Me Home sounds like an finely-crafted masterpiece of post-Timbaland R&B, while it's blueprint The Writing's On The Wall struck me as a tossed-off effort with a smattering of brilliant singles.
Mya is perhaps a rung below Pink on the increasingly bustling ladder of secondary talent - she's yet to synthesise her good moments into a cohesive whole, and both her self-titled debut and her new one Fear Of Flying have a couple of unnecessary ballads - but considering the short shrift she gets from most I find her quietly impressive. Certainly Fear Of Flying has a much higher hit-to-miss ratio than Kandi's album, which in terms of unfulfilled potential should have been the R&B album of the year; and Mya is occasionally capable of flashes of brilliance that utterly redeem any shortcomings.
"It's All About Me", her big single from '98, is one of them. I think I love this mostly because it came out of a very shortlived period in R&B - specifically, in the wake of Timbaland revolutionary slow-motion stutter-ballad production on Aaliyah's "One In A Million", but before producers like She'kspere, David Austin and Timbaland himself started taking that sound down a harder, faster road. Even at the time most Timbaland-style tracks seemed to concentrate on his more funk-derived sound - see Aaliyah's "If Your Girl Only Knew", Ginuwine's "Pony", Missy Elliot's first album and Timbaland and Magoo's "Up Jumps Da Boogie".
"It's All About Me" is the glorious exception, taking its cues from "One In A Million" to make something possibly even more ravishing. I always thought that the secret to "One In A Million" was not just its brain-confounding kickdrum-snare convolutions, but also its ear-tickling loops of multi-tracked vocals, soothing keyboards, birdsong and refracted, echoey guitar lines - as unconsciously indebted to Disco Inferno's "Summer's Last Sound" as the beats were to jungle. "It's All About Me" correspondingly downplays the beat arrangement - a fairly simple (by current standards) loping drum loop, albeit with perhaps the most curiously textured, gorgeously crunchy snare sound you'll ever hear - and instead concentrates on the atmospherics: warm, ghostly synths that glide in and out of the mix, some lazy, funky guitar work, and a creeping disembodied cry or sigh in the distance.
Mya's multitracked vocals are understated and luscious, perfectly complementing the impossibly luxurious musical setting, before Sisqo takes over for the bridge, a rousing moment that builds wonderfully into a heart-stopping breakdown - the beats suddenly break out of pattern and stutter slightly before dropping away, as if uncertain where to go next. The keyboards seem arrested by a similar sense of uncertainty, and the whole thing feels like the musical equivalent of driving off a cliff over a canyon and momentarily floating in mid-air, unsure whether you'll make it to the other side or begin to fall. And then, obviously, we do get to the other side, because the original beat comes crashing back and the song proper resumes. It's this that propels the song from merely "very good" to classic status.
Of course Mya, being an official lesser talent, had to move with the times, and the first single from Fear Of Flying, "Case Of The Ex" features all the requisite components of R&B 2000: driving rave-style synth riffs, She'kspere-style beats, swishing hi-hats and a suspicious "don't be cheatin' me" narrative. Of course it's thoroughly formulaic and a bit slight, but excellently so, largely because of the techno influence and the bristling, itchy percussion, making it a nice companion piece to Pink's flawless "Private Show. But we shouldn't underestimate the difference that Mya's restrained but crystal clear delivery makes - a flat rendition would have ruined stronger songs.
New single "Best Of Me" with Jadakiss has the exact same formula; this time it's shimmering, frantic guitar strums rather than synth riffs, and a loping beat courtesy of Swizz Beats, but the basic template is identical. I reckon though that this is if anything even better than "Case Of The Ex". Simultaneously slow and urgent, Swizz's on-form production here sounds like a non-pop Jay-Z backing track (and with Jadakiss starts rapping the comparison is unavoidable), but Mya effortlessly makes it her own, with a great chorus, stellar harmonies and nicely nuanced vocals. What I like about Mya's voice is that it's less strident than Beyonce of Destiny's Child, or Kelis or Pink or nearly any of the other male-bashing divas. There's a certain fragility (though not weakness) to her singing that makes the resolution "I can't let you get the best of me" seem touchingly brave and resilient.
