"Now over here, we have some naughty, naughty kids..."
I think I've mentioned the Green Velvet compilation I have, The Nineties, at some point in the past. But I certainly didn't talk about it in much depth because otherwise I wouldn't be doing so now. It's a bit of a pattern for me that after listening to the rhythmic wonders of stuff like jungle, UK garage and current hip hop and R&B about 80% of the time, I'll suddenly feel the need to listen to nothing but raw house music for a couple of days.
Which means early Todd Terry tracks, acid house classics (check Armando's "Land Of Confusion" or Sleazy D's "I've Lost Control"), and the really old, inspired house classics like Marshal Jefferson's "Move Your Body" or J.M. Silk's "Music Is The Key". I'll occasionally choose some mid-nineties Chicago-revivalist stuff as well, but the only nineties-era artist I find myself returning to with frequency is Curtis Jones aka Cajual and best of all aka Green Velvet.
It was while listening to some authentic '88 era acid house that I suddenly stopped and asked myself: "How the fuck was this popular? This is some of the hardest music ever!" Original wave of acid house was both as intensely amusical and scary as the successive waves of acid proliferation (Hardfloor style acid trance, psychedelic trance, filthy acid techno etc.), and yet people still refer to '88 and the Summer Of Love as the most obvious example of dance music as cultural-event-crossover. Maybe the associated concept of rave crossed over into the cultural consciousness, but acid house, with its harsh acid riffs and cyborg narratives, simply disappeared under the weight of the more instantly inviting Italo-house and the instant rush of hardcore.
The specific sound of the Roland 303 synthesiser has gone on to be a staple in much of dance music, but the robotic funkiness and minimalist scaremongering of acid house has rarely been retapped, fans of the four-four beat prefering the soulfulness of US garage, or the spaciness of trance, or the out-and-out blitzkreig of gabba. It occupates however a rare but wonderful interzone between those spaces that is ripe for exploitation by nineties curators. If anyone has dramatically resurrected the spirit of acid house, it's Jones in his Green Velvet guise.
The basic Green Velvet template, particularly for his earlier tracks, is instantly identifiable - a remorseless kickdrum, maybe a low 303 pulse and Curtis or a sampled speaker droning a sordid narrative on top. Pretty sparse then. It's the very sparseness of his formula though that allows each track to sound individually relevatory through the addition or subtraction of a single detail. 95's "Flash" (a guided tour for parents around a debauched club - "We call this gas nitrous oxiiiiiiiide") is totally amusical, little more than a punishing kick drum and a military cacophony of snares, over which Curtis plays the role of a detached, ironic tourguide. The important distinction is that Curtis's absolute minimalism doesn't simply recreate the Euro-funklessness of similarly spare house derivatives like nu-nrg. Sure the kickdrums Curtis employs on his Green Velvet tracks are punishing, but the hi-hats (deliberately missing on "Flash") are as lascivious as on any Masters At Work track.
Actually tracks like "Flash" are a bit hit and miss for me, in the most extreme sense - uncompromisingly harsh, it either sounds like meaningless banging or an absolute revelation, the most ultimate expression of house music yet. Make no mistake, this is hard house (but not Hard House, thankfully), both in its sound and lack of accessability. When you're feeling it though, it makes the raw disco of Daft Punk or the psychedelic sample-fests of Basement Jaxx seem like an elaborate distraction from the main point of the music - the never-ending beat.
More immediately appealing are more musical synth-pop numbers - "Coitus RMX" is an excellent Moroder-style instrumental coloured with Depeche Mode synth arrangements. "The Red Light" is even better - like New Order, Moroder and Kraftwerk collaborating on a track immediately after sniffing poppers in a sauna, it's simultaneously chilly and steamy, its narrative ("Welcome sex fiends, live out your wildest dreams... Always after you come, you feel guilty. You wanna shower for hours, you feel so filthy!") undoubtedly dirty, but its delivery eerily clean sounding. "Thoughts" is more minimal, but its lyrics are surprisingly conventional, and it has an appealing post-punk feel reminiscent of Simple Minds circa Reel To Real Cacophony. All these are very recent ('99), which suggests that this year's debut album Constant Chaos could be something of a full fledged synth-pop/house hybrid. In a word, cool.
On the other hand, it'd be a shame if Curtis deviated completely from making straight house music, because he's needed there too. First and perhaps most importantly, his snare/hi-hat arrangements are peerless (most brilliant here is the stop-start syncopation on "The Stalker). Furthermore, tracks like '95's "Help Me" and "Destination Unknown" from '97 recreate the explicit drugginess of acid house and take it further, adding a bit of the twisted psychedelics of Basement Jaxx's rawer work (eg. "Same Old Show", "Razocaine", "All You Crazies") into the mix for good measure, creating extended work-outs of shuddering intensity.
Plus, the more streamlined man-machine character of his synth-pop tracks, while compelling, lacks the sense of humour of his earlier, self-referential house tracks. Debut single "Preacherman" (from '93) is just a sampled speech over a backing track, featuring a black preacher deploring the lack of family values in current society, and particularly the increase of sexual promiscuity, using the metaphor of "our second favourite childhood game": "house". Ideally I'd like to see both narrative styles retained.
It's a shame that "Answering Machine" has an unmemorable (if impressive) groove. A brilliant take on the same idea is '97's "Answering Machine", in many ways the closest thing to a pop song here. Again, little more than a kickdrum and a shockingly springy, kinetic snare arrangement, it features a week's long parade of depressing machine messages ("the baby's not yours, so you don't need to worry about it") and a chorus of Curtis shouting "I don't need this shit!" Sure, much of its appeal is a result of the novelty value, but you'll remember the awesome snare arrangement long after the phone calls cease to be amusing.
Perhaps it's good that Curtis seems to be the only person delving in this hinterland of house; if more people were making tracks like these they wouldn't be nearly as effective, not to mention that my ears can only stand so much before they start to ache slightly. Still, if your conception of house is all Barbera Tucker anthemics or Moloko cool, perhaps you could do worse than expose yourself to this fantastic slice of the darkside.