Australian writer Jonathan Dale tackles microhouse, and automatically renders any forthcoming attempts (including mine!) somewhat obsolete. This is great stuff - basically the sum it all up 'n' tie it all together job that probably a lot of you were waiting for (but Jonathan: where's the promised top five albums??). Read the rest of his site The Astronaut's Notepad as well - there's some seriously good stuff here.
Ha ha that last post was really unformed wasn't it? Sorry, I had to rush off to work at the time but I wanted to post something so as to keep myself regular-like.
Currently listening to Green Velvet's Whatever for the first time(s) (my year-long fear of import prices paid off as now I have an Australian release review copy with a bonus disc). It's an odd - if predictably invigorating - listen, at least coming to it from the angle of first single and first track "La La Land", which I've loved for what seems like forever. "La La Land" is in some ways a throwback to "Answering Machine" et. al - funny, a bit camp but most importantly groovy, its buzzy loop tearing through the brain so deliciously, its beats stomping so convulsively. It's undeniably 'house', especially when you hear it in a house set snuggling up to something like, I dunno, The Ones' "Flawless" or something. In fact I think a case could be made for "La La Land" being Green Velvet's ultimate dance anthem, with all his appealing attributes boiled'n'pared down to a ripsnorter of mammoth minimalism, effect and addiction.
In contrast, much of the rest of Whatever is Green Velvet at his most dry and dessicated, with every last fleeting remnant of house's fleshy succulence hunted down and eradicated. It's not that there's been any radical breaks with the backcatalogue; rather, roughly half of Whatever feels like the culmination of a series of gradual and very slight repositionings that began with the hints of post-punk moodiness that began to creep into Jones' late nineties' tracks. The transition seems complete here, or at least it seems to have arrived at some plateau of completeness: "Genedefekt" is bleepy, bouncing drama-pop along the lines of "La La Land", but it's much more nervous and shrill - house so wired that it's not house anymore. In fact this is as much like the early industrial-pop of Nitzer Ebb and their ilk (it goes without saying that Jones could have easily and perfectly scored The Living End) as it is house music of any sort.
There's a certain flashy self-directed misanthropy at work that informs both Jones's charged performances and the harsh texture of the grooves, and both make me feel like he's going to work on me (my ears; my body) with a wad of steel wool. Add to this the surprising stridency of the lyrics, which on Genedefekt decry the use of drugs to sedate a generation of freaks and dissidents with a gallows humour severity, and it seems like Green Velvet is ever-so-slowly tip-toeing out of dance hedonism altogether. Even more blatant are the militant chants of "Stop Lyin'" and "Gat" - "Stop lying! Speak the truth!" and "This is not a fucking phase! Stop fucking with me!" respectively. The latter abandons the house beat almost completely in favour of a gabba-esque snare rush, funkless and mindless in its destructive release of energy.
I'm not sure whether the more typical Green Velvet torture-house grooves that make up about half of the album are disappointing or relieving - yes it's worth noting that Jones has been working this patch for almost ten years (but when you've got a shtick this good, why wouldn't you?), but at the same time these concessions to danceability, dark and harrowing in isolation, provide a small measure of comfort within the context of this more flagellant collection. It's this perspective shift that makes Whatever a worthwhile companion to Green Velvet's nineties round-up compilation (The Nineties, duh) - we're now at least one step closer to understanding the evil genius of the king.
I was going to say that Ms. Jade was "merely" the Mya of rap, by which I mean that she rises and falls on the strength of her producers, hooks and guest raps like Mya does. Only then I remembered how often I like Mya-for-Mya - her bravely fragile ingenuity, her silky pristineness - whereas I still haven't quite worked out whether I like Jade-for-Jade much. Which sounds perhaps a bit harsher than I intend it to be, as does the fact that the word I'm grasping for might be "indistinctive" (or "generic"?). Jade is Lil' Kim without the intimidation, Foxy Brown without the neurosis, Eve without the insousciant skill.
