Pokerflat Recordings are now probably only behind Kompakt as my favourite current dance label; their entirely in-house compilation Volume II a serious rival for Michael Mayer's masterful Immer mix, and they have an impressive depth of talent. Pokerflat's sound strikes me as very inbetweenish, slipping through the gaps separating different approaches and curling around nooks and crannies. More hypnotic than Perlon but more luscious than Force Tracks, the shimmering melodies, deep dub bass and desultory percussion of the Pokerflat style is sensual but not quite pornographic - sort of like a tongue slowly circling round your belly button.
The work of Jeff Bennet, my favourite Pokerflat producer, is somewhere between smooth, dub-heavy Sascha Funke tech-house and the aching gyrations of shuffletech I guess, and if that doesn't sound like a terribly wide strip then rest assured that Bennet thoroughly owns it - in fact he may be the sexiest house producer currently operating. "Last Breath" is my favourite track on Volume II, a swelling and sizzling pattern of dub bubbles over a rapacious, slippery and irresistible house rhythm, the effect being something like making love on a carbonated waterbed. I suspect new track "Breaking Time" is even better though, upping the reggae quotient and filling the groove with a succession so many joyful ripples and hesitations that the track seems to quiver as it travels through your ears.
See also: Martini Bros. and Glowing Glisses, who are between them the best ambassadors for the ongoing fusion between microhouse and electroclash. Martini Bros' "Flash" might even end up as a hit, its hypnotic bass groove, whining synth melodies and eerie, deadpan but anthemic vocals that flit between German and English with disturbing ambiguity rendering it at least as addictive as anything Miss Kittin's done (well... they've yet to make their "Rippin Kittin" I suppose). Their just-released album looks like it may be a winner. The Supercollider-like Glowing Glisses offer firm competition though: the grunting, squealing "Shaked Ladies" is psychotic absurdist-pop, like Pantytec making an assault on the charts, while a sleazy funk frontman pouts over the top of a Frankenstein-refrain, "I like shaked ladies... I like shaked ladies...". "Ball" meanwhile is souped-up wriggle-disco, all fluorescent-coloured melodies and impossibly wired snares, snapping and flickering with the nervous agility of an electric eel.
Something wot I wrote in an e-mail re r&b/hip hop's image, plus some music-related thoughts:
I think what was (and I use the past tense semi-deliberately) interesting about the Hype Williams era of R&B/hip hop (aka the Timbaland era) was how certain "objectively bad" tendencies were turned into attractions and selling points. The apotheosis was the video clip for Missy's "She's A Bitch" - basically taking "soulless" and "gaudy" and turning them into a robo-apocalypse; "try hard" was no longer a diss because Missy and Hype in one stroke rendered trying hard the point of the game, and made it seem effortless (and consequently everything else seem half-hearted).
The problem is that the bar can only be pushed so far - I haven't yet seen a video which surpasses "She's A Bitch" in that regard, in fact if anything Williams has consciously retreated from the edge - and now R&B/hip hop lives in the shadow of itself ideologically, tenting itself within the brilliance of past excesses, but in the process sacrificing the brilliance and leaving only the excess... and it's a safe and familiar form of excess anyway, a much more identifiable take on living large with far less space robot suits per low-cut dresses.
I'm only talking about the image/aura side of the music here, but I guess it sort of applies to the music as well - Sterling made the point some time last year that a progression in an aesthetic is not the same thing as an aesthetic of progress. With the ideas tap drying up production-wise, and audiences and artists both seeming to tire of heavily narrative-based songs (recent R&B's secret weapon) R&B artists and producers are casting around for other ideas, eg. the worthiness of Alicia Keys, the trad-chanteuse pleasantness of Ashanti, the unchallenging-but-satisfying simulacrum-funk of all the recent Neptunes productions. It's probably healthy for the scene in a broad sense, but without the unity of purpose R&B feel less exciting than it has in years, pretty much returning it to where it was circa 95-96 - ie. heaps of great music as usual, but no meta-context to render it urgent and key.
