So, the reason I want to buy 69 Love Songs is perhaps a bit because of the hype, and perhaps because if it's the last Magnetic Fields album I buy, at least I'll feel like I've heard enough to be sure. Basically, Stephin Merrit frustrates me. The only Magnetic Fields album I have is Holiday, an album that I feel I could almost love it, yet somehow don't. Theoretically, it's an album designed for me: glowing pop songs artfully constructed out of austere synth drones, combined with peerless lyrics from Merrit. But despite that it does almost nothing for me, and listening to it all the way through is a challenge. Why persist, then? Because I find the other Merrit album I own, Future Bible Heroes' Memories Of Love, to be absolutely adorable - one of the most artfully constructed pop albums I've ever heard.
Memories Of Love is often dismissed as Merrit's most pop-focused work, and criticised for being too sugary and self-consciously stuck in the eighties. In the context of what Merrit's tried to achieve throughout his career, that hardly sounds like a criticism to me, but I reckon it's untrue anyway. Of course Memories Of Love does have some of Merrit's best pop moments - see the yearning "Lonely Days", or the bubbly "Blond Adonis", or the aching chorus of "But You're So Beautiful" - and Chris Ewan's intricate, synth-laden arrangements are as retro as any in Merrit's backcatalogue. But Chris Ewan's production also makes the album for me; his idea of "retro" is so layered and precise that it ends up being futuristic.
"Blond Adonis" has a jaunty electro rhythm that snaps and crackles like Plaid or Autechre - take off the vocal and you could release it on Warp Records. "She-Devils Of The Deep" is even more bizarre - a latinesque lurch through squawking samples and sudden bass-drops; "A You You Never Knew" matches sickly-sounding strings and a trebly, whooping rhythm track that alternately reminds me of The Beta Band or Destiny's Child's "Perfect Man". Hearing these tiny glimpses of modern music nestled among music that is defiantly dated makes for constantly startling listening, and when so much black American music similarly attempt to mix an eighties-style electronic approach with the digital innovations of the last few years (see particularly albums by Kelis and Outkast), Memories of Love sounds like an eerily prescient response on behalf of alt-pop. Which is fantastic, because no-one else seems to have noticed the rich, verdant fields that r&b and hip hop have left open for white artists to exploit.
What I like most about the music on Memories of Love however is not its actual sound so much as its sense of range, which has as much to do with Merrit's brilliant songwriting as Ewan's arrangements. For despite the presence of some sterling pop moments, a sizable amount of the album is made up of muted, atmospheric numbers that are simply beautiful. "Death Opened A Boutique" features Merrit in typically brilliant comic form (eg. "Open seven days a week/it was Derrida and chic"), but his low murmer rides on a thrilling minor keyboard ripple, shimmering organs, tribal grunts and a fluid, watery rhythm track. The tracks sung by Claudia Gonson are even more bizarrely ethereal: "You Pretend To Be The Moon" is a tearjerker par excellence, with sudden, heartbreaking keyboard chord-changes and graceful cello pizzicatos, while closer "You Steal The Scene" borders on world-beat ambience, smothered in floating synth vapour.
What these tracks resemble is not so much the minimalist pop of the Human League or New Order (Merrit's general synth-pop touchstones) but the experimental, ambitious studio-bound art-pop of Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Jane Siberry and (at a stretch) Eno's work with David Byrne. I reckon that these artists, quite respected at the time, have now come to represent the last sector of eighties music not to be redeemed as at least quirkily fashionable. Not that such a critical acceptance is necessarily desired - how many cultural elites would like A Flock Of Seagulls in any way that was not ironic? - but these artists seem particularly likely to be left out of the current rock discourse. Arguably the "true" eighties that American and British critics alike have long celebrated is a continuum tied to a sort of arty, always-fashionable minimalism (from Wire to Husker Du to The Pixies to rock's commercial resurrection with Nirvana), and I admit with good reason; the existence of such artists is another reason to ignore the constant cringing that always comes with discussions of the eighties.
I guess the safety with minimalist music of any type is that it's not predisposed towards musical excess that might tie it too uncomfortably to the time of its creation. So maybe the current batch of maximalist, osentatious artists so loved by our media (Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Grandaddy, Radiohead in OK Computer guise) will be in the future condemned for being as representative of a sort of turn-of-the-century arrogance and melodramatic self-aggrandisement as Bush and Gabriel are for mid-eighties ambition and cultural imperialism. And how will the maximalist dance and pop music I love so much fare, I wonder? Who knows, but I know that whether I like it or not, I don't want to see artists, styles and movements stricken from the records simply because their ideas are out of step with the ideas of the time - I don't care much for Peter Gabriel one way or the other, but I love The Hounds Of Love and The Walking, regardless of their current standing. I love The Future Bible Heroes not least for seeming to share that sentiment.
