Listening: Subliminal Sessions Two,mixed by Harry "Choo
Thinking: Fuck me, this is excellent.
I've been waiting for a house compilation to come
along that might really make a statement about where
mainstream house (as opposed to niche stuff eg.
microhouse) should be going, and this is about the
most convincing argument I can think of. More than
that, it's the most compulsive house mix I've heard
in absolutely ages.
First disc has too
many classic moments to speak of (literally heaps
of hits here: Junior Jack's intensely sleazy/sleazily
intense "Thrill Me"; Green Velvet's scouringly
anthemic "La La Land"; Par T One's thrillingly
thuggish "I'm So Crazy") and is the most
on-form hour of straight dance music that I can
think of. What's the style that Romero is pushing?
Darkly sexy, dirty house music, basically. That's
a bit broad though, and this mix sounds too programmatic,
too eager to connote a new movement, to be explained
Perhaps what is
happening here is this: what I'm hearing is the
cream of various house movements and moments being
jammed together, specifically all those moments
that seem to best capture that hint of dangerous
sex that always flirts around house's borders. So
there's the snatches of squiggly nu-acid hysteria
in the rough-hewn riffs and compulsive moroderesque
grooves, the overheated excess of tribal house,
the cold friction of International Deejay Gigolos-style
electro, the too-real dazzle of the harder end of
french house and disco cut-ups. What really distinguishes
this stuff is how oddly masculine it sounds;
not masculine in terms of either laddishness or
abstraction, but rather in its need to flex its
own muscles, its urge to break stuff, its uncouth
extremity (lotsa ghetto-tech style swearing and
"La La Land"
and "I'm So Crazy" stand as twin poles
acting as pop ambassadors for this new trend. What
I love about "La La Land", and what sets
it apart from other Green Velvet material is how
celebratory it is. Other GV tracks are anthemic,
but they're dreadfully ironic anthems, deriving
a sort of pained satisfaction from their own pleasurelessness.
On "La La Land" however, Velevt sounds
unabashedly pleased with his own self-destructive
practices. "Something about those little pills/unreal/the
thrills they yield/until they kill/a million brain
cells" could be hectoring, but Velvet's performance
makes it clear that he relishes the comedown. Meanwhile
the groove is Velvet stripped down to his raw core:
a blisteringly brutal acid riff that's looped into
stop-start monotony over endlessly pumping beats,
improbably forming a thoroughly addictive hook.
"La La Land",
because it's so pop-friendly, feels like the closest
Velvet's gotten to industrial pop, and in some process
of stylistic osmosis it gains a sort of boy-friendly
vibe; you could imagine guys pumping iron to this,
all the while certain that the pills in question
are steroids and not club drugs, and likewise heavy
metallers vis a vis tranquilisers. It's ecstasy-flashbacks
that I get with "La La Land", and I can
remember quite clearly the sort of hysteria it inspires.
I've always been a bit of a stomping dancer, and
this is the sort of track that makes you (or, at
least, me) want to drive your feet into the ground,
to ground your body against the floor, the dancing
of equivalent of going at your existence with a
clump of steel wool.
Even more thuggish
and even more endlessly irresistible is Par-T-One's
I'm So Crazy". The point of the mix when "I'm
So Crazy" first begins to coalesce out of Recycled
Loops' awesome Moroder-grind "Ex-Machina Ad
Astra", in the form of high-pitched comic wails
way off in the distance, is possibly my favourite
of the entire album. With its driving guitar riffs
and deadbeat punkish vocals, "I'm So Crazy"
is the track that I instantly thought of when Reynolds
recently complained of there being no other tracks
like Basement Jaxx's "Where's Your Head At?"
It's less all-conquering than that monster-tune,
but "I'm So Crazy" is perhaps more indicative
of future developments, as its bittiness (the riffs,
the cut-up vocals, the fact that it derives its
rawk straight from INXS) makes it resemble a toolbox,
as opposed to the finished creation that is Basement
Jaxx's masterpiece. It's very easy to imagine a
rash of follow-up tunes to this, although of course
there's no guarantee that said follow-ups will be
Also unlike "Where's
Your Head At?", "I'm So Crazy" literally
sounds like rock stapled onto a house template,
with the associated levels of messiness and inspiration.