I know that part of my appreciation of Mya is a reaction to the tendency of many to choose one R&B performer or act and talk them up ceaselessly while at the same time dissing everything else as chart fodder. I just feel that focusing on Kelis' weird lyrics or some similar quirk or "edginess" in whoever is held up as superior is generally a way of getting around the fact that the point of all this music is to make lusciously produced and expertly performed chart fodder. And even if Mya is second-rate, I'll still happily give her the pride of place in my CD player ahead of countless "innovators" and "individuals".
Unlike most discerning listeners I've talked to, I don't hate "Holler"; how can you hate a song you can't even remember while it's playing? Perhaps Mel B can hook the girls up with a doctor who can give it a chorus transplant? "Let Love Lead The Way" is better, if only because it's classic Spice material, but it's too stiff to have an impact or be memorable. And I'm not surprised by reliable reports that the album is utterly awful.
I feel a bit sorry for the girls really (well, not Mel B or Mel C, who both clearly need to be bitchslapped), especially because in their haste to crucify them, most of the media have forgotten that this unlikely gaggle offered us some of the best pop songs in ages. "Say You'll Be There", "2 Become 1" and "Who Do You Think You Are" in particular formed a flawless trilogy of pop thrills. Actually "2 Become 1" came on the radio the other day at work. I hadn't heard it in about two years and I think I got all misty eyed. And there was "Goodbye" as well, which I really liked at the time, but of course that was pre-Skykicking, so instead I'm writing about it now as a tribute to what was, what might have been.
Listening to "Goodbye", with its stirring strings, springy synth bassline, gently swishing hi-hats and quietly bizarre snare hits played backwards, the Girls' subsequent choice to employ Rodney Jerkins to produce their comeback seems all the more tragic. Sure, "It's Not Right But It's Okay" and "Say My Name" are excellent examples of modern R&B, but let's not forget such pop travesties as "He Wasn't Man Enough For Me" and "If You Had My Love". More importantly, it suggests a cynical position taken by the Girls or their record label that at any given time only one style of pop-production should be acceptable - the biggest-grossing, quite obviously. Audiences prove the lie to this, happily chewing on the Max Martin school of crunch-dynamics, the judder-scapes of She'kspere and Timbaland, N'Sync's combination of the two and, in the UK at least, the r&b-garage fusion of The Artful Dodger and Craig David, not to mention Westlife-style blandouts. Ronan Keating's "Life Is A Rollercoaster", helmed by the guy from The New Radicals, suggests yet another popular formula, and I'm keenly looking forward to hearing the guy's work for Texas.
Anyway, what I was getting around to is that the Spice Girls had a perfectly valid and not unimpressive niche - surprisingly cluttered, dynamic arrangements and buzzy bass grooves for the dance tracks, and Phil Spector sleighbell production plus strings for the ballads. Combine that with excellent choruses and the ability to work well with limited vocal talent, as well as an eye for the bizarre (check that harmonica solo in the otherwise sleeker-than-thou "Say You'll Be There") and the Spice writing/production had a formidable equation. It has a place within our conceptions of pop, and a prominent one at that. This end of pop shouldn't be left to also-rans like Girl Thing - they clearly can't do it justice.
Furthermore, the original Spice formula is not one that should necessarily be jettisoned in favour of sharp beats and harpsichords merely because the latter formula is slightly fresher. Something like "It's Not Right But It's Okay" only gained its sense of freshness in contrast to everything else on radio at the time, and in the wake of "Holler" and other examples of Jerkins's media-whoring, that freshness has seriously diminished. Already I'm starting to demand more from R&B - to merely be futuristic doesn't cut it when every day three new songs come out that are futuristic in exactly the same way.
Still, there's "Goodbye", with that understated but nonetheless heavenly chorus. "You'll always be someone's baby" a nicer Mel B sang, and I know it's a corny, meaningless sentiment, but it still does what every great pop song is supposed to do. Maybe the Spice Girls really do want to make me holler, but I liked them better when they made me smile.
And sometimes I also talk about rock music. I've recently been entranced by this piece of bluesy grunt from Jon Spencer's wife's band. I've yet to hear the parent album of the same name, but I remember enjoying "I Dig You" when it came out, so perhaps I should take a chance.