My favourite garage track this year isn't Wookie's "Battle" (good tune though it is), but a surprisingly little-known remix of Valerie M's "Tingles 2000" by garage-stars Artful Dodger. It's a strange choice perhaps, because said remix flies in the face of nearly all the major trends in garage this year, foregoing both rude basslines and sophisticated soul stylings in favour of a gorgeously ethereal slice of cross-hatched ambient-garage, complete with tinkling glockenspiels, shimmering keyboards and deliciously chopped up vocal lines. It was one of the last of its kind though - the bassline-driven end of the scene had been growing steadily right through '99, and for the last six months it's been so dominant that groups like Artful Dodger, only just having broken through to the mainstram, now rely on bass-heavy remixes by acts like The Wideboys to get played by the DJs who used to rinse their tunes. Tunes like "Re-Rewind" still get played on the radio of course, but with hardly a bassline to speak of, it's difficult to imagine it coming up through the pirates and clubs now.
On the other hand, it's easy to forget what a bloody great single "Re-Rewind" actually was. Sure it's easy to dismiss now, now that Artful Dodger (Mark Hill and Pete Devereaux) are household names and Craig David's smirk is everywhere. But this time last year, "Re-Rewind" boinking into the no. 2 spot was a tremendous moment; an announcement that 2-step - real 2-step, mind - had finally crashlanded into the UK's national consciousness. What distinguished "Re-Rewind" from previous garage hits like "Sweet Like Chocolate", "Sincere" and indeed all of the group's subsequent singles was its lack of compromise. Oh sure, it's catchy, but then so is "Doom's Night". A closer listen though reveals that apart from Craig's smooth vocals, there's precious little melodic detail; some sparse keyboard chords is all really. The real hooks are all in the bizarrely stunted, stereo-panning and interweaving beats. For much of the track even the sparse keyboards fall away, and the sonically rich field of rhythmic detail - clicks and whirs; car screeches and windscreen smashes - is all the carries the song. It was perhaps the most rhythmically intense top five hit of the year.
"Re-Rewind" sounds particularly great in the context of its parent album Its All About The Stragglers (spelling of "its" theres, not mine) - a strange, tossed-off sounding name for an album as airbrushed as any to come out this year. Unexpectedly, "Re-Rewind" is the possibly the rawest-sounding track on the album as well as the most popcentric. In fact the duo, like MJ Cole, seem at pains to push themselves away from "conventional garage", prefering to explore fusions with other styles. However where Cole's fusionist tracks tended to be straight acid jazz or soul tracks with a 2-step beat looped underneath (sometimes a bit halfheartedly), the Artful Dodger seem to put a lot of thought into moderating the beats in order to suit their melodic environment as they did for Craig David on his R&B-garage hybrid "Fill Me In". First track "Think About Me" features tense strings and rippling piano reminiscent of Hybrid, and as if in acknowledgement the drum loop underneath owes us much to Hybrid's brand of expansive breakbeat as it does to garage. They've got a sense of humour though - in some places the vocal is morphed with the EQ as if it was a '97-era speed garage track.
Meanwhile new single "Please Don't Turn Me On" mimics the structure of "Fill Me In" exactly; becalmed verses with slow R&B beats alternating with the more excitable, string-filled garage choruses. "Please Don't Turn Me On" - all spiralling guitar, live bass and unthreatening beats - isn't as dynamic as "Fill Me In", and coupled with guest singer Lifford's smooth, soulful vocals, the whole affair sounds less like an exciting mixture of ideas and more like a pleasant cop-out. Arguably too much of the album has that air of fussy complacency: "Something" and "R U Ready" are both straightahead 2-step (the latter's actually an MC track), but their dreamy chords and becalmed crawl push them into MJ Cole territory. To be fair, both are lusciously produced with deliciously nuanced beats, but there's only so long you can go without a nasty bassline. "Twentyfourseven" isn't even 2-step anymore, but rather a sunny female vocal track with polite R&B beats similar to much of the backing music Hill created for Craig David's album, and has a similar accomplished-but-unexciting feel to it; imagine Rodney Jerkins producing Des'ree.
Luckily the duo balance these with some more fun moments. "Outrageous" is the closest the album comes to a "track" - chopped up vocals, shivering xylobass riffs and wonderfully hard snares (even at its weakest this album is a joy to listen to), it reminds me of Sunship's excellent work on Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers". As far as I can tell, the Dodger actually cut up the female vocalist's phrases so that they still make some weird sense (like Bowie writing words on glass and smashing it to make new lyrics from the fragments), but I can't for the life of me work out what they are. "I Can't Give It Up" is like a more pop-focused version of Cole's "Crazy Love", with busy pizzicato strings and lightning-quick beat programming, and its straightforward pop stylings make up for the absense of "Moving Too Fast". "Woman Trouble", here in two separate versions (the original's club-focused attack or the single version's pop anthemics), is a lot of fun either way with Robbie Craig's memorable, melodramatic vocals, and final track "We Should Get Together" actually has a prominent, verging-on-naughty bassline.
