skykicking - march


Sunday 24

Listening: Subliminal Sessions Two, mixed by Harry "Choo Choo" Romero

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 so easily.

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 filfthy monologues).

"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 as good.

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, stat.

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.
eleven-thirty-seven pm


Wuvving Taylor 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.

Taylor conforms 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). Lovely stuff.
ten-forty-eight pm


Wednesday 20

More 2-step!

Wookie - Far East
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 sonic tension.

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 sexuality.

"What's the 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 pm


Saturday 16

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 "ey-yo!"

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 is the 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.
eleven-thirty-seven pm


Monday 11

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 new single).

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 heard it.

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 rightness.

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.
eleven-twelve pm


Sunday 10

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 fireflies-alighting-on-the-surface-of-your-skin 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.

Otherwise though 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 and inelegant.

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.
ten-eleven pm


Saturday 09

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.
eight-forty-four pm


Thursday 07

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 displeased.

This "bittyness" 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...).
eleven-eighteen pm






everything here is by tim finney



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