So what is it about "Whiteout" that drags me away from my beloved jungle and garage tracks? It's all about the contrast, baybee. Thankfully it's not the tired soft/loud/soft/loud schtick, but rather a deliberate juxtaposition of musical styles. The Pixies-like lurching, blaring stop-start verses, over which Christina Martinez's vocals are dispassionate, deadpan and darkly humourous, flow naturally yet impossibly into some sort of affirmative soul/gospel chorus sung by who I'm assuming is Jen, the band's bassist. "I'm coming to see ya/I was born to see ya/I'm coming to see the liiiiight!" It's the sort of irreverence and devil-may-care attitude (although thankfully not in an overbearing or smug manner a la Beck) towards musical antiquarianism that I love so much.
Lyrically and musically, this puts me in mind of a less tortured and more fun version of PJ Harvey circa To Bring You My Love (which would make The Blues Explosion the equivalent of The Bad Seeds, I guess), employing that same mixture of dryness and spirituality, albeit more as a half-ironic construction than as a complete persona. Thankfully, the irony isn't the main focus of the song, and as the lyrics detail a somewhat typical loss of innocence to a dark hero/lust as religious fervour narrative, the musical choices make a lot of sense. At any rate, it makes it a lot easier to accept that PJ Harvey has decided she wants to be Patti Smith, knowing that other bands are ready to step in and fill the void left behind.
Two songs I've gotten a hold of recently via electronic means have been Beats International's "Dub Be Good To Me" and Soho's "Hippie Chick". I loved both these songs when they came out, but I was too young to think that they were anything outside the norm for "pop". Now though, when finding a context for music is apparently my chief joy, I love these songs even more for their wonderful peculiarity, and the way they seem to symbolise a lost golden age in British pop, around the turn of the last decade, when the "pop" in question was not an exercise in cultural cleansing and express Beatlesification, but rather a riotous merging of influences and styles, both white and black, into a polymorphous, unpredictable interzone of excellent music.
Both of course have been derided in their time as being "not real music". "Hippie Chick" anchors its bouncy, polyrhythmic dub groove around a sampled snippet of the unforgettable guitar riff from The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" - which was a delicious irony at the time considering Morrissey's rather vocal anti-dance stance. "Dub Be Good To Me" goes one better: not only is it a staightforward rendition of the SOS Band track "Just Be Good To Me", but its sole claim to real innovation is the brilliant addition of a dub bassline ripped from The Clash's "Guns Of Brixton" (and so, due to one moment of inspiration, this becomes the best thing that either Norman Cook or The Clash were ever involved in). The truth is that there's little artistic integrity in these tracks; about the best that could be said is that they're ruthlessly clever.
What you do have though is some of the most joyous, gorgeous pop music I can think of, and I reckon it's largely due to the enormous debt to dub within both tracks. I think Gareth discussed at some point how he almost invariably prefers reggae and dub when they're worked into the framework of other musical styles, and I pretty much agree. I'd add though that the incorporation of dub seems to become more and more of an excellent idea the closer the music is to pop. Or perhaps it might be better to say that it seems to work better the less reverent the artists and producers are.
The Simon Reynolds article in The Wire on Dub vs Roots Reggae that I think Gareth talked about discussed how the overwhelming "sound of politics" Marley-reverence angle that punk adopted in its approach to reggae and dub was replaced by a new hegemony of opinion in the nineties which emphasised "the politics of sound" inherent within the creation of dub. If Reynolds is beginning to sound a bit disillusioned with the latter approach, it's not hard to see why: especially in the last half of this decade, the innovations of Lee Perry et. al have been so carefully documented, rarified and faithfully reproduced by a discerning cognoscenti (kickstarted inevitably, if perhaps innocently, by Kevin Martin's excellent Macro Dub Infection compilation) that the technique has begun to seem more like a mathematical formula that one simply applies to a given piece of music to get a precise, predictable and pleasureless result.
In contrast, it's when dub has been irreverently worked into all sorts of unexpected musical pockets in populist ways that the outcomes have been most successful: A.R. Kane's i album, and particularly their revelatory "Catch My Drift"; The Orb at their most accessible - "Perpetual Dawn" or "Tower Of Dub"; the dub basslines and unstable rhythms of early jungle (I'm thinking particularly of the heartrupture bassline and Paris-break mutiny of Back 2 Basics' "Horns For '94), and soon after that a "drum & bass" version of the same on Spring Heel Jack's beautiful first album There Are Strings; the first generation of trip hop - Massive Attack and Tricky particularly; and now of course the dub and reggae influences permeating through UK Garage - check tracks by New Horizons like "Find The Path" and "It's My House (Bashment Mix)", or the excellent Dreem Teem remix of Neneh Cherry's "Buddy X".