It's the collision of forms that I love:
this is not punk-house, but pun*^8*#fhg&33ouse,
the two genres smashing into eachother with a force
that's thrilling, a wrongness that's jarring (no
wonder it's the peak of any Avalanches dj set).
You can sort of understand the gist of Reynolds'
complaint - there needs to be more music like this,
Disc 2 doesn't quite
live up to disc 1's energetic pound; this is partially
due to the fact that there's more tribal/latin flavoured
tunes which, though still of a high quality, just
don't sound as necessary or as inspiring as the
hard jacking tracks that Romero otherwise favours
here (Wolf'n'Flow's "I'm Feelin' Moody (A Moody
Dub)" for example is as great as its title
would suggest). After a while though the second
set builds into a fantastically spacey dub-flavoured
effort, still pumping away furiously, but supplementing
the pulse with a wealth of spectral dub effects
and tricks. In particular the stretch taking in
Piliavin & Zimbardo's "Just Once",
Rino Cerrone's "Timeless" and Chris Cowie's
"Da Loop" reaches a level of hypnotic
abstraction that resembles a harder version of Force
Tracks' Hypercity compilation. The best is
saved for last though with L'More's gorgeous Felix
Da Housecat-rip, "Taking Hold Of Me",
a glorious mixture of disco whoosh and prickly synth
burbles. To summarise: a fantastic release that
you pretty much can't go wrong with.
Savvy I've recently
been enjoying the whole electro-revival thing a
whole heap - Peaches, Felix Da Housecat, Dopplereffekt
and especially the International Deejay Gigolos
stable, whose new compilation American Gigolos
rocks quite comprehensively (more on that later).
But if there's a single artist within this movement
that really captures my attention, its the smooth-talkin'
babe-stalkin' Taylor Savvy.
to much of the quickly emerging electro-revival
status quo: his schtick, like that of his labelmate
Peaches, is basically filthy sex-obsessed monologues
half-sung, half-rapped over electro beats and whining
eighties synthesisers. What distinguishes Taylor
from Peaches, and indeed the rest of the current
crop of electro-shock artists, is where the "Savvy"
in his moniker comes into play. What Taylor brings
to the table is a lounge-singer's charm, a Wildean
manservant's sensitivity, and a second-hand car
salesman's smarminess, all of which are combined
with the expected smut to form a great mixture of
class and ass. Imagine DJ Assault coming on all
Fred Astaire ("Good Friends"), ABC's pompous
aristo-pop documenting stalker fantasies ("Window
Knocking"), or Depeche Mode's Martin Gore as
comedy routine ("Jealousy").
With its sticky
electro beats and blurting acid blips, "Jealousy"
is as sharp and sexy as anything on International
Deejay Gigolos, but its lugubrious tempo, delicate
intro, mournful melodies and hammed-up harmonies
lend it a cheaply bittersweet air (the song itself
feels like it's been around and comforted a few
too many girls crying into their pillows); combine
this with Taylor's smooth croon and vaguely disquieting
lyrics ("Say, have you been diagnosed with
jealousy? Feel that rock inside your stomach, it's
crazy!" - it doesn't mean much, but it's all
in the delivery) and it's clear what mood is being
created here. Taylor's the sleazy but solicitous
loverman, caring tenderly for each and every innocent
young lambette who wanders into his diocese. A smutty
but pastoral Lothario, Taylor combines the unabashed
filth of Peaches with the sophisticated artfulness
of Stephen Merrit, frequently surprising me with
the formal loveliness of his melodies and charm
of his rinky-dink arrangements (the combination
of unabashed sweetness and roccoco ambition reminds
me of the Future Bible Heroes album, actually).
