Tuesday, July 30, 2002
I wuv Horsepower Productions so much I could listen to them all day tra la la. Seriously though, this morning on the way to uni I was listening to a 2-step/breaks mix from about a year ago and the one-two punch of Horsepower's "One You Need" and 2 Banks Of 4's "Hook & A Line (Zed Bias Mix)" really bowled me over with their essential goodness. Horsepower especially - such achingly crisp syncopation, such suffocatingly delicate dub bass, such threatening quietude.

Reynolds came up with "murderous slickness" to describe the deceptive sweetness of Artful Dodger's "Rewind", but I think it now better applies to Horsepower's stuff, which has that same rudeboy-in-gentleman's-clothing panache but replaces the Dodger's pop-savvy with aristocratic refinement, the impossibly wired groove smoothly gliding from measure to measure with an eerily disjointed grace currently matched only by microhouse (from which HP seem to take their cues anyway). Next to this stuff, the furrow-browed abstraction of Darqwan seems terribly heavyhanded (though, that said, new tune "Elevate" is his best in a while). In terms of strict musical stylistic heritage, Horsepower Productions are the natural successors to Dem 2: listen to tracks like "One You Need, "Fists Of Fury", "Get Dirty" and "Smoking", and it becomes clear that what both acts share (add a "-d" for Dem 2) is a taste for only the most succulent of mindfucks - their beats would seem spastic if they weren't so slinky, their bass rude if it wasn't so sensual.

It's relieving then to discover that, despite evidence of a distressing/inevitable downturn of dark atmospheric 2-step into sludgy misanthropic noir-excursions, Horsepower haven't lost their genteel sensibilities. On new track "Classic Delux" (from their forthcoming September album - yay!) they manage to transform the practically de rigeur soca beat - that bastion of roughneck sensibility - into a sinuously shuffling web of delicate beats, skipping across warmly glowing jazz chords and softly cavernous bass rumbles like Farben at a Carribean sunset party. Still confidently tiptoeing the tightrope between violence and refinement, Horsepower Productions remain the pre-eminent practitioners of murda muzak.

Sunday, July 28, 2002

Y'all probably know and visit these, but anyway...

Technicolour - Rebellious Jess's new thing.

Spizzazzz - the dedicated pop blog that NYLPM always threatens to be.

Fluxblog - more of the very-good same from a Spizzazz contributor.

Maura.com - I have no excuse for not having linked to this prior, except that I used to have a don't-link-to-non-music-sites rule. Which was stupid, of course. Maura's a fab writer, but you knew that.

Starry vs the Atomick Brane - see above.

Daniel, the Drug of a Nation - Daniel, America's guest 2-step DJ to the stars, tells me that I should listen to Clipse's "Grinding" more.

Listening to The Avalanches' "At Home" dj sets is not quite as revelatory an experience as the 2 Many DJs album, but it's still one hell of a rush. 'Bobby Dazzler' (their non de plume) doesn't share the 'how-do-they-do-that?' audacity and technical skill of the Soulwax boys (to date the Madonna-meets-Bob Dylan bootleg on their Gimix mix remains their most astonishing soundclash) and these sets are anything but a smooth ride, but their enthusiasm and open-mindedness make up for it, rifling through folk, gangsta rap, techno, arena rock, chart pop, drill & bass and The Beach Boys with a mixture of gleeful impatience and reverent joy.

That the gently strummed, orchestrated pop of the aforementioned band's "Matchpoint Of Our Love" segues into the sunkissed shoegazer-disco of The Chemical Brothers' "Setting Sun" should give you an idea of the sort of emotions that The Avalanches deal in. Like 2 Many DJs, they love pop in all its forms, but they're less enamoured of its trashy, throwaway glamour (perhaps the motivation behind the prevalence of electroclash stuff on As Heard On Radio Soulwax); rather, they're intoxicated by its endearing openheartedness, its blissful, skin-tingling textures and its sunny, halcyonic choruses. Both projects are invested in pop as a communal experience (hence the emphasis placed on recognisable toons), but I get the impression that these acts play at different house parties, or at least in different parts of the house - if 2 Many DJs shake the basement and dominate the tiny radio servicing the impromptu gathering in the kitchen, The Avalanches rarely leave the pool-side patio.