The secret to all of these is that it's not the dub itself that makes the music great, but rather the way that it plays off the other aspects of the music - for example the really exhilirating thing about the dub influence in early jungle was that no-one had ever conceived dub as being fast, while at the same time it served to make jungle sound both fast and slow (depending on whether you followed the beats or the bassline). It's also why I think that of all of dub's "infections", I love most its infection of pop, because what higher purpose can a musical style have than to make great pop music?
"Dub Be Good To Me" and "Hippie Chick" are fortunately not alone in this small micro-genre; they join Soul II Soul's "Back To Life" and "Keep On Moving", Smith & Mighty's early covers of Bacharach's "Walk On By" and "Anyone Who Had A Heart" (Smith and Mighty also did a great extra dubby remix of "Dub Be Good To Me") and Fresh Four's "Wishing On A Star", plus heaps of other stuff that I'm sure people who were listening at the time could acquaint me with.
What's great about all these tracks is how they combine pop's instinctive flair for drama (all of them feature excellent, stirring performances from female vocalists) with both the spiritual redemption of dub and the hedonistic vibe of house music - this music is not only multiracial but multipurposed as well, adapting effortlessly to the need of the listener. If you want a different, alternate ancestry for UK Garage, well, here it is: music that was both astoundingly innovative and irresistably commercial. To think that this was part of the "meaningless pop crap" that both grunge and Britpop seeked to eliminate makes me strangely, inarticulately angry.
Artful Dodger - Woman Trouble (The Wideboys "Pick A Pocket Or Two" Mix)
After my meditations on the possibility of an internal collapse for UK Garage, I've been wondering if there was any direction left for the scene to go in which it would be able to avoid the pitfalls of division. This excellent remix of "Woman Trouble", one of my picks for best garage remixes of the year, offers as a bonus a vision of how the scene could actually more closely integrate its disparate stylistic influences into a sound that seamlessly combines pop ambition with underground authenticity.
The very fact that this is a remix of an Artful Dodger (crossover success of the year) by the Wideboys (pirate heroes of the year) should provide some sort of symbolic clue - a two way partnership between the commercial and underground artists provides obvious benefits for both, and certainly doesn't the damage the reputations of the latter. The real revelation lies in the music, though. The structure of the somewhat smooth original is largely untouched, but its supplemented with a reving motor bassline and an even more wired version of the trademark Wideboys choppy, wooden drums, here full of sudden changes, false starts, breakdowns, pounding kickdrums and insanely sped up snare rolls.
What I love most is the resurrection of '98 style "vocal science", the Wideboys at times pulling apart Robbie Craig's original soul-crooner vocals and reconstructing them as vocal-gymnast skats that provide (get this) harmonies to the main tune - my favourite moment is a tongue-defying jumble near the start that goes "dum-dum-boomdumbeboombedebedibeh!", sounding like Robbie's choking on his drink while simultaneously having his vitals stepped on by the offending lady.
The promising thing about this remix is that it is, if anything, more "pop" than the original, with more hooks and a more appealing chorus arrangement; on the other hand it still retains all the stylistic components of an underground/breakbeat garage track. There's no reason why the musical and rhythmic tricks of the latter can't be grafted onto a pop blueprint; in fact the results are generally more exciting than anything going on in the scene (or any other scene, for that matter). This is something The Wideboys have obviously fully realised - check their remix of the All Saints' "Black Coffee" for similar delights. Let's hope more garage producers start staking out this territory in the near future.
Foul Play - Total Control, Music Is The Key, Open Your Mind (Remix)
The best thing about Napster is being able to hear stuff you never expected to come across. Foul Play, masters of the sub-genre "ambient jungle" before it became "intelligent drum & bass" and lost most of its appeal, put out an album Suspected in '95. You'd be hard-pressed to ever find it now though, so my previous knowledge of the group's ouvre extended only to tracks that I'd found on various compilations. Still, even if all I'd ever heard was "Being With You", their blisteringly beautiful epic from '94 and one of my favourite jungle tracks ever, they'd still qualify for immortality.