Again it's a bit of a retreat from the edge: the music still sounds succulent and pearly-pert, but with little of the dangerous oddity of the past few years. Again, its "excess" is pasteurised and homogenised, relying on an intimate understanding in order to discern all the circular babysteps being taken. R&B needs to be more outrageous again, not via immorality but by a commitment to the shock of the new, which need not be connected to sheer technical proficiency - my favourite R&B track this year has in fact been decidedly retro, but the charismatic over-performance and quasi-bootleg approach of Latrelle's Bowie-sampling "Dirty Girl (Remix)" achieves the same level of disorientation and wonder that we love getting from Timbaland productions. It's without a doubt the most excessive R&B track of 2002 so far.
Hip hop's a tougher kettle of fish to deal with - one of the problems being that, Nelly excepted, very few major players seem to have even released anything this year. The only new thing I can discern is the neo-classicism of The Blueprint catching on with tracks like Cam'ron's "Oh Boy" and Styles P's "I Get High" - the results are much better than I would have expected, thankfully. It will be interesting to see meanwhile if the brutalist minimalism of Clipse's "Grindin'" starts a few fires as well.
My second microhouse (well, basically) compilation:
Markus Guentner - Syndrom
Data 80 - Love Was Made For Two
Aaliyah - Rock The Boat (Mixzo Club Mix)
Tobias Thomas & Superpitcher - Love To Love You
Markus Nikolai - Passion
Carsten Jost - Ego Express
Contriva - Next Time (Jorg Burger Autobianchi Mix)
Yoko Mono - Higher Than Phunk
Laub - Selten (Dub Ware Mix)
Decomposed Subsonic - Part Of The Machine
Luomo - Body Speaking
...With expanded comments tomorrow hopefully. And to everyone to whom I promised a copy of the first volume, rest assured I haven't forgotten! I'm just very slack, obviously.
For the last hour or so I've been enthralled by the shockwave gimmick on the website for the Italic label. The idea is simple but great: taking a perfectly looping segment from Antonelli Electr. & Miss Kittin's "The Vogue" and breaking it down into its eight constituent parts (a kickdrum, a snare, an acid bass burble, some high-pitched synths, Kittin's vocal etc.), allowing you to play or leave off each part as you wish, so that you can craft your own megamix versions of the track. It is thoroughly addictive, not least because the track in question is excellent.
"Accusing Stephin Merritt of insincerity would be like accusing Cecil Taylor of playing too many notes- not only does it go without saying, it's what he's selling. I say if he'd lived all 69 songs himself he'd be dead already, and the only reality I'm sure they attest to is that he's very much alive."
"This is linguistic craft as a means to character--DiFranco's character. Pointing out that "When Doves Cry" (a formerly ritual show-closer that kicked out the jams at Roseland) is DiFranco's only cover, my otherwise sophisticated panel insisted on autobiographical verisimilitude: all right, maybe "Letter to a John" wasn't true, they didn't think she'd ever lap-danced, but if it came out that, for example, Ani-the-person wasn't really bisexual, it would be like Milli Vanilli or something. And they're right to care. Aesthetes are free to believe she's merely constructed this headstrong, mercurial, sensual, edgy, alert, pissed off, affectionate, waggish, empowered, needy, indomitable, fierce, leftwing, hyperemotional, supercompetent persona. But self-expression goes into it too, and you have to wonder whether she can keep it up."
Some of my thoughts on Ani's Revelling/Reckoning from c. a week ago (crappier bits removed):
With Ani's last two albums, early 99's Up Up Up Up Up Up and To The Teeth from the following Christmas, I resigned myself to the fact that Ani and I were moving away from each other. She was getting into full-band jams, jazz and funk influences and lyrics that veered between solipsistic and Naomi Klein-ish didactic (even for her - perhaps the difference between early period and late period Ani-didacticism is the specificity, the big word-ism. Where before her enemy was the world at large, now it's capitalism, patriarchy, the Bush Administration, the NRL). I was getting into dance music, hip hop and everything else that I've chronicled discovering on this blog. Maybe it was just a natural parting of ways, but it didn't help that she was making what seemed to me to be blatantly unwise choices.