What I love most about both though is a certain improbability of emotions - on one of The Avalanches' sets Missy's "One Minute Man" is transformed into grandiose aristocratic melodrama over J Walk's "Soul Vibration" - that captures something of the way in which pop mediates our experiences, taking on added colours and flvours to suit the contexts and the experiences they find themselves accomplices to. Listening to pop songs on my computer is fun, but it's a relatively isolated experience, rarely venturing outside the borders of the song itself. It's a good way to listen to music I intend to write about, but hardly conducive of soundtrack-to-life experiences. With their rough'n'tumble of sounds and emotions, 2 Many DJs and The Avalanches act like the radio dial to your life in praxis - spin it and your hands and the dial change colour.

Friday, July 26, 2002
As you may notice, I've returned to blogger - a last ditch move after failing to find a decent non-trial webpage application. And it seems a lot less bug-riddled than when I last used it. Let's hope first impressions aren't deceiving.

The result of this however is that the geocities site will no longer be updated, at least not in the forseeable future. Please update your links.

The Rapture - Olio
Do we need a millenial update of The Cure's "The Walk"? Well, no, maybe not. But I'm always in favour of hearing stuff it would never have occurred to me to need prior, music which mounts so compelling an argument for its own necessity that you're forced to concede defeat. "Olio" is a bit like that, reminding mr of neglected musical qualities secretly continuing to eke out an existence in the sort of long-forgotten gestures of largesse that a band like The Cure specialised in. To put this another way: when we think of the worst (or best) excesses of the eighties we tend to limit our focus to certain images - Boy George's face, or Madonna's ripped lace - because excess by its very nature is impossible to grasp in its entirety and variety. So we choose representatives to stand in for the astonishing diversity of imprudence the decade offered, and while their extremities are accurate, they're also stifling - in the icy chill of Visage (so beloved by electroclash) we miss out on the corny menace of Dalbello, or, as in this case, the cartoonish emotionalism of The Cure (post-'82 model).

Even The Cure as a single band were so appallingly bad or appallingly good (depending on how you look at it) that a group like The Rapture could devote albums to chronicling their absurdity. But this sort of approach would be a waste of time - The Cure themselves have already gone to the same trouble - not to mention somewhat painfully studied. Instead "Olio" sounds like the results of a band hearing "The Walk" while out at a club, loving it, going home to collapse, and then waking up at 6 in the morning to record a tribute, alive with the conviction that "Friday I'm In Love" is not the way to remember this band. Or rather, that it's not what is worth saving. Even "The Walk" isn't what is worth saving. Rather, the band are obsessed with some essence, or element, that they must extract from the original and expose to the rigours of the modern world.

So this act of saving necessitates an execution: this specific revival, like any good swipe from the eighties, is as an act of desecration as much as genuflection, with The Rapture stealing a period piece jacket by eviscerating its previous owner, then trying it on for size while it still smokes. The period piece jacket in this case is Robert Smith's singing, which the desperate caterwaul of The Rapture's vocalist is so eerily similar to that it's faintly disturbing - not just superficial details of the wails, the high-pitched sighs, the drunken disregard for control, but also in the melodies, the alighting on certain notes, the pauses and the sustained notes. It's instantly identifiable as Robert Smith, but only a Robert Smith, referable to a handful of his songs at most, in a very specific act of necromancy that alienates much of the original group's backcatalogue. It's a risky move, because its success depends on how much leeway you're prepared to give this song: The Rapture might just be a highly competent covers band. But I'm searching for a reason to justify liking this so much, so I'm looking for a more optimistic explanation. So maybe its pinpoint resurrection is meaningful: an argument that this particular vector of Smith's range is a frontier that needs to be extended, expanded upon. You could frame "Olio" as a contrast to the sweeping gestures of retro-as-universality (as much eighties revivalism has aspired to), its devastatingly precise evocation becoming a crack to fall through... to where? Through the eighties and out into something else altogether?

