Monday, December 16, 2002
The standard equivocation over the Horsepower Productions album is a questioning of its overt sense of refinement and restraint - especially compared to the ruff'n'ready sound of the garage pirates. It's worth thinking about another contrast for the album though, and that's with all the garage producer (cf. garage crews) LPs that have been released so far - MJ Cole, The Artful Dodger, Wookie etc. In Fine Style is maybe the first of these which has been so confident in the quality of its own grooves that it felt no need to court a crossover audience through investment in songform. Which is kinda ironic, as I think of all those listed Horsepower Productions have the most to gain by becoming more pop. In fact, the shivering soul of "One You Need" - their sole excursion into the land of female vocals thus far - remains perhaps a career best for this reason. Like Massive Attack and DJ Shadow, Horsepower Productions' brand of intricate disquiet doesn't require vocals to be successful, but it is nonetheless periodically rejuvenated by the pathos which vocals can bring in their train - or, at any rate, it could be.

The succession of near-instrumental grooves on In Fine Style meanwhile reminds me of the '96 Full Cycle compilation Music Box, and not just because this is about the most accurate stylistic reference point available. Music Box is, song for song, easily the superior of New Forms, but its very consistency perhaps prevents it from being as exciting and intriguing as the latter record, whose frequent missteps are more than excused by the astonishing highs that result from Roni Size and Reprazent stretching their wings - where is Horsepower Productions' equivalent of "Share The Fall"? (if, of course, Zed Bias's remix of Two Banks of Four's "Hook and a Line" hadn't beaten them to the post) Suffice to say that the trio are just too sonically evocative to limit themselves to the downbeat eeriness that dominates the always lovely-sounding In Fine Style.

That said, a large part of my love for 2-step is based around the beat itself; a passionate belief that, underneath the vocals and the arrangement dynamics and sometimes even the bassline, this approach to rhythm is one of the most expressive (and impressive) rhythmic formulas out there. So an album like In Fine Style, which plays like a homage to the attraction of the 2-step beat, is going to win me over no matter how minimalist it is. There is, at the end of the day, something to be said for stripping back the layers of songfulness in order to simply revel in a groove, to marvel at how the beats seem to ricochet off eachother, how every sound interlocks in an astounding display of flawless dysfunctionalism.

Of course, if you're clever you can do both, foregrounding the groove and the song without either seeming to detract from the other. The Junior Boys' debut EP (which you can obtain by talking to them) makes this balancing act its mission and its purpose, and as a result sounds like that imaginary Horsepower Productions excursion into songform. Of course, the garage trio would have to swap their Jamaican influences for arch Euro affectation to sound like these guys, but hell, Timbaland's certainly bridged bigger gaps. The bigger problem would be how to negotiate the songs themselves, which tend to defy any easy equation of pop + dance. Sometimes the Junior Boys are, like Coloma, dance-dabblers, with the songs themselves the undeniable center of these concoctions, looking out uncertainly but visibly through the maze-like web of rhythmic detail that surrounds them. Other times they are groove-scientists, constructing dense rhythms within which only mirage-like glimmers of a song can be discerned, the fleeting vocal hooks manipulated with as much ruthlessness as in any Dem 2 production.

When you're not listening to these songs, it's easy to underestimate the sheer perversity of their rhythmic excess - the songs are just too easily memorable to countenance it. Listen again though, and you are inevitably struck by the pole-vaulting elasticity of their grooves, shivering and bristling so naturally that it seems likely that the duo have never even heard of a four-to-the-floor beat (they have; the bouncy "Bellona" suggests a potentially lucrative detour into microhouse-pop, sounding like Jurgen Paape producing The Aluminum Group). Needless to say, these guys bring as much rhythmic inventiveness to the table as any producer in hip hop and garage combined; their insolence lies in incongruously combining it with glittering arctic romanticism.

The Junior Boys join a long tradition of sonically rich effete Anglophilic pop, evoking New Order, The Associates, Bark Psychosis, The Blue Nile, Talk Talk, even latter-day Depeche Mode - the singer (Jonny? Jeremy? I can't remember which) reminds me slightly of Martin Gore, actually. Certainly the music is chilly enough, though it's as much the frostbite of cloudless nights as it is electroclash machinery, all sparkling synth twinkles and lush chords, spiked with the skyscraping glitter of guitar (or whatever the duo use to suggest the presence of one). What Junior Boys share with all of these groups perhaps is a love of the swoon; their songs always seem to be in the verge of emotional intoxication. "You make me feel more than real", the singer sighs with a hint of ambivalence to his desire, as if the intensity of the other's presence induces an instant and dangerous state of deliriousness, of larger-than-life unreality. In another song he croons in near-falsetto "When I see you, you make my high come down, and I want to see you shake this whole damn crowd." Voyeurism - as far as I can tell a recurrent theme here - is not merely used for its own sake, but as a vehicle for a seductive form of self-negation. The singer is deflated by the presence of the object of desire, and enjoys it, enjoys the sense of awe-filled unworthiness. "Baby, put your trust in me," he pleads, and the groove swerves into darkness, stuttering uncontrollably around zapping bass hits. We have given up too much blood in this sacrifice of subjectivity, and the final stages of emotional vampirism are as disturbing as they are pleasurable.

Surprisingly, given my usual conceits, I actually think the Junior Boys could afford to retreat slightly from the cliff of abandonment-in-groove - their rhythms are so endlessly delightful on even their most songful tracks that they really have little to gain in drowning themselves in grooves, and certainly if I line up my favourite moments on the EP, they're the ones that favour clarity and lightness of touch rather than the more dystopian rhythm tracks. A strong song-focus also allows the duo to play around with the basic structure of the grooves; the petulant, morose "Birthday" pumps quietly but steadily on a simple Moroder bassline, allowing the rhythm to stomp and stamp around like a sullen and pouty child, less danceable but more evocative. Similarly the gossamer sighs of "Last Exit" alternates classic "One In A Million" stutter-beats with ever-retreating dub-refracted snares, as if the song is constantly running from its destination, scared or shy of what it might find.

On the other hand, I still find myself returning to the cut-up madness of the Honeys + Skrilla Mix of "High Come Down" (reviewed here a while ago), with its Squarepusher-like hysterical groove. But this is slightly different to the duo's more minimal groove tracks like "You Want To" or "I'm So Into You", in that its song, shattered into a thousand shards as it is, still exerts a magnetic force on the random-seeming drum hits, gathering and assorting them around it like armour. This groove still has a song's imprint, the suggestion of an emotional imprint rendered untranslatable but still for all that visible, and still capable of arresting you with its force.

P.S. Majors (and indies) be vigilant: these guys deserve a record deal.


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