The affectations of her recent albums have seemed exactly that - affectations. An extended funk jam with trumpet blasts here, a filmy atmospheric guitar wash + brittle spoken word session there, all distractions from the core of her craft: the tension between her compositional neatness, her deceptively natural rhyming, and the profound instability of her flamenco-punk guitar flutter, the contradictions within her proud but multifaceted persona. '95-model Ani could groove, but the groove was tightly contained in the tight, elliptical swing of her songs, fleshed out and expanded upon by bass and drums but never fundamentally altered. Already prickly and restless, physically agitated with impatience and urgency, it was the song-structures themselves that grooved, not the departures from them into freeform. So when Ani started departing from the song every second time she picked a note, the enjoyment was not in the departure but in the return, in the way songs would suddenly snap back into focus. It helped to articulate the nature of her talent, but at the price of rendering it more fleeting, more frail. A roleplaying stylistic venture for Ani is a gesture towards anonymity, a liberating but distancing step outside the tight bondage of her persona that inevitably defines her appeal.
Last year's Revelling/Reckoning doesn't do away with these latter-day conceits; if anything it expands upon them, with the deliberate pervasiveness of an attention-grabbing horn section and shadowed snatches of instrumental cul-de-sac ball games. So it's hard to say exactly why this double album works - or, rather, connects - where her recent previous efforts fell short. Most likely it's just that Ani's ability has caught up with her enthusiasm - the lush horn sections which are draped over much of the Revelling half finally sound like more than mere addendums to the arrangements; by leaning on them to help form the songs Ani has given them purpose and character. Likewise the shift from punkish strum to spare atmospherics no longer seems hesitant, and the frequently amelodic twists and turns now sound as unconscious as her nifty way with a melody used to.
The prevailing wisdom with double albums is that they intermingle a great single album with unnecessary and ill-advised addendums. Revelling/Reckoning is by no means a consistently gripping affair - it's almost impossible to imagine loving every track here - but contrary to the accepted argument, its expansiveness and its flabiness acts as its lifeblood. Two hours allows Ani the luxury of not needing to economise her divergent impulses, so that while before a twelve-minute jam seemed like a regrettable waste of space where two or three treasurable songs might have resided, now almost any excess can be justified by the knowledge that whatever the listener doesn't want from Ani is balanced by a surfeit of what they do want. So I don't know if it's that the songs here are better than before - though I'm sure at least some of them are - of if I'm merely giving them a better chance to sidle up to my tastes and introduce themselves.
Truthfully, I continue to find Ani's more didactic moments to be increasingly uncomfortable: now that she writes songs about third parties (defending black people, attacking the government) and talks about "watching capitalism gun down democracy", she sounds less like the guitar-wielding agitator of youth and more like a left-wing music teacher playing tapes from Woodstock to an underwhelmed class. It's also when she falls into the trap of thinking that her words can carry her and stops thinking about how to deliver them; the fact that she's a frequently excellent lyricist is no excuse for such a foolish assumption. But she can still summon up moments of touching conviction, when she can introduce herself back into her stories through her performance, like when the tired catch in her voice undermines the faux-idealism of "Subdivision", or when you hear her age decades on the dustbowl folk of "Old Old Song" - "it's a story as common as a penny, son" she mutters, bent and grey with wearied disappointment, like an out-of-step firebrand left writing angry missives to an unreceptive local newspaper.
But Ani's better off when she's addressing her songs to a single subject, tailoring her thoughts to ingratiate themselves into a specific mind. These are her love songs, even when she's not singing about love - they're love songs regardless. What's precious about Ani in love song mode is her restlessness with the form; she has to approach it from as many different angles as possible, shifting between the guilt of adultery and the flush of a first crush and quiet desperation of a spinster with a thoughtful studiedness that - along with this project's enormity - oddly puts me in mind of Stephin Merrit. Hence the Christgau quotes above. But if Robert is right, if Ani and Stephin form opposite poles of songwriting (music as praxis vs clinical devotion to form) then surely this resemblance must be misguided. To have a persona as strong as Ani's is to disallow the chance of multiple perspectives, because no one person can be as varied as a songbook can be - right?