There's certainly a sense of the "something else" to this song in its fabulous arrangement. It's the music that constitutes the necessary element of desecration here, and it's desecration via mis-recognition. Perhaps the drugs the band took at that club were really good, because they've failed to notice that "The Walk", while danceable, is basically hyperactive synth-pop. With the beat in their hearts and around their bodies, The Rapture forego creating a stylistically adhesive lo-fi homage, choosing instead to utilise the shiny, bleeping, uncomfortable pulse of dancefloor techno. Musically, "Olio" is actually closer to Closer Musik's "You Don't Know Me" (in fact they're incredibly similar) than The Cure, or indeed any of the post-punk or garage rock it might be lumped with; it's slimy, slithering synth motif and itchy house beat, complete with oh-so-Detroit multi-tiered latin percussion, renders it too dance, no longer merely borrowing from house but becoming invested within it. It's dance music investigating rock idioms rather than vice versa. The dirty synth bass line that runs through the song like a snake is the real hook, ruthlessly controlling the ever-spiralling narrative while the singer moans random signifiers of perverse despair ("I called you on the telephone 'cos I was lonely!") over the top, a culturally rich accouterment in service of the track's central themes of morbidity. Bizarrely, it makes for a great pop song.

Wednesday, July 24, 2002
Here's a thought: is Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" influenced by chart-pop and R&B? Ostensibly not - Vanessa's sort of the Sarah McLachlan to Michelle Branch's Alanis Morissette, leading the teenagers back to the homeland of authentically emotional quasi-alterna-pop. It's all there: the Tori-like piano fillagree, the Suzanne Vega circa "Luka" catch in her vocals, the blatantly anti-sexual slant to Vanessa's yearning. Anti-pop critics will tell you that the influence chart-pop has wielded here is to have so sufficiently moved the goal posts that the heavily orchestrated MOR-pop of "A Thousand Miles" sounds like a real alternative.

And yet, I dunno, for me "A Thousand Miles" feel closer to "Born To Make You Happy" and "If You Come Back" than it does to anything else around right now. There's that same pre-relationship idea of love - love as a lifeforce that has no definition except the space its absence creates. I say "pre-relationshi"p because it's an ideal of love that carries greater weight when love has hitherto only been imagined (I wrote my article on "Born To Make You Happy" a matter of weeks before entering into the world of relationships; I knew the ideal was a false one then, but I believed it to be true nonetheless). As such the song appeals to me, touching the original imprints left behind by subsequently moderated ideals - songs like these tear me up with the memory of the resonance they would have had not so long ago. Vanessa imagines falling into the sky because that's what love is like for the young and untried: an escape into wide expanses from the claustrophobia of small emotions. I don't necessarily think that Vanessa doesn't understand relationships though. More likely, she's working back to the same place in her performance that I do when I listen.

And anyway, what Vanessa thinks is hardly relevant, because with "A Thousand Miles" it's all about the voice. Four years ago Vanessa's sunny NYC husk would have annoyed me due to over-exposure. Now, immunised via the reflective gloss of R&B melisma, Vanessa's trembling, throaty coo sounds improbably unusual - as if I didn't have an entire back-history of adolescence listening to this stuff. But essentially it's the same trick that Britney used on "Born To Make You Happy", transforming the idiosyncratic weakness that the singer-songwriterly female vocalist has exploited for decades into a series of classically ordained modulations (along the verse-chorus-bridge-climax template) that's always been the domain of pure pop.

This is rarer than you'd think at first instance. Close attempts like Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" fail because the singer is too distinctive; in contrast, pop's professional balladeers, whether it's Whitney or Paula Abdul or Celine Dion or even Janet Jackson, have all aimed first and formost for some level of technical perfection (some achieve more success than others) and as a result their pain is voiced, incongruously, from a position of strength. Britney and Vanessa meanwhile balance the competing urges, allowing imperfections to shine through only when they will actually enhance the attraction of the pop template. "Born To Make You Happy" and "A Thousand Miles" are power-ballads shouldered by desperately compromised Celines. And maybe this is part of what makes them so irresistible. Vanessa knows when to falter and when to hold firm, when to soar and when to fall back, with an enviably natural-sounding craft.

And of course living through the years of future-pop makes one more sensitive to the stylistic nuances of even such classicist throwbacks as the arrangement used here. "A Thousand Miles" does have that similarity to "Falling" - it argues that modern pop can still be based around something as traditional as the piano, and more, that these instruments can still be as delectable as a syncopated beat or Indian flute loop. "A Thousand Miles" beats "Falling" because Vanessa sounds both more accomplished and less pretentious than Alicia Keys, her gossamer thin piano tinkling and riffing strings less eager to stifle the melody in self-conscious worthiness than Alicia's portentous classical figures and stiff drum machine. Certainly "A Thousand Miles" is maybe a little too bombastic, but it doesn't put me on guard. Rather, its grand, foolish gestures evoke the fondness of memory, perhaps because I'd imagined myself in Vanessa's place many times before I heard her.


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