Leaving aside the obligatory femme-to-femme comparisons, Jade reminds me a bit of Noreaga, startling me with the occasional great line or couplet, but otherwise being exceedingly competent at allowing her thick, faintly nasal flow to fade into the beat, rhyming so rhythmically on-point that it's barely there, just another sonic component (cf. um... Jay-Z? The way he raps against the groove, y'know?). Of course it always takes ages for the words to sink in for me, so I shouldn't be surprised that the only Jade moment that stays with me concretely is when she says "chet-tar" instead of "cheddar" for the purposes of rhyming. Although I quite like "the smell of money got my trigger finger acting funny" too, and her seductive drawl throughout "Big Head" is tops. Luckily for Jade the beats she fades into are usually pretty great so I'm prepared to stick with it and see if anything more memorable surfaces.
Timbaland produces all but two tracks on Girl Interrupted, and his presence heavily permeates every moment here (even the dirty bass-funk of the oblig. Neptunes track "The Come Up" sounds more like Timbo than their usual fare). Unlike his own or Missy's albums though he refrains from giving Girl Interrupted a consistent stylistic persona, and this flits from ethno-shimmer to grimey buzz to minimal intensity with an impatient bang-or-bust mentality. As a result the album is somewhat patchy, but it's also the most densely chromatic Timbaland album since maybe 100% Ginuwine (although with little of that great album's occasionial epic feel).
There's also some moments of startling greatness, my favourite of which may be "Dead Wrong", which reminds me of "Poppin' Tags" off the new Jay-Z album in that it tries to join together as many divergent production impulses as possible - in this case juddering stutter-beats, low-slung Nate Dogg croon choruses, hyperactive rave riffs and shrilly dramatic Indian strings - as if to say, "yeah, I'm the definitive modern rap track!" It's also a great showcase for Ms. Jade's aforementioned sensitivity to rhythm, as she subtly switches her flow between fast and slow, placing each word with perfect precision even if it's hard to care about what she's actually saying.
Also great: the fluttering, pivoting funk of "Get Away", which stops and starts with almost self-parodic intensity and enormity (that plus the brilliantly weird R&B chorus almost make up for Jade's moments of exceptionally awful rhyming). I'd love to give this groove to Eve, as it captures that same sense of strutting, unconcerned superiority as her best tracks, and she could probably match it with the attitude that Jade lacks.
Actually, no, the best track simply has to be the almost year-old advance single Feel The Girl - has Timbaland ever come up with a groove as mindcrushingly compulsive as this dancehall-falling-down-the-stairs beat? Probably, but when it's playing I'm unlikely to listen to reason (also, those weird Timbaland seagulls screaming throughout the chorus!). And another fine display of pacing from Ms Jade.
I've not yet listened to it enough to pronounce upon its greatness or otherwise (on first listen I'm going with "pretty good") but it annoys me that the Big Dada label compilation Extra Yard is being billed as presenting this grand new sound - 'bouncement' - that supposedly combines hip hop, garage and dancehall into a thrilling new genre-busting superstyle. What they mean is that it's dancehall flavoured hip hop, which has a high likelihood of being great, but is hardly anything new; at any rate I've yet to hear any dancehall/rap fusions as consummate and enjoyable as those on Foxy Brown's last album.
If you want a great UK hip hop compilation, I reiterate my recommendation of Plus One's Champion Sounds comp put out by DMC a few months ago. More populist than Extra Yard, to be sure, but that's precisely why it's superior. Plus it's more energetic, more diverse, more plain fun. Plus it features the only "true" "bouncement" group that I know of, namely Fallacy & Fusion, whose "The Groundbreaker" actually does rather cleverly dissolve hip hop, dancehall and garage into eachother (and don't even get me started on Fallacy & Plus One's fan-fucking-tastic "Special").