I'm not certain, but assuming that is correct, then perhaps we can distinguish Ani by saying it is her gift for metaphor that allows to constantly spin out an otherwise unified persona into new and occasionally captivating variations. So while I'm sure that the sentiment of "So What" (a wistful reflection on a guy too fucked up to love/be loved) is hideously familiar, the specific rendition here grabs me: a sighing "who are you now/and who were you then/that you thought somehow/you could just pretend/that you could figure it all out/the mathematics of regret/so it takes two beers to remember now/and five to forget/that I loved you so/yeah, I loved you, so what", with forlorn trumpet and clarinets refrains trailing in her wake, weakened and crippled by regret.
On Revelling/Reckoning this spinning-out becomes a fully pronounced stylistic dilettante approach. Some people I respect actively hate Ani for dipping her toes in different genres, but I reckon she's getting better it, striking closer to the feel of the unfamiliar style rather than merely appropriate its superficial markers. The late-night croon of "Revelling" features nothing more than an acoustic guitar and some snippets of trumpet, but with its strikingly perfect cigarette-dampened thickness of the vocals, sounding almost as muted as the trumpet, it nonetheless points to the ornate jazzy abstraction of Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. The album is full of moments like these, moments when Ani steps outside herself while remaining within herself, finding the tension between songwriter and persona and playing it for all it's worth. Her range - folk, jazz, funk, quasi-hip hop found-sound grooves, country and post-rockish instrumentals - isn't as impressive or deliberate as Merrits', but it helps Revelling/Reckoning reach a similar level of multifaceted completeness. An album not just to get lost in, but one that's aware of the possibility of getting lost, and tries to account for it. Like, "Okay, so if you're gonna spend a week listening to just me, I better give you a week's worth of music to listen to."
Markus Guentner has a number of abridged mp3 samples of his tracks up on his site. My intro to Guentner was via his ambient stuff for Kompakt, "Regensburg" and the In Moll album, which are about as smacked out (in both the nice, blissful sense and the glazed-over consciousness-exiting catatonia sense) as ambient gets - towering synth glaciers very slowly grating past eachother with the relaxed friction (and pace) of continental drift.
So it's nice to hear a different side of Guentner on his tracks for Matthias Schafhauser's Ware label. Ironically these tracks actually remind me of much of the work on Kompakt's Total compilations: open-hearted pop-techno that might be Saint Etienne or Magnetic Fields if either groups had grown up in Germany - pop whose emotional power is not in some transcendant quality (though there's that too sometimes) but rather is incribed into the structure of the music... transcendance as a craft that can be learned, maybe. No surprises then that Markus covers Talk Talk's "Such A Shame" - I'm half-surprised that he doesn't do Scritti Politti as well.
It's hard to pinpoint and pin down what it is that I like about this entire continuum of minimal house/microhouse/pop-techno etc. In a half-written article I've been ignoring these past few weeks I obsess over the sex/body-aesthetic within microhouse: the eagerness with which a host of different producers have attempted to recreate the sensation of physical friction, of invasiveness, and the way in which, like 2-step, this music attempts to marry the twin-but-divergent explorations of syncopation and repetition that, one or the other, seems to characterise all sex-focused dance music. Maybe it's that last point that lends much microhouse the sense of the ultimate for me.
But Guentner's stuff - sleek, occasionally mournful euro-glide - is as sexless as Kraftwerk. Its high-techness is in its opulent sheen and perfect reflectiveness rather than hyper-tactile fleshiness. We're talking stainless steel fridges, with maybe the occasional burst of computer malfunction, and not a human body in sight. Still, it's not totally un-sexy - if anything it reminds me of the (overused reference point alert!) amorous robots in Bjork's "All Is Full Of Love" video. It's a question of: how much does amour rely on physical sensations?
I'm going to try and be more disciplined in making sure the stuff I plan to write about actually gets written about - maybe by keeping everything short so that I don't get bored and leave it as draft #4237. For now let's get all retrospective - ha - and talk about pop from the last couple of months.