But now I have three more reasons. "Total Control", darker than their usual fare, is like a precursor to Photek's "Hidden Camera", employing militaristic rat-a-tat snares, a moody dub bassline and sleazy saxaphone blasts. And, er, that's about it. This is the very essence of minimalistic drum & bass, reminding the listener that no matter how grandiose jungle's musical arrangements increasingly became, the revolution was always in those frisky, mindmelting beats that skip and bounce around your head like gnats in a bottle.
Way way way in the other direction is "Music Is The Key", which could be Foul Play's own "Inner City Life". Weaving her voice around stirring strings and pealing percussion, Denise Richard's dramatic, uplifting performance soon floats over a bed of compulsive, shuddering breakbeats, her vocals distorted and morphed into wordless moans. What's impressive is how the group alternate their plan of attack between lush atmospherics and hard-driving funk interludes, as if to say "yes, we're accomplished, but we haven't forgot what you came for either". Many of the breaks are quite recognisable, but it's the way that Foul Play keep changing them, cutting them up and switching back and forth that sets their programming ahead of the rest of the pack.
Best of all though is the group's astonishing remix of their own "Open Your Mind". "Open Your Mind" was actually the first Foul Play track I heard, and at the time I was a bit confused; it seemed too disjointed, an almost ungainly combination of soothing ambience, darkcore bass churn and chipmunk antics from the early days of hardcore. Later I learnt to appreciate its schizophrenic universality, but could it really be (according to Simon Reynolds) the best hardcore track ever?
This remix justifies the accolades though, being possibly the best thing Foul Play ever did (it also turns out to be the version Reynolds was talking about after all). Jettisoning both the early hardcore and darkcore influences from the original, the group instead intensify its melodic lushness and rhythmic intensity to the point that it's almost too chromatically dense: amorphous, squiggly samples; Oriental atmospherics; a dewy, sentimental Bukem bassline; and rhythmic programming so layered and nuanced that it ceases to function as a rhythm and becomes instead another component of the textural landscape. It's one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I've yet heard, and a reminder of just how revoloutionary jungle used to be. If you find it, be sure to snap it up.
I'm beginning to think that it's inevitable that I'll end up working in a record store, if only for a little while. Matt (yes, the guy I'm seeing) expressed interest in buying some music - he makes it sound like it's a big event, some strange juncture he never expected to find himself at . "I kinda know what I want" he says vaguely, "something like acid jazz, definitely some sort of jazzy feel anyway, kinda funky, maybe a bit of house..." and so (trying to ignore my initial compulsion to tell him that acid jazz must DIE!) I start breathlessly reeling off names and albums at him "Have you heard Masters At Work? Or maybe Herbert.... Ian Pooley's new album has this great summery feel..." etc. etc.
And he pretty much dislikes everything I suggest, of course, but finally I take him to a second-hand shop and find ten separate compilations that he might like (he chooses Funky House Anthems the one I wouldn't have bought myself but cynically included because I knew he'd like the name). It's a frustrating experience if only because I have to resist the temptation to come on all holier-than-thou about it - when the shopkeeper passionately recommended artists on the Ninja Tunes label and other tedious downtempo/trip hop I had to bite my tongue - but I still find it rewarding. Sifting through all this music to find the stuff worth keeping for the benefit of others is a big motivation behind Skykicking, but when you can actually do it for someone in real life it's somehow very satisfying.
Napster have released a Mac version of their beloved program, which works much better than the last version of the third party Macster substitute. Which of course means heaps of downloading of old and rare stuff. Currently enjoying old Foul Play tracks - "Total Control", "Music Is The Key", their fantastic remix of their own "Open Your Mind"... excellent stuff, pretty much the pinnacle of jungle breakbeat manipulation. Some reviews of that and other stuff to follow later...
I also want to comment on the decision of first one Tom, and now another, to close down their current weblog and open another. But at the moment I'm not sure what I want to say exactly. Unfortunately I have to go to work so any thoughts I have will have to wait until tomorrow.
Go here and read the 3000 word review of The Spice Girls' Forever. Most definitely the longest, but also probably the most interesting review of said album that you'll find. And straight out of the NME camp, to boot. Who would have thought?