Wookie - Far
How abstract is too abstract, hmm? The intro to
"Far East" is fantastically foreboding
but forebodingly furrow-browed, a great-but-worrying
blend of eerie eastern drone and abtruse breakbeat
rhythms that screams Photek circa '96. But just
when I'm about to dismiss the track as a step too
far towards darkside humourlessness, this little
mnemonic piccolo hook comes in to save the day and
suddenly we're back in the familiar Wookie-land
of billowing bass burbles (something about Wookie
always makes me feel like I need to come on all
pretentious...) and edgy, addictively slippery grooves.
There is definitely
something about "Far East" that reminds
me of that moment in jungle's progression when techstep
started to get a bit ambitious and cinematic, stretching
towards neurofunk's clinical atmospherics-of-fear.
It's not Photek that I think of though - it's Source
Direct, who shared with Photek a frigid paranoia,
the sense of shadows lurking in huge black surroundings
(black on black, visions you can't see etc.), but
wrapped it all up in a compulsive urge to dance.
Like, flailing your limbs about is the only way
to keep whatever's out to get you at arm's length.
Wookie's trademark bass sound makes him perhaps
the most instantly recognisable producer in UK Garage,
but otherwise chalk this up next to Darqwan's "Nocturnal":
another slice of garage that exploits 2-step's denial
of release to generate an undeniable level of
Sticky ft. Lady
Stush - Dollar Sign Speaking
of the dangers of abstraction, I was a bit disappointed
with Sticky's last monsta-hit "Triplets",
whose scientific pose and amusing gimmicks (mock-classical
strings, waveform bass) couldn't hide a strange
and ultimately debilitating lack of groove aka sexiness
aka the very thing that makes 2-step work. So it's
great to see him back to doing what he does best:
introducing abstraction to a sexy vixen and pushing
them both into bed together.
So this is sort
of like "Booo!" (song of 2001!) part 2:
there's the jerky stop-start beats played by robots,
the baleful but contained bassline growling tersely,
the irreverent dancehall diva taunting the listener
imperiously on top. But Lady Stush is definitely
her own badgirl - if Dynamite inspires something
like devotion mixed with inadequacy, my reaction
to Stush is a combination of fascination and incomprehension.
This girl's accent is so thick that half of her
performance is totally barred to me apart fom the
purely aural enjoyment of her chatter. The only
constant is a refrain, a need to reiterate that
"it's ALL about Stush!", squealed with
such raucous delight that you can even imagine Lil'
Kim being somewhat intimidated by this Lady's brazen
attraction of these dancehall divas?" I wonder
to myself. Why do I find them endlessly fascinating,
tirelessly entertaining, pretty much the only type
of pop "character" that 's absolutely
guaranteed to captivate me these days? Maybe it's
some subverted camp thing; while most gay men idolise
female stars who embody the glamour and the dignity
that they simultaneously yearn for, for me it's
the dancehall diva's thrillingly alien sexuality
mixed with power that both entices and inspires
envy. These are living, breathing, spitting praying
mantises; it's obvious from the get-go that either
Stush or Dynamite could eat you alive as soon as
look at you.
Apart from these
wonderful ladies, what is great about both "Booo!"
and "Dollar Sign" is how Sticky utilises
their charisma to carry intensely minimal arrangements,
in the process exposing the essential inescapable
strangeness of 2-step. "Dollar Sign" is
even more minimal than its predecessor (its sly
groove actually reminds me of Richie Boy and DJ
Klasse's peerless, pivotal "Madness On The
Streets"), and maybe isn't as all-round excellent
as "Booo!", not quite matching its hectic
live feel. Instead it's more fun, more sexy, more
shameless in its replacement of the "song"
with a brilliant three-minute strut. ten-twenty-five
Saw the video for
Mis-Teeq's "B With Me" on TV this morning.