The general lack of much bass on this album feels strange when its deployment was a mandatory aspect of good 2-step in 2000. Unlike jungle's media-whore period from '95 to '97, most of the overground album garage artists (Artful Dodger, MJ Cole, Shanks & Bigfoot) haven't had time to enjoy their status before the scene suddenly changed around them (the other two, Truesteppers and Wookie, had a love of bass all along). Cole caught up quickly with his bass-heavy post-album work, and cunningly worked dub remixes into the folds of Sincere to suggest that he'd been on the right train all along, but Its All About The Stragglers contains little concessions to the sound of now that the Wideboys remixes on the singles represented. In that sense it's a bit of a curiosity, a cul-de-sac denoting a direction for garage that's been largely bypassed, rendering it curiously more likable than it otherwise might have been. As an album it is, like Sincere, a qualified success: it's at its worst enjoyable and at its best fantastic, but it's hardly the definitive statement it might have been. If you're a fan of the singles so far, you'll enjoy Its All About The Stragglers a lot. If you're looking for an album to sum up garage for you, the answer is, as always, the same: go and buy a compilation.
Thank heavens! Future Primitive is back online, with a new address, new layout and a whole host of new tunes to boot! Currently I'm adoring Foul Play's "Cuttin' Loose", FBD Project's "She's Breaking Up", 4 Hero's "Better Place", Omni Trio's "Original Soundtrack" and Hyper-On Experience's "Half Stepper". Make sure you click on the banners to keep this brilliant treasure trove of priceless artifacts alive and healthy. Thanks again to Gruf for the tip-off.
Favourite compilation at the moment is The Loft, a double-cd put together by David Mancuso documenting the sound of the parties he used to throw in New York during the seventies in the loft of his Soho apartment. Their hedonistic vibe and eclectic anything-goes musical policy apparently made them the parties-of-choice for the clubbing elite, and an immensely important formative experience for aspiring djs and producers who later ended up in New York's burgeoning garage scene. The booklet tells me so.
But frankly, who cares about the parties? Every city, every era, every bloody clique has its own "golden age" mythology, usually trumpeted repeatedly in order to disguise its increasing irrelevance (cough *Detroit techno* cough). All I care about is the music. Luckily the music on The Loft is generally to greater or lesser extent quite excellent, and so this is one golden age I don't mind paying homage to.
The period of time that the compilation covers is very broad, from War's bizarre 1973 country/jazz/afro/blues/folk/disco hybrid "Country, City, Country" to Karma's "High Priestess" from 1995. Stylistically there's a huge variety as well - Resonance's "Yellow Train" seems to be little more than found sound, while Patti Labelle's "The Spirit's In It" is histrionic diva-disco. The bulk of the tracks come from the vibrant period between 1978 and about 1983; disco was dying commercially, house/garage had not yet solidified as its replacements and New York was awash with sounds and ideas both old and new - dub, worldbeat, post-punk and hip hop.
The resulting period of uncertainty saw dancers casting about desperately for anything to keep the fire burning, and consequently made some surprising choices, ultimately adopting a stylistically schizophrenic "if it's got a groove it's disco" vibe. It was a time when polyrhythmic post-punkers ESG could play the last night of Lary Levan's Paradise Garage, and here it leads to some mystifying inclusions: the aformentioned "Country, City, Country" being a prime example of one I still can't get my head around. As a result, the (for want of a better word) "style" of The Loft can be summarised succintly by the term coined for a similar compilation just released - Disco Not Disco - which apparently has a Steve Miller Band track on it.
What unites all this music though is a fervent sense of spirituality, best expressed on the dramatic, stringswept Salsoul of Ashford & Simpson's "Stay Free", or Risco Connection's celebratory "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" with its undulating afrofunk rhythm and children's choir chorus. The almost gospel-like feel of many of the tracks ties in with their general diversity - both are a reflection of the discotheque/club's role as the church of the disposessed; for the congregation anything goes, musically and otherwise. Think of it as a precursor to Body & Soul, and you're on the right track.
As with Body & Soul however, the best stuff tends to filter the spirituality through a funktional understanding of groove-science; see the anachronistic inclusion of early house tracks like Fingers Inc.'s deeper-than-deep "Mystery Of Love", with its itchy bassline that resonates in your spinal cord. Even better is Bam Bam's remix of Ten City's "Devotion", a slice of shimmering heatwave house as hazy as Ron Trent's "Altered States" or Lil' Louis' "French Kiss", if somewhat more on the garage side of things.