But why do we really need a garage/rap fusion when that fusion is already happening in garage anyway? With its squelchy synths, martial rhythm and scary scary baritone toasting, Flo Dan's "Big Mic Man" is as convincing a stab at raggafied UK hip hop as anything New Flesh have done (no, more convincing, no matter how much I like "Lie Low" or "More Fire"), but psychically it occupies the space of garage - hard, fast, unpretentious. Which is not to say the garage-rap renders UK hip hop irrelevant or obsolete (the latter is too frequently great and inventive for that) but rather that garage certainly doesn't need saving by the hip hop cognoscenti.
While I'm loathe to link to Reynolds over and over again like the fanboy I am, he's largely spot on with his comments on the harder'n'faster nu strains of garage. Like Jess, I've spent my time gathering my thoughts on the Horsepower Productions album because, while I rilly rilly love it, having the whole thudding thing makes me think that I probably don't want to hear much more stuff from them unless they switch up their style dramatically. Excepting the Jameson/DND/Menta (ie. populist) end, the dubplate/hyperdub continuum can be really furrow-browed and fun-hating sometimes, especially when taken on its own - speaking of which, can we agree that Darqwan has been an utter disappointment throughout '02?
Horsepower are comparatively light-hearted (I agree with Reynolds that their sound is more Hidden Agenda, even early Reprazent maybe, rather than Optical) but I really really wish they'd included some vocal tracks a la the deliriously beautiful "One You Need", or not cut out the Elephant Man's toasting on "Log On". Everything is gorgeous and succulent of course, but only HP's production finesse and rhythmic perscipacity rescues In Fine Style from being another fiasco like that Mo'Wax instrumental dancehall album - otherwise great riddims but missing the charisma, the focus, the energy, the point. Of course HP never get quite that bad because they aren't entirely rejecting all the "troublesome" stuff - In Fine Style is riddled with what sound like after-images of R&B, hip hop, ragga jungle, dancehall - but it wouldn't hurt their already great formula to embrace it a bit more (I wonder as well whether Simon has heard "Ring The Alarm", which seems to be the ultimate fusion of all the good parts of garage).
Compare/contrast with these Femme Fatale sets I've been listening to which, while frequently crossing over into dubplate territory, flit between pop fizz to raw-to-the-core toasting so easily, so unconcernedly that comparisons to late nineties drum & bass couldn't apply less. Here we have harsh, stiff-jointed electro rubbing shoulders with frigid-sounding 4/4, with reggaefied rap, with still-flickering remnants of R&B 2-step, and with genuine back-to-97 Todd Edwards speed garage like it's perfectly natural for one genre name to encompass all these divergent impulses.
Simon notes that the "gangsta" element is the crucial addition to the equation of "garage" and "gabba" - the other thing to note is how rough'n'ready and basically banged-out-of-the-studio everything still sounds. By '98, the studio gentrification of jungle was complete, with producers obsessively micro-managing every little bass-modulation and snare-drum while ignoring the pull of a good tune and a firing rhythm (I was interviewing Lemon D the other week and he was going on and on about the importance of tweaking the right bass sound - the whole time I was thinking "yeah, but who but you even cares if you haven't come up with a good tune in years?"). Garage meanwhile sounds as lo-fi and hook-focused as ever, especially since the R&B-aping gloss has faded. The result is that producers end up relying on dynamic and novelty rather than technical proficiency, a tendency that is almost always more likely to push things forward. The two biggest tracks at the moment - that Missy remix and Gemma Fox and Musical Mob's "Messy" - exploit the sheer outrageousness of mixing femme-pop catchiness with bludgeoning apocalypse-beats, in the process pushing the genre into more extreme hinterlands of light/dark implausibility. Meanwhile the hilarious anti-drug rant of Donae'O's "Bounce" manages to sound like a British Busta Rhymes while stealing attention with its irresistible hook, "Don't do drugs! Don't do guns! Just have sex!"