The single as released is the Bump & Flex 2-step
remix, which I don't think works as well songwise
as the original, more sultry R&B version, but
as a groove and as a single it's the perfect
move. I love how Mis-Teeq's singles have felt like
such deliberate, measured steps - the hyperactive
garage of "Why" and "All I Want"
was of course great, but "One Night Stand"
suggested a broader vision: slick R&B, thrillingly
spiked by dancehall and garage interludes.
I prefer Sunship's garage remix of "One Night
Stand" to the original R&B version, but
it actually sounds righter simply inserted
as a segment, especially when you watch the video
clip and you see the dancing speed up and the girls
attempt to mime their own cut-up vocals. The dancehall
bit is even better though: MC-girl Su-Elise's black
and red hair looks fabulous, and her sudden rap
is so wonderfully startling in the midst of such
an accomodating pop song.
"B With Me"
is both the corrective and the next step: the return
to garage is wise because it makes Mis-Teeq more
distinct, more necessary. The remix is pretty
good too, with its snapping beats, sickly sounding
bass and glitzy, too-fast horns. It's not better
than the original, but it feels much more commanding
and regal. The real treat though is how this single's
interlude totally raises the stakes by having Su-Elise
toast over dancehall-garage. "MY TIME! SHOWTIME!
HOOK LINE! LET'S ROLL! LET'S RIDE!", she shouts,
ushering in urgent soca beats and booming bass hits
that she raps over like a rodeo jockey. Su-Elise
is the consummate garage MC, not rapping about much
except how good her flow is and how much fun everyone's
having with this cool tune that's playing. But that's
totally enough - what I love about her is her style,
her flair, how she says everything with absolute
conviction no matter how silly it is, how she says
It's hard not to
be struck by how much more charismatic, more stunning,
more all-round impressive Su-Elise is than either
of her rather anonymous co-singers (she even sings
better). Even more than Ms. Dynamite, she's the
British pop icon I think I'd love to be right
now. Above and beyond her character, what attracts
isthe way she sits at the nexus of all these
black British impulses, dissolving garage, R&B,
hip hop and dancehall into a glorious mixture that's
held together by the sheer force of her personality.
On "B With Me" she manages to introduce
thirty seconds of absolute alienness into the pop
landscape, plunging to levels of rough compulsion
hitherto unimaginable on Top of the Pops. Can't
wait 'till she goes solo.
What Blue have that
Westlife lack are options. The Westlife project
reminds me of the frail old man in 'Amelie' who
devotes his life to painting and repainting the
same artwork that's not even his anyway. Only Westlife
lack even the myriad of subtleties which that character
can amuse himself with, as their still-lifes are
far too static, clearly-etched and impersonal, the
musical equivalent of a competently rendered bowl
of fruit. Each song restates and reaffirms the central
Westlife tenant: Mr. X Westlife loves you and would
do anything for you... up to and including cutting
out his heart and removing his sexual organs and
offering them up to you on a plate with some cous-cous.
None of their songs that I can remember offhand
deviate from this path (note: I haven't heard their
Blue follow the
Spice Girls model, with each single from their first
album striking a radically different pose and offering
a new perspective on matters of the heart: 1) righteous
indignation; 2) unabashed lust; 3) lovestruck swooning.
What I like about the Blue story in particular is
how much of a coherent narrative those first three
songs paint. Mr. Blue (who I visualise as Lee, 'cause
he's the cutest and he sings the most) starts off
all icy, impregenable cool in "All Rise"
- the legal metaphors get a bit grating I'll admit
but it's an effective way of getting across the
conversion to cool, passionless reason. Second single
"Too Close", like "All Rise",
was nice but flawed. I like the female answer-back
bits, the deathless disco bassline, the suaver-than-Five
dancing in the video, but as a song it's a bit weak,
a bit too easy to sing along to before you've even
What saves it is
Lee, who I liked even before I saw him; his vocals
are so deceptively light, so delicately restrained
as they glide melliflously through his segments.
As with Ja Rule on "I'm Real (Remix)"
what Lee captures is a strangely convincing sense
of newfound, unexpected gentleness (Lee was clearly
always going to the be the "gentle one"
from day one, but I'll conveniently ignore that).