When it comes to tracks from the era, well it's gotta be Loose Joint's "Is It All Over My Face".* At once both awkward and seamless, "Is It All Over My Face" is a polytendrilled disco masterpiece; all shimmying percussion, squawking bass, skittish flute, Chic-guitar and lackadaisickal vocals, its kitchen-sink production is ramshackel yet strangely hypnotic. Constructed by mad/brilliant classical/dub master Arthur Russell, "Is It All Over My Face" and his other classics "Go Bang" and Let's Go Swimming" strike me as the disco counterpart to the music by post-punk bands like ESG, 23 Skidoo and The Slits, who tried to overcome their punkish stiffness and groove. Failing, they ended up making fascinating and singular music that confuses and enchants even now. This track is like that too. "Disco not disco" indeed.
My sentimental favourite however is Ednah Howard's "Serious Sirius Space Party": a truly cosmic slice of robot-funk, with the most irresistable synth bass I've ever heard (like Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious" on Quaaludes) and great over-the-top diva histrionics from Ednah - think "Knock On Wood" meets the porn-house of Screamin' Rachael's "Fun With Bad Boys". The lyrics are great too - "You're dancing on the Enterprise/Let your body work with Captain Kirk/groove along with Mr. Spock/C3PO and R2D2 in disguise!" Let's be brutally honest here; "disco not disco" whatever, this is still disco, and if you don't have a taste for cheesy, fun music, you shouldn't be hanging out where you don't belong. Go back to Mogwai and practice your frown in the mirror.
Listening to this, I realise why I'm often so ambivalent about "nu house", which is basically the same "anything goes" policy applied to house. I reckon its because nu house producers are so suffocatingly reverent towards the music on display here that their piety blocks out their sense of humour and stifles their creativity. Most seem to forget how fun, wacky and just plain stupid a lot of the music from the period really was. The true modern day equivalent of "disco not disco" is not, say, Faze Action, who make a number of absolutely heartstopping Russell/Salsoul tributes, but also churn out less than inspired exercises in joyless antiquarianism in almost equal measure. Rather, its Basement Jaxx, with their cheeky, irreverent promiscuity, who best encapsulate the openmindedness of the Loft era. Or better yet, The Avalanches (had to get them in there somewhere). As happens so often, the big difference between the followers and the originators is the choice between following the conventions of your influences, or giving the musical middle finger to genre conventions, and your heroes too.
*About a year ago I heard an excellent cover of "Is It All Over My Face" with a low-voiced woman singing instead of a man. I haven't been able to work out who made it, although I know it's not the Dajae version. Can anyone give me some help?
Sonicnet list their twenty-five essential electronic albums, and despite the never-ending fallacy of focusing on dance albums and not tracks, this list is actually very good. Some surprising but very credible choices - Romanthony's Romanworld, Plastikman's Sheet One and The Paperclip People's Secret Tapes of Doctor Eich nestled among more the more predictable inclusion of Portishead, Roni Size, Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers etc. Meanwhile it seems that Moby's Play now has guaranteed presence on any list of this kind; have the American media signed some contract mandatorily requiring them to praise it at regular intervals?
In lieu of further content, I strongly recommend that you all check out the discussion Robin and I had over in I Love Music about, oh all sorts of things. But mainly early eighties electro-pop and the state of current hip hop. It was enlightening, and a lot of fun, I must say.
The Wideboys end 2000 with the satisfaction of having been the most vibrant and hardworking producers on the UK Garage scene this year. Name any micro-development within the sound over the last twelve years, and they were always in the thick of it; from spearheading the four-to-the-floor "speed" garage revival with their sleek pumper "Don't Waste My Time" and the sly funk of "Westside (2 Da Floor Mix)", to being the remixers-of-choice for the stars, donating filthy basslines and slamming beats to tracks by the All Saints and The Artful Dodger, to besting even the most hardened rave-advocates with their nasty breakbeat garage tracks such as "Hustler (Break & Bass Mix)".
The group's movements have been difficult to predict, and if listeners have grown confused by their seeming schizophrenia, they can hardly be blamed. Happily, "Something's Got Me Started" solves the mystery by combining nearly all of their hitherto separate qualities into one bloody excellent track. The track's powered by a breakbeat as opposed to a constructed 2-step rhythm, but unlike previous breakbeat tracks of theirs that I've heard, "Something's Got Me Started" takes a leaf out of the Stanton Warriors' manual by chopping up the break and rearranging it so it simulates a syncopated 2-step rhythm. The Wideboys have a reputation for stiff-jointed, mechanical beats (see particularly their ravaging take on Shanks & Bigfoots' "Sing A Long") and fittingly, despite the fluid-funk feeling that breakbeats generally have, the break pattern here is even more robotic and cyborg-like than usual for 2-step, sounding like a gigantic factory trying to pretend it's James Brown.