The best thing on Femme Fatale's current set however is, surprisingly, the Basement Mix of Artful Dodger's "Ruff Neck Sound" (the first track played). Artful Dodger have been trying to reconnect with the rest of the scene since the MOR-half left to produce R&B, but instead of chasing the scene this remix projects radically ahead: Richie Dan's ragga croon whines and moans perfectly over insane bhangra rhythms, dreamy bollywood vocals and dramatic strings, while underneath the main beats switch between ominously pacing dancehall and frenetic garage, putting me in mind of the half-speed interludes in "Ring The Alarm", and really this track is in the same league. If you think garage is on its last legs (or if you don't!), check it now.
Like, other than American Gigolo my favourite electroclash compilation this year is definitely is Miss Kittin's Berlin is Burning, which mixes her stuff with Michael Mayer with Felix Da Housecat with Ellen Alien with Pan Sonic. The point of this wonderfully brittle, prickly collection is not electroclash's radical break with 'proper' dance music but its continuity. In his article Simon talks about the link between dance music and ecstasy (and drug-use generally), and suggests that electroclash severs this link with its return to songs and personalities. This seems fairly natural to me: apart from the commodity-rave approach of the superclubs, the "club culture" of the last decade has rarely focused around ecstasy - I'm sure my older sister, who is much more focused on "club culture" as a social force in and of itself, would consider ecstasy to be quite prole. For the drinkin'n'dancin' elite, cocaine has been the primary social lubricant for ever and ever - witness its role in phased disco & French house, speed and 2-step garage - and as such the coke-primed electroclash sound represents not a hyped alternative to club culture but rather its ultimate conclusion, a triumph of "club" values over "rave" values that has been on the cards ever since the club/rave split.
So far so good, but knowing that the cocaine vs ecstasy conflict was a staged beat-up, the concept of ordinary dance music and electroclash being separate and distinct seems odd (BTW if you're wondering this is no longer a critique of Simon's piece but some general thoughts on the subject) - as Simon notes, the return to songs is hardly a phenomenon exclusive to electroclash, and as Miss Kittin's mix suggests, electroclash "values" in no way entail a denunciation of delirium or psycho-physical abandonment on the dancefloor. The implication of an adherence to songs is an adherence to sobriety (ie. songs entail (control of) consciousness, purpose, meaningful narrative); on Berlin is Burning this adherence is not nearly so clear-cut. Yeah, there's "songs" like Dot Allison's "Substance" and Miss Kittin's "Rippin' Kittin" and "Frank Sinatra", but they're mired within stretches of stark, almost harrowing minimalism and eroto-compulsive groove reflexes, coalescing as moments of relative of clarity before sinking back into murkiness. For a literal example, see how the burbling "Substance" slides down into the amusical grind of T Raumshmiere's "Energiekrisse" - a dirge that wouldn't be nearly so interesting out of context. Michael Mayer's "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" equates song with dirge, its whump-whump sonic sizzle and ghostly male monologue not merely depriving Sade's composition of its songfulness, but actually taking the song into a no man's land of anti-songfulness.
And anyway these are rarely "songs" in the conventional sense - electroclash largely reverses house's traditional preference for emotion over meaning in vocals, but the results can be oddly similar. Stripped of the emotional peaks and valleys that accompany "proper" singing, the empty monotone chant-speak of the typical electroclash vocalist evokes a sense of detached infinity, coupled with an unconcerned suspicion that these songs could go on forever and never arrive at a conclusion (a perception not hindered by those endless-hook looping bass riffs). In this sense it's like house; the difference is that detachment implies isolation, ossification; and indeed I get the impression that the delirium on an electroclash dancefloor would be a peculiarly discrete and private one - losing yourself in the dancing but not with the dancing. But as any fan of minimal techno to hard drum & bass to 2-step will tell you, feelings of anti-connectivity are hardly uncommon on the dancefloor.