It's about warring impulses held in check: you can
tell this guy really wants to, well, you know, but
the perfection of the moment (this beautiful girl
dancing up close next to him) is too fragile to
break. It gives "Too Close", otherwise
just a bit too smooth, a crucial tension, a hint
of complexity beneath the surface.
"If You Come
Back" is the marvel though, perhaps my favourite
pop-ballad since Britney's "Born To Make You
Happy". It's a similar song too: an overwrought
but briskly paced epic about not being able to live
without your significant other. Blue are coming
from the opposite direction to Britney though: with
Britney, what thrilled was the move from acquiescent
enslavement to an acknowlegement of the chains that
bound her, the somewhat dreadful realisation that
"I'm in chains, but I still want this".
With Blue it's the more tried-and-true, "I
thought I didn't need anybody and I could just be
a playboy but oh shit this is really affecting me".
It's more conventional I'll admit but it's still
dynamic; the important point is that these realisations
occur over the course of a number of songs, so you're
watching pop stars in transformation, and like Britney
with Blue it's happening early enough to be believable,
almost authentic. I'm glad I've discovered Blue
through their singles, with the attendant staggered
radio play and videos. Encountering them for the
first time via MP3 or with a full album just wouldn't
be the same.
"If You Come
Back", then, is the grand finale, the crushing
epiphany, and it's got just the right amount of
pomp to it too. Musically it resembles the grandiose
pop-as-architecture ambition of a Backstreet Boys
ballad filtered through the acoustic-R&B of
Craig David, negotiating the soaring strings and
the mildly stuttering beat, the gorgeously sighing
backing vocals and the stop-start guitar arrangement
with an organic aplomb that obscures the joins.
Vocally it's up there with the Backstreet Boys as
well, for while there's less of a unified front
the singers play off eachother perfectly. Check
the first verse where Simon's seriousness segues
into Anthony's earnestness into Lee's impossibly
passionate outburst with an undeniable sense of
The chorus is ceded
almost entirely to Lee, whose display of emoto-vocal
pyrotechnics is second to none - a heart-tugging
flight between lower and higher registers that,
impossibly, sounds more impulsive than planned.
Must be that ever so slight tremble - but not melisma!
- and the barest hint of a rasp. I don't need to
believe it's natural to love it. In fact I almost
feel like saluting whoever sat down and planned-out
moment by moment this perfect simulcram of emotion.
For a long time I didn't want to write much about
the song for the fear that I might have a slight
crush on Lee. After seeing the group interviewed
I've decided that I don't in the least, but what
I may very well have is a crush on Lee's voice,
on everything the voice signifies to me.
I'm sure ninety
per cent of you will find "If You Come Back",
and particularly Lee's performance, to be inspid
and asinine. For me it does the same thing that
"WOW" does, which is to work past those
dangers simply by being too interesting, despite
the fact that it breaks none of this micro-genre's
rules. I managed to come up with some concrete reasoning
for liking "WOW"; "If You Come Back"
is a bit harder. Strangely though, I almost prefer
the fact that I love it but can't fully explain
why, not for the illicit thrill, but just for the
joy of inarticulacy.
I like Brandy's
"What About Us" more as an idea than as
a record. I mean, as a record it's pretty fine -
searing synth squelches and an awkward 4/4 pound
filling in every possible gap around Brandy's constipated
sounding vocals - but it's strangely much easier
to assimilate than its defiant funklessness would
suggest. If anything, it alludes to a state of absolute
machinic dis-grace that might occur if Brandy and
producer Rodney Jerkins pursued this sound to its
logical extreme, and Brandy's vocals sound harshly
unadorned rather than truly robotic. I was quite
pleased, then, to have a chance to review the parent
album Full Moon; surely some of the album
tracks would sacrifice the user-friendliness of
the first single in favour of an even more radical
urge to self-destruct?