Even better, the 'Boys splice up the beats with their trademark loud snares, breakdowns, drum rolls and judder-pauses (sounding like the needle's caught the vinyl right on a drumkick) previously best used on their remix of The Artful Dodger's "Woman Trouble, which helps to vary the onslaught of the breakbeat and creates an interplay with the pulsating bassline for an excellent, edgy dancefloor dynamic. Again like The Stanton Warriors, The Wideboys realise that the way forward for beat programming in garage is not simple looped breaks but rather an adaption of jungle's cut-up aesthetic to the template of Timbaland's cyberfunk matrix.
Balancing out the dark, rough underbelly of the track is a lighter melodicism and pop sensibility; the key hook is a cool, jazzy keyboard line and eq-ing effects stolen from house music are used liberally. The vocal isn't run through the skat-O-meter like on "Heartache" or most of their remixes, which is a shame because the complexity of the group's "vocal science", which outstrips even Todd Edwards, is one of their three major assets (the others being their motorbike basslines and their peerless beats), but the two contrasting vocal snippets fit together nicely, and their "classic", old-style garage feel helps ground what is in many other respects is an overcharged track; the key here, as with much of the group's success, is to keep looking forward but to still know where you came from.
It's difficult to separate the cosmic swirl of "A Different Feeling" from all the other beautiful (and significantly, mixed together) moments on The Avalanches' Since I Left You album, but I will 'cause it's the one I heard in the shop and nearly swooned over. The Avalanches, in case you don't know, are very very broadly speaking an Australian hip hop group. Or something. Actually they started as one of those agit-hip-hop-punk groups (you know, the type that rap raucously over a boombox), but have since evolved into an entirely different beast.
You can hear just how different here, or indeed any of the other tracks on their wildly diverse new album. The Avalanches have that knack of putting you in mind of a hundred different tracks at once - not surprising, really, seeing as Since I Left You is constructed almost entirely from samples. "A Different Feeling", with its sashaying, phased disco string samples, loping 4/4 beat, laser beam synthesisers, glittering cymbal-hits, disembodied voices, Satiesque piano and its gorgeous, poignant string-led breakdown, is perhaps the most heartbreakingly beautiful piece of music I've heard this year. Superficially, it's a house track, but it's house that owes as much to A.R. Kane, Disco Inferno and Saint Etienne as to Todd Terry or Basement Jaxx.
What's most fascinating about "A Different Feeling" is the fact that The Avalanches are not dance musicians per se - they've chosen house as their medium to work within on this track because it seems to fit, but on the album it jostles with cinematic hip hop and Bacharach style pop. It's a risky gambit, but importantly it doesn't seem self-conscious, like so many stabs at dance music by the rock fraternity turn out. Like the aforementioned groups, The Avalanches experiment in order to make joyful music, rather than for experimentalism's sake alone, and if I can't help getting excited about them, it's because this is the first time in a long while that a band's music has seemed so thoroughly out there, and yet at the same time so resolutely alive.
Some thoughts on the album (perhaps even a full article) when I've gotten my head around it.
Some great garage reviews by Gareth Metford at Motion. In this review of Indo's "R U Sleeping" (a Dem 2 sideproject) he discusses the brilliance of Dem 2, which is hard to fault. I've been listening to their new-ish remix of Divine Styler's "Directrix", and by golly they really are "the Dillinja of 2-step". This has the biggest booming kickdrums and most angular groove I've heard since said jungle-master's "Angels Fell". And all this on a remix of a boring Divine Styler track!
Meanwhile here Gareth discusses the strange relationship between garage and early hardcore, arguing that there's almost a hint of irony and distance to the celebration of it. I'm not sure if it's terribly easy to pidgeonhole the nature in which hardcore influences have filtered through garage. In many ways I think of it as being done naturally and neutrally - the two big garage remakes of the year to my mind have been the new versions of "Let Me Be Your Fantasy" and Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me" (which has an absolutely amazing breakdown, I swear!). Despite the fact that one used to be a hardcore track and the other an R&B track, the construction of the remakes and the motivations behind them seem similar, because really they're just great source material that will get the audience hyper.
As a sidenote the best track I heard while out dancing the other night was a remake of a hardcore track whose name I can't remember. Anyway the sampled vocal chorus goes "Can't beat the system/go with da flow", over a real solid blocky breakbeat groove (as hard as I've heard 2-step/breakbeat garage get) and some nice housey synths. The track seemed to gloriously fuse elements of house, hardcore, jungle and garage together, and although I wasn't around for hardcore, it really does seem strange to dance to music with such a vibrant, multi-faceted sense of history. Anyway, if anyone let me know more about this track I'd greatly appreciate it.