Res - Golden Boys "We've got these images, we need them to be true" - almost harshly nasal with contempt, Res does great scorn, but what makes "Golden Boys" so affecting is how clearly her show of strength is scar tissue lacing over barely healed wounds. Res may talk about "girls like me" who can see past the rock gods in the magazines, but it's a hard-won scepticism (why would she care otherwise?). "I saw you on TV and you made life look fun" is passed over quickly, a short and regrettable prelude to the more important stage of enlightenment, but it informs the rest of this ode to the fleeting, unreal celebrities who never delivered on the happiness they promised. "Making life look fun" is the grand crime, and while Res is willing to accept that these pretty boys probably aren't smart enough to recognise their complicity within the Great Lie, she's unwilling to accept that the shift from the dream of pop to self-aware maturity ("years go by and people grow") is as much a self-inflicted wound, that believing in the great lie is a privilege as much as a delusion, and that maturity necessarily brings with it bitterness.
Maybe "Golden Boys" is the evil twin to Britney's "Lucky" - if the latter represents the possibility of dialogue between pop and its audience - "Lucky" as personal revelation/dramatic irony/hilarious joke built on everything that the world has said or thought about Britney - then "Golden Boys" takes the self-consciously oppositional role as the mouthpiece for pop's discontents, its breach of pop's edifice (the charts) something of a deliberate Trojan horse tactic. It's entryist pop I guess, but it has little of the artifice that I'd associate with that term. To better qualify it could do with some perfect piston-pop production from Max Martin, and maybe in some abstract sense that would render it a better record than it is.
But I'm more than happy with the current arrangement: clattering, seemingly random drumming leading into a psychically-not-musically dispirited funk groove, all tinkling piano chords, zinging guitar and an entrancingly disjointed rhythm section, then cathartic string-assisted choruses, still with those ear-sizzling percussion excesses. Bizarrely, it reminds me of "Losing My Edge" - or rather, the first time I heard "Losing My Edge" I thought of this, and it only occurred to me later that both songs are pop records about how we relate to pop music. And as songs that look towards the past for their musical source material, both come away sounding oddly rejuvenated. Finally, with its natural soulful groove making eyes at skykicking-friendly ideas about rhythm, "Golden Boys" perhaps also exists in a relationship with the retro-happy nu-funk of Beyonce's "Work It Out", opposite sides of a coin staring straight at eachother as much as out onto different vistas (nu-soul and modern R&B). Needless to say I like it more than anything I've heard from Alicia Keys et. al.
(thanks to the excellent-lately Nathalie for the tip off)
The Streets - Let's Push Things Forward (Roll Deep Mix)
Mark One & CB - Amazon
Vincent J Alvis - Show Me The Way
Ms. Dynamite - Ramp!
Horsepower Productions - Classic Delux
Blazing Squad - Standard Flow (DND Vocal Mix ft. Elephant Man)
Heartless Crew - Heartless Theme
Jeremy Sylvester - Making Love
3rd Edge - In & Out (Jameson Mix)
Zed Bias - Ring The Alarm
Douglas Wolk's article on disco-influenced rock explains to me why I like about half of The Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Bang". It's in the way that the rawk dynamics ever-so-subtly allude to disco moves rippling under the surface, not quite explicitly but in so many little touches. There's the opening - that impossibly clapped-out rauch guitar riff; the taut, twisting anti-funk rhythm pushed till it's brittle enough to snap - and the menacing hand-clap assisted tango-strut outro, and the unhinged singer murmuring "the bigger, the better" in a way that's just the right side of Peaches. The more anthemic full-throttle chorus is still fine, but in a matter of seconds I can feel the band moving away from what I want them to be (which is what? A groovier Boss Hog?) and back towards a perfectly pleasant pop-punk sense of 'dangerous' simplicity which I can appreciate but never treasure in my heart. Maybe it's a gender fantasy thing: the straightahead surge of rock is so committed and unequivocal, even inevitable, and inevitability often just invites a mental jump to the dying moments of the song - let's be there already for god's sake, if where we're going is so important. In contrast, it's women who gots the funk that strike a chord with me, because their funk is one of pacing back and forth impatiently, an unclosed sense of uncertainty that makes the never-completed journey the point. The urgent insistent instability of their (who? ESG? The Slits?) grooves incites images of minds, hormones and hips swirling around with restless, rapacious discontent.