In fact "What
About Us?" is pretty much as far as the pair
go. Two other tracks follow a similar formula, but
"I Thought" and "Can We" are
as close to Mya's perkier Jerkins-produced "That's
Why I Wanna Fight" from 2000 as they are to
the more bludgeoning "What About Us".
Great stuff undoubtedly - their strange anti-natural
pulse is thoroughly addictive - but while they're
both the equal of "What About Us", between
their slight retreat from the edge and their surprising
scarcity it all sounds a bit like a missed opportunity.
"What About Us", like Basement Jaxx's
awesome squlchathon "Get Me Off" (and
the two records do strike me as being quite similar),
has a stiff, urgent rigidity to it that right now
could support both whole albums and whole movements,
and the style demands a bit of exploration. What
would a ballad sound like using this blueprint,
or a slow-jam? For the moment we don't know.
There's some other
good stuff on offer of course. The very Aaliyah-like
"Anybody" and "I Wanna Fall In Love"
meanwhile are basically solid performers, but "All
In Me" comes close to capturing scintillating
loveliness of Janet Jackson's "Empty",
only with almost eerily masculine android-like vocals
and a half amazing half amusing 2-step interlude
(to their credit, Brandy and Jerkins sound like
they've been listening to Darqwan as opposed to
The Artful Dodger). The Eastern-flavoured swingbeat
of "Apart" sounds a bit like trip-hop,
and a bit like Kate Bush's The Sensual World;
it's strangely lovely, with Brandy's often frankly
bizarre pseudo-madrigal vocals rendering the song
both off-kilter and touchingly fragile. I can't
help but imagine its creation occuring in the middle
of the night after Brandy woke from a fitful nightmare,
its inclusion on the album coming under considerable
criticism from the record execs.
there's not much else other than a whole heap of
ballads. Brandy's ballads aren't intolerable, but
they're as bland as they come, all overly-obvious
chord progressions, mushier-than-thou production
and carefully contour-stripped narratives and emotions.
What I find so irritating about all these obligatory
ballads on R&B albums is not only their lack
of sonic risktaking, but their more fundamental
resistance to change. The advantage that the tech-friendly
uptempo numbers generally have is that their sonic
eccentricities force the other elements of the songs
to stretch their muscles a bit. If "What About
Us" is Brandy's most extreme song sonically,
it also pushes her to new depths vocally and lyrically
(at least in terms of scathing directness). In R&B,
if you raise the stakes sonically there's a good
chance the other aspects of the song will rise to
the occasion. In comparison, with the Warren-like
ballads you get hackneyed, played-out lyrics and
singing to complement the offensively inoffensive
sounds, the irritatingly obvious tunes. And it's
always the exact same ungainly generalisations about
emotions too! A lot of these portrayals of absolute
heartbreak or total joy put me in mind of an old
inkjet printer trying to print out huge letters
in an elaborate font: the result is inevitably blocky
Some evidence to
disprove my suspicion that I'm just prejudiced on
this score is that the album ends with perhaps my
favourite track, the wonderfully effervescent but
bittersweet "WOW". There's nothing to
distinguish "WOW" sonically, except that
its tinkerbell flourishes sound more purposeful,
better utilised in this gorgeous, falsely cheerful
number in which Brandy tries to convince her ex
that she's really much happier with her lovely new
boyfriend ("he's nothing like you at all").
The strange rasp that Brandy uses on a lot of the
album's harder moments blooms here into the perfect
evocation of a forced smile hiding weeks of wracked
sobs. The bouyant strings, the heavenly chimes,
the sweet acoustic guitar all work here because
their blatant one-dimensionality is a red herring;
the song is an elaborate construction designed to
obscure the real story being told offstage.