Some more thoughts on 4/4 beats in lieu of what Josh is saying re: its crassness. Josh, I think your difficulty with 4/4 beats might be a result of what you were discussing earlier - your possible tendency to hear separately different components of music. The thing about a 4/4 kickdrum is that by itself it is a glorified metronome, but it's rarely the only rhythmic component within the music. A good house/garage (US style) beat has luscious hi-hats that provide a "swing" to the metronomic groove, and that's further emphasised by the interplay between the beat and the bassline. In contrast there's a lot of trance that in my opinion sounds far too metronomic because the kickdrum is unaccompanied by percussion or a bassline, and the treble melody does nothing to hide the remorseless pounding. I think my July 25th entry on Chain Reaction's minimalist house discusses the unique rhythm of house more. Actually I'd be fascinated by your opinion on Chain Reaction-style house, Josh.
I really love En Vogue's "My Lovin' (Never Gonna Get It)". That looped guitar-funk sample, the house beat, the clicking percussion and horn stabs, that skittish flute, but most especially the performance. The En Vogue girls are so on form here, mixing classicism and modernism perfectly. The lead singer lends a dramatic, Destiny Beyonce-like performance, at once both catty and wounded, but it would be rendered useless and overly melismatic without the wonderfully tense, restrained barbershop harmonies in the background (the rising crescendo on the "Ooooh-BOP!" is particularly brilliant). And then, as if it wasn't already absolutely perfect, a male voices announces "And now it's time for a breakdown" and the girls start harmonising the bridge a capella. There are few more stunningly unexpected gambits in pop, and when the beat starts chugging underneath again it's as revitalising as any breakdown in an old hardcore tune (eg. The Prodigy's "Outta Space" or Shut Up & Dance's "The Green Man).
En Vogue were never this good again, sadly, although recently Destiny's Child have picked up the baton for this sort of agressive, edgy, harmony-laden R&B. In many ways what made me become captivated by Destiny's Child late last year (which ultimately led to me becoming a pop tart) was noticing how much they sounded like En Vogue on amphetamines, and realising how attractive that proposition sounded. With groups like En Vogue and Destiny's Child, it's easy to criticise how tied down they are to the conventions of R&B, dismissing them as well-crafted - indeed, the best at what they do - but otherwise indistinct and generally unoriginal. However both groups fascinate me despite, or perhaps because of their limitations. Falling in love with pop music to my mind brings with it the conclusion that individuality is not a requirement, or even necessarily an advantage for quality pop stars. For one, we're talking about two groups here, and though both have suffered line-up changes the defining aspect of both is the interplay between the lead singer and the back-up vocalists, a talent that requires efficiancy and co-operation but does not sit well with quirkiness or other overt displays of personality.
At any rate saying that "My Lovin' (Never Gonna Get It)" and Destiny's Child's best work ("Bills Bills Bills", "Bugaboo") are "generic R&B songs" is like saying that the Titanic was "just a ship" - technically true, but it kinda misses the point, doesn't it?
Some more thoughts on "Pluto" for Josh. Josh, you talk about how "Pluto" sounds really excellent in the context of the rest of Homogenic: "It's hard to separate how I think the music fits in as kind of an emotional high on the album, dance as a mood as it were, from how I think it works on its own." Which I think hits the nail on the head - a lot of the appeal of "Pluto", as with "Alarm Call" immediately before it, is how oppositional it is to the cool formalism of much of the album (as a side-note, I think you can tell a lot about a person dependent on whether the "out of place" track they gravitate toward is "Alarm Call" or "Pluto").
Another question I might ask is, "Would you happily listen to an hour's worth of "Pluto" remixes?" In other words, Josh seems to believe that the music very well in context, and also quite well in isolation, but I wonder whether he'd find the music appealing in a substantial mass. I wonder because Josh also says that he likes how it seems as if "the beat wasn't just an afterthought, or the first thing they laid down," a quality he doesn't seem to find in much house. I'll take that to mean that he thinks the 4/4 beat in "Pluto" sounds purposeful and not ubiquitous. Now this is compositional assessment that I agree with - I like how "Pluto" sounds spastic and jerky despite its steady 4/4 beat, which seems a deliberate juxtaposition.
However in many ways it's an unfair comparison to make, because of course house is built on 4/4 beats, but Bjork rarely uses them, so how could the former's beats not seem ubiquitous and the latter's not seem purposeful? I guess part of it comes down to rock's preference for dynamics and dance music's preference for repetition. Generally with rock music a controlled use of dynamics is seen as "purposeful", while "lapsing" into repetition is considered lazy. There are exceptions - the krautrock of Can and Neu, and on a broader non-rock level there's all the minimalist composers.