My favourite sorts of delirium on Berlin is Burning are those where the psychic disconnectivity is translated into a more literal musical disconnectivity. The Barbara Morgenstern's remix of Ellen Allien's "Stadtkind", draws on microhouse and don't-call-it-IDM to create a skittering, chimeric brand of electro-pop that sounds impossibly open-ended, all compulsively stabbing rhythms, glistening synth textures, distressed cut-up vocals and allusions to the abandoned fleshiness of house. The structure of electroclash survives, but it falls prey to such divergent impulses that the music seems on the verge of ripping itself apart. Away from Berlin is Burning, Ellen Allien's own tracks like "Data Romance" and "Edbeermund" walk a similar tightrope between IDM abstraction, electroclash frigidness and house groove, while her mix cd Weiss.Mix casts its net wider to take in any sort of uncomfortable, wired groove it can find (Archetype's "Track B1" is wired electro soca-beat!). I'm not saying electro has to be as fucked-up (and IDM-ish) as Weis.Mix to be worthwhile - far from it - but it seems to me that there's a hell of a lot of margin-walking going on, which can only be good for this by-all-accounts strictly retrograde scene. At any rate, while not pooh-poohing the song-focus of electroclash at all, I think an investigation of this inherent tendency towards delirium is the way to go. Need a blueprint for delerious songfulness? 2-step, of course.
...And then of course there's Sascha Funke's "When Will I Be Famous?", which combines electro, house and pop so consummately that you almost wonder why anyone else is still bothering.
This very good Simon Reynolds thinkpiece on electroclash (notable for quoting one of my, ahem, "rare" moments of derivativeness) is much more comprehensive and balanced than I expected given the recent negative sentiments expressed on his blog. I distrust unequivocal electroclash-sceptics as much as the hype-generators - there's just too many good tunes floating around to dismiss this stuff out of hand (and it looks like Simon's heard a hell of a lot of them). Personally I find the idea behind the scene to be as boring as anything; the fact that so much great music results from surprises but also pleases.
I'm still waiting for an article on this stuff that explores further the odd resonance that electroclash shares with other current music - one that talks about Kompakt and Girls On Top and Brandy's "What About Us" in the same breath as Adult and Fischerspooner. Any volunteers?
Ms Jade - Get Away Who said Timbaland needs to switch up his beats??? Bounce for me. Also: great "don't step to me, bitch!" anthem.
Horsepower Productions - Django's Sound Either Mouse On Mars get on some horny Oriental action, or some belly-dancing weasels create havoc at the banquet (AKA: how it sounds versus how it looks).
DJ Sammy - Boys of Summer Pristine and perfect, a drop of dew gathering weight at the end of a leaf at sunrise.
BJ Caruana - Bump BJ is sillier than Danii, but "Bump" is as more-more-more explosive as "At Night". It's a similar idea actually (what if we combined girlish pop with an itchy-as-hell electro-house groove?), but subtly shifted from the "house" side of the equation to the "pop" side. Great for the first ten minutes out of the shower. That translates as three plays back to back.
Kylie Minogue - Come Into My World (Fischerspooner Mix) Or there's this: girlish house-pop transformed into compulsive end-of-the-world electro dirge. Not yer average minimalist grind (thank god, actually) but a fizzy high-dynamics machine breakdown that ends up much more catchy than the gauzy original.
Missy Elliot - Work It (garage remix) Weird confluence between Timbaland's new-fangled buzzy electro beats and garage's new-fangled buzzy electro beats: Missy shifts from sexy to urgent, the music from slimy to aggressive, but really this is just a very, very good trick of perspective.
Also on the punisher-garage tip: Soulo's "Switch"! Slammin!
I've finished all my exams and essays for the year, so maybe I'll be able to update this more frequently for a while - at least until I move out home and lose the internet completely! I'm currently working on some longer pieces for your consumption, but in the meantime I suggest you do as I do and listen to this pretty great Femme Fatale (sho' nuff good garage dj) set from last Saturday on the BBC website - found with the help of Sci-Fi Paul. Opening track Gemma Fox's "Messy (Musical Mob Mix)" is another one of those great '02 tracks on a punisher-femme-cyborg tip - see also Menta's "Ramp", the slamming bootleg of Missy's "Work It", the D'N'D remixes of Ashanti's "Happy", Stush's "Dollar Sign" etc.