So, a worthwhile
listen if you skip about half the album, which is
about par for the course in R&B. What intrigues
me though is how polarised the album is between
impressive edginess (eg. "What About Us",
"Apart") and anonymous baladeering; at
least the uptempo/ballad divide on Survivor is
unified by Beyonce' egocentricism. Brandy used to
be very good at mildly funky midtempo numbers -
remember "I Wanna Be Down"? - but Full
Moon completes a process that Never Say Never
initiated of trying to broaden her net in both
directions. It leaves her sounding a bit too malleable,
her personality focused on individual tracks but
indistinct as a whole. Even the cover shot is incriminating,
with Brandy perfecting a pose of dull vapidity that
would have been unthinkable in the cheeky fourteen
year old. She looks like she's afraid of expressing
a single identifiable emotion that might pigeonhole
her, but in trying to be all things to all people,
the "mature" Brandy undercuts much of
what she has to offer, sounding ultimately like
no-one at all.
What depresses and
mystifies me about Nickelback's "How You Remind
Me" is how it manages to slot into the nu-metal
movement/"return of rock", despite merely
sounding like an ever-so-slightly grittier update
of Matchbox 20. Indeed, "How You Remind Me"
straddles '98 and '02 with a sense of all-conquering
dourness that makes me reach for the radio dial
long after I've acclimatised myself to Incubus,
System Of A Down, Linkin Park et. al. Maybe it's
because it belongs to that excrutiating post-Live
tradition of polished angst, with every inarticulate
roar pre-planned and target marketed (fittingly,
the lead singer looks like Michael Bolton with a
hangover and three days' growth). I don't mind rank
commercialism in the least, but I'd prefer a calculated
sneer or a standard cheeky grin to this rather insipid
proclamation of Really Deep Thoughts.
There's a radio
station here that plays a lot of this stuff mixed
in with nu-metal, punk-pop and lots of vaguely related
stuff from across the decade - Stone Temple Pilots,
Bush, The Presidents of the U.S.A. etc., spiked
with the odd track from The Strokes and Ryan Adams.
Despite the usual high volume, the station has a
certain level of comfortability to it, as
if it's agreed to a clause stating that it promises
to never ever surprise it's listeners. The gamut
from Nickelback through Sum 41 to The Strokes and
Ryan Adams feels so small in contexts such
as these, and the fact that I like The Strokes and
Sum 41 and have no opinion either way on Adams can't
prevent the inevitable conclusion that clearly none
of these artists are here to "save" rock.
They're here to prop it up - sometimes enjoyably,
sometimes less so - but they're all of them to easily
reconcilable to this basic playlist to actually
shift the goalposts significantly.
Maybe I can't legitimately
comment. I think even before I devoted myself almost
solely to dance, pop and hip hop etc. (this would
have been about halfway through '99), the preponderance
of my rock tastes were stuck in a classical indie
revisionist timewarp. Throughout '98 I listened
to post-punk, dream-pop, a dash of eighties hardcore
etc. all of which bloomed and withered long before
it would have occurred to me to actually listen
to the music around me. In fact I'm pretty sure
the only contemporaneous rock outfits I enjoyed
in '98 were Mogwai, Pulp, The Beta Band and Hole...
a motley assortment that hardly qualifies as an
engagement with rock.
So maybe I'm singularly
ill-suited to talk about the "return of rock",
or the frequently articulated need for one to occurr,
seeing as I've never really enjoyed my own rock
golden age. But I can't help but feel that the grit
people look for in rock is increasingly hard to
find in a manner that is truly satisfying. Perhaps
the answer is not people learning how to rock again,
but people forgetting. I like how The Beta Band
on The Hot Shots sound like a band aiming
to write standard pop/rock songs and missing spectacularly
(like, when the most rocking part of the album is
the stripped-down Soca beat section on "Broke"
you know something's wrong). And I think the agitation
for a post-punk/synth-pop revival is as much a nostalgia
for bands who fell short of rock in the best ways
possible. That's the sense I get with a lot of the
best 2-step too - the suspicion that the producer
was aiming for one thing and ended up with something
better (see also: Dismemberment Plan). Maybe rock's
malaise is due to band's getting it right too often;
after all, "How You Remind Me" is, in
its own grating way, pretty much perfect.