However generally the more repetitive strains of rock are musical relaxants, or are at least designed to be listened to in a state of stillness (I'm deliberately ignoring some punk and especially a lot of post-punk because they ruin my argument). Repetitive dance music confounds this by being at once hypnotically repetitive and relentlessly energetic. Now, since the classic expression of energy in rock is through the use of dynamics (classic example: the soft/loud bit in "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), dance music sits uncomfortably with a lot of rock fans: either oppressively repetitive or overwhelmingly energetic. Intelligent techno escapes this by sacrificing either the repetition or the energy (or both), which is probably why so many non-dance fans take to it.
But when you're dancing, the hypnotic energy of the music doesn't seem antithetical at all. The repetitiveness of any given track, and also the repetitiveness of listening to a number of very similar tracks mixed together, seem in fact to be utterly purposeful. On Friday night I went to a bar playing straight techno for a friend's birthday. I don't dance to techno terribly often because I find its subtlety makes it difficult to get into quickly (hence I usually dance to more obvious stuff like house, jungle and UK garage), but after fifteen minutes of dancing half-heartedly I really started getting into it. It's like with music that repetitive, you get to a stage where your mind just voids and your body is the only thing functioning - a trance, but a very energetic one obviously (for the record, I wasn't on any drugs). It didn't hurt of course that I was dancing directly beneath an air vent on a hot summer night, which felt marvelous.
Similarly, I disliked a lot of house for a long time because I found the constant 4/4 beat so repetitive. What changed my mind was actually falling in love with the beat, and realising how essential it is to house music's appeal. To me when I listen to a house track the beat sounds thoroughly purposeful (the purpose being to get you to dance), and ubiquitous only insofar as a guitar riff is a ubiquitous aspect of rock music - it's the near-essential building block upon which a sense of individuality, personality, experimentation etc. is then imposed.
I think it is possible to arrive at that state of mind without dancing, but it's rare. Of course realising it for one type of dance music is not some sort of "get on the dancefloor free" card for all styles. I still find stuff like Belgian techno and gabba, which "Pluto" seems inspired by if not actually identical to, difficult to listen to in long stretches. This is because I can only approximate what their dancefloor appeal would be 'cause I've never been anywhere that plays them. I much prefer to listen to them in isolated doses, or in the context of other stuff, where I can focus on their qualities and not become bored by their appeals which are still beyond me.
Funnily enough, I remember Ned once said that a collection of Bjork's remixes could near-enough constitute a history of nineties dance music, which Tom thought was totally untrue, arguing that Bjork would consider it beneath her to commission a gabba remix. Tom's right - I can't very well see a "Pluto (Sperminator Mix)" in the works - but I wonder if he'd heard "Pluto" at the time.
I'm not sure if Josh's mention of me in his discussion of Bjork's "Pluto" is a veiled insult or not. For the record, I guess I sound (to someone who's generally not a dance fan) like I'm casually using heaps of labels because I'm some presumptuous "insider". But of course obviously I'm coming across music I can't identify all the time, or labels whose meanings elude me. The trick is simply not to be suspicious of labels. Although I find the motivations behind new terms for new styles fascinating, so many people seem to think that new "micro-micro-genres" are invented purely to confound them and their formerly ordered understanding of music. Who would have the time to do that?
Anyway, as for "Pluto", I'm not sure... It's got a bit of Belgian techno/gabba element to it - the high bpm, the repetitiveness of the beat and that riff - but it's a bit too musical and well-produced for gabba, although some recent stuff on PCP (German gabba label) comes close eg. Tilt and Pilldriver tracks. But Josh, I get the feeling you'd hate gabba. You'd probably identify more with the harder artists from the intelligent techno scene - Jega, some Mu-Ziq maybe. Or some minimal techno - Jeff Mills? Robert Hood? Old Plastikman?
It also sounds quite close to the hardest edge of post-acid house - Green Velvet, who I love, and Underworld's "Push Upstairs" and "Moaner". Both of which have the advantage of sung/spoken narratives to keep things a bit interesting for the uninitiated. Because ultimately with something like "Pluto" you have to ask yourself "would I like it if Bjork wasn't on it and it went on for twice as long?" Actually Josh I'm surprised that you like the music on "Pluto" on its own merits (rather than merely as an example of Bjork's irrepresible nature), as I seem to remember you complaining about the 4/4 house beat. If you elaborate maybe, I might be able to help you more.
I was thinking about the similarities and differences between my article on breakbeat garage and my entry on progressive house. In some ways they sound contradictory - I defend the garage scene's reigning aristocracy while dissing the monarchs of prog house - and in others they seem symptomatic of broader prejudices against whatever is touted as the "next big thing". My varying reactions to both are however probably motivated primarily by a distrust of scenes and artists that self-consciously attempt to delineate themselves as somehow superior (especially when they do so by semantic division).