This was originally going to be a post on Tom's I Love Music forum, but it wandered off topic and got long enough that I thought I'd put it here instead. The title of the thread I was posting to was "Subversives in Rock". Go contribute if you've got something to say on the matter...
To wander away from the topic of "rock" somewhat, I feel that generally "subversiveness" is less and less effective the more self-conscious and deliberate it is. Music that is "subversive" because it intransigently challenges the accepted norms of the status quo (ie. it is unfashionable) and is subsequently slagged off to no end but still survives and prospers, is more subversive to me than music which deliberately defines itself as subversive.
The problem is that self-conscious subversiveness is always judged on what it defines itself against, and thus derives most of its value from a (positive or negative) appreciation of the original article. Which can still be valuable in some ways, but is also a bit limiting. By deliberately subverting something you're in fact reacting to it, and thus adopting its principals, even if only to go against them. It formalises the rules for making the music as much as it breaks them, and thus a lot of music that's described as "subversive" is to me very predictable - when I hear the self-aggrandizing claims and pseudo-intellectual theories expounded by its creators I can generally guess to within a hair's breadth what the music will sound like, and what it's limitations are.
Tom, in his Singles of the 90s entry on 187 Lockdown's single "Gunman" talks about how in any dance music scene (though probably in any music scene at all) you have a period of purism which is fascinating, and then a period of commercial crossover which is exciting, and then a period of renewed period of purism which is emasculated and stale. Spot on. I'd argue one of the reasons the original purist period is so fascinating is that it's not "pure" in reaction to anything.
There was no detailed aesthetic guiding the creation of all those great initial house classics; the idea was simply to make dance music that worked. The fact that it was new and challenging made it subversive, but essentially the rulebook hadn't been written yet, so the subversiveness factor was largely a result of inspired mistakes - see the legendary tale of how the "acid" 303 Roland sound permeated through Chicago house by accident. What's so subversive about this music? The fact that it's breaking (unwritten) rules left right and centre with no discernible pattern or motivation. In essence, you can't predict where it will go. It's a random agent, an auto-catalyst. No wonder the status quo tend to initially dislike these new styles so much.
The exciting part about the crossover period is how this random agent temporarily unstables and alters the broader face of pop music. Going head to head with the status quo, it is now subversive in its stab at commercial legitimacy. Just like you could argue that the success of lifestyle programs are a (negative) subversive force on current television production, a lot of music in the top 20 is subversive because, rather than responding to the norm, it forces the norm to respond to it. A good example is UK Garage's pop ascendancy, which hasn't required the music to sacrifice its core ingredients and turn into the Spice Girls, but has inspired one Spice Girl at least to adapt to its presence and incorporate it into her representation of pop, albeit in a tokenistic, one-off sort of manner.
The third stage, that of renewed purism, is only subversive in that it takes on this now-accepted style and once more renders it inapproachable to the broader public. It's a self-conscious and reductionist shoring-up of the style's core values, which ultimately causes the music's destablising influence, its very subversiveness, to contract dramatically. The subversiveness only lasts for that short window period during which the purist manages to take the general public with him or her until they realise the error of their ways: the coffee shops who bought "Pre-Millenium Tension"; the MOR rock fans who bought "Kid A"; the toytown rave fans who bought "Terminator" etc. But this never lasts past that first mistaken purchase.
I suppose it might be difficult to pinpoint which scenes will reinvigorate themselves and regain their subversiveness (hardcore turning into jungle; speed garage turning into UK garage) and which will simply stagnate (pure techno; drum & bass). Perhaps significantly it's that if a scene turns unapproachable because it is first rejected by the public, as is the case for the first two, it won't acquire that fatal self-conscious self-definition and deliberate snootiness that we see with the latter examples.
Hmm, this has moved away from subversiveness a bit. I guess what I'm saying is that generally a self-consciously "oppositional" stance within music is not automatically something to be lauded. The whole problem might be the media's fault, which has grown so canny and adept at seizing upon "subversive" styles and legitimising them that it is impossible to not become self-conscious about it. What was once at odds with the accepted musical continuum rapidly becomes co-opted by it; but I think it's usually misguided to continually attempt to define oneself against that continuum, as really there's always someone somewhere who can fit you into it. The most amusical glitchscape will always be a potential canon entry for The Wire.