Like a lot of the
big house tunes of recent times (see Par-T One's
fantastic, own-entry-deserving "I'm So Crazy"
and The Ones' strangely charming "Flawless")
John Cutler's "It's Yours" is a track
masquerading as a song. Which is quite strange seeing
as its lush synth'n'bass swells, sweet diva vocals
and serenading saxaphone place it firmly into US
Garage territory, ie. songs masquerading as tracks.
Unlike "I'm So Crazy" but definitely like
"Flawless", it's also a bit slight. You
hear the hooks right away the first time ("do
you want it?" a somewhat sly narrator asks,
"...and if you had it, would you flaunt it?")
and think little of them - it's just another typical
club tune that does well for god knows what reason.
It's only when they're
later dropped into the middle of something else
during a set that it suddenly makes sense. These
aren't tunes, they're collections of crowd inciters,
of little tricks that the DJ will use for maximum
effect. The addictiveness of these hooks is not
inherent; what is inherent is the ease with which
they can be used as heralds, dropped into the set
long before the actual tune arrives. The hook exists
apart from the tune it derives from, a free-floating
signifier wandering up and down the mix, suggesting
and implying any number of things, but mainly that
the tune it belongs to will be played eventually.
Crowds love this
sort of thing. I've watched actual pandemonium erupt
when the first eerie high moan from "I'm So
Crazy" suddenly arrives (or distorted guitar
riff, or stuttered vocal - "I'm So Crazy"
is really the ultimate example of this sort of thing),
or the first luscious vamp from "Flawless"
appears out of nowhere. When the soliloquy from
"It's Yours" wafts in, the effect is the
opposite: the crowd actually begins to slow down,
to stop dancing frantically and start to groove
instead, in anticipation of the coming tempo (and
temperature) drop. That's why it's a dancefloor
tune. It sounds fine in ordinary circumstances,
but it's lacking its true purpose, and thus is a
pale, washed out reflection of its dancefloor incarnation.
None of this should
surprise of course - "tracky" house numbers
are nothing new - but it seems to be increasingly
common these days. As the original reasons for the
house revival (filtered disco? A nostalgia for anthems?)
seem ever further away, successful tracks are more
and more those which merely use house as a template
for a freewheeling stylistic pick'n'mix approach.
My favourite house set so far this year not only
played the three aforementioned tracks, but also
Green Velvet, Kylie, Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk,
and all of these songs (and the other great tracks
of the evening) shared in common a love of textures
+ vocal hook, as opposed to funk disco bassline
+ big chorus. But the wild stylistic disparateness
of these tracks also allowed their "bittyness"
to be simultaenously discrete and instantly identifiable.
The effect is closer to a samples-based record than
a house mix, with quoted elements jumbled up purely
for the joy of reference rather than included for
their intrinsic value (see also: bootlegs). I'm
not quite sure where this all leads, but I'm not
makes these sorts of records theoretically excellent
for 2-step remixes, except for some instinctive
reason I shudder at the idea of such a thing for
most of the tracks. Which is what makes the very
existence of a Ras Kwame mix of "It's Yours"
almost bizarre. Ras Kwame is, of course, one of
the guys behind M-Dubs and London Dodgers (makers
of the absolute masterpiece that is last year's
"Down Down Biznizz"), a purveyor of the
ragga/darkside end of the scene and not the type
to do remixes of house tunes. So strangely it works
brilliantly, with Kwame totally recontextualising
the sly monologue into a doom-laden warning. Surrounded
by edgy, choppy beats, a nervous piano riff and
wavering string pads, "Do you want it, and
if you had it would you flaunt it? It's yours...",
hitherto a seductive offer, becomes something like
a threat, a devil's bargain, a step into the unknown.
As hypnotic as anything out of the Horsepower Productions
camp, and yet retaining a likeable roughness, it's
yet another little milestone of many that I still
have to write about (and yes, I will write about
them all, it's my life's work doncha know...).