When I was discovering garage last year I was much more excited by the dark underbelly side that would later become "breakbeat garage" than I was by the pop tunes. In my review of the Ministry of Sound compilation mixed by The Artful Dodger, I lauded the darker edge of garage that seemed to be emerging through the pop structure, while attacking MJ Cole as being too smooth and sycophantic to the establishment. What changed? A couple of things: I fell in love with pop music this year for one, and when garage nights started up in Melbourne it was the pop songs that the uninitiated crowd responded to, so I did too. On the other hand (and this may be due to Melbourne crowds more than anything else) I invariably found that the darker tracks fell flat and seemed needlessly minimal and "difficult", even when they sounded fantastic through my headphones. Meanwhile MJ Cole surprised me with a decent album and a brilliant single ("Crazy Love") and remix (the "Y2K Dub" mix of his own "Sincere").
More specfically, I started noticing that it was the underground aspect of garage that was getting all the cred in mainstream magazines (Mixmag, Ministry, Select), usually accompanied by backhanded insults for the "mainstream garage" sound they'd been attempting to ignore for the prior two years. Coupled with the fact the fact that the tracks being held up as supreme examples of this new sound ("Doom's Night", "138 Trek" - both excellent tracks I'll add) were made by outsiders, it occurred to me that the hype around this new scene, while worthy, was probably more a result of the dance cognoscenti trying to assert control over a scene in which they felt powerless.
As with jungle's ascendancy, the UK dance press missed the boat by a wide margin, and as with jungle it isn't surprising that they would jump on any new development within the scene (with jungle it was Bukem-style intelligent drum & bass) in order to erase the memory of their prior bungle. It doesn't hurt to disparage, patronise or ignore any producers who got to the top without their blessing, while simultaneously handpicking who would be the "new heroes" of the scene. I react instinctively against these sorts of attempts to manipulate with a scene, despite the fact that for the large part I love breakbeat garage.
Why I dislike the term progressive house should by now be obvious. I suppose the differences between the rhetoric around progressive house and that around breakbeat garage follows a classic British imperialist structure. I reckon that the dance media consider their beloved club music (house/trance/prog... basically whatever's being played at the Ministry of Sound at any given time) to be synonymous with Britain herself, while all the 'subsidiary' scenes - jungle, garage, breakbeat, minimal techno etc. - are colonies. For club music the overwhelming policy of the dance press press is self-preservation, while for the various colonies the policy is one of orderly regulation and control. The mission is to normalise each scene at all costs and not allow the "natives" to run wild.
Another example of this is the whole "trip-hop" furore. For a long time I didn't understand the whole fuss-and-bother over the term, especially the anger that the artists who fell within its brackets felt. But ultimately the inappropriateness of trip-hop is not the name itself the but the associated ideas it embodies. Hip-hop as a genre is a way of life much like dance music is. Trip-hop however was not only hip hop for intellectual white guys, but also merely a Sunday morning alternative for clubbers, the new ambient house. Trip-hop as a term then has the double effect of being both elitist and patronising.
I guess the hostility that I feel towards this party-line attitude of much of the UK dance press is a result of me being a post-Generation X brat. From the vantage point of being eighteen, I can see how the generation immediately above me has had its voice stifled by the looming presence of the baby boomer generation. Nearly every cultural movement of the last thirty years has been narrated and interpreted by the baby boomers, regardless of their proximity to it or its relevance to them (most infuriating perhaps was the smug American journalist who wrote that the saddest aspect of Kurt Cobain's death was how it detracted from the death of the far more important Jimi Hendrix). People between the ages of twenty and about thirty-five are still waiting for their views to be regarded as worth considering.
However a sizable proportion of the following generation have obviously attempted to console themselves by becoming the permanent tastemakers of all the 'alternative' cultural movements considered beneath the dignity of the babyboomers and their Beatles collections. And of course their elitism doesn't just operate along lines of age (although in dance music if you don't remember acid house then you're not worth your salt), but also race, gender and in certain senses class. It's not so much a direct dismissal of all the musical movements these elites weren't originally associated with, but rather a refusal to believe that they aren't necessarily the people who should be presenting and interpreting these new sounds for the masses. Why are scenes like UK Garage always "this year's thing" rather than a legitimate musical scene? Because it suits the dance press to keep it that way, while reinforcing the sound they created or discovered first as the perennial "people's choice" - the quality music that's in it for the long haul.
I know that my generation are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, but I wish that more people would stop clutching their copies of "Where Love Lives" to their chests and fondly remembering the first time they heard Paul Oakenfold spin and just enjoy the here and now for a change. It's really not that hard.