Firstly, it simply cannot be overstated how perfectly “Ring The Alarm” works as an opening salvo. I don’t know about everyone else on the dancefloor, but the thrill of recognition sparked by the half-speed reggae intro put me in the best mood I’ve been in for ages, a high only topped when the groove dropped, with those slippery breaks that sound almost out-of-time, suspended against the groove. It’s hard to explain what Bias does here, or the effect it has; the closest I can get is that you end up dancing at the beats rather than too them, like the rhythm is a mentasm riff or 303 hook that you have to demonstrate your appreciation for.
But “Ring The Alarm” is more than that: it’s the glorious contrast between the dolorous reggae wail and the machine-gun MCing, the dramatic seriousness of the bassline, the irresistible chromatic density and s(cr)umptuousness of the Jamaican flavour and the outrageous exploitation of slow/fast dynamics, all combine to make “Ring The Alarm” garage’s best pop song this year, more endearing, more impressive, more irrepressible than anything around.
The rest of the set was a slight comedown – how could it be anything else? – but it was still terribly enjoyable. Bias showcased his favoured new sound: an intensely addictive and sexy minimal latin-flavoured approach that is quite at odds with the harsh abstraction of his Forward peers. Oddly, the closest reference I can think of is tribal house, though this stuff was more compelling than that comparison might suggest. Perhaps what Bias and the producers he spun are doing is constructing a non-pop, non-R&B definition of “feminine garage.” I’d hitherto thought of Horsepower Productions as doing this, but even Horsepower merely retain the femininity inherent to the slinky 2-step beat; this stuff was almost mono-maniacally focused on intensifying it.
Which makes sense, as when I interviewed him a few weeks ago Bias was anxious to stress the importance of keeping the ladies on the dancefloor, and the need to focus on swing, to not fall into the trap of simply making masculine garage. The interesting result of this overtly tropical sound is that, while it’s as syncopated as anything in garage, it’s also surprisingly easy to dance to. The rhythms feel more natural (but not in the leaden, numbingly obvious manner of breakbeat garage) more logical to the body if not the brain. It was quite an odd experience – much of my physical enjoyment of garage is derived from the challenge its grooves provide – but it made the music horrendously enjoyable, with all the befuddled dancers around me finally moving in perfect sync.
Zed also played the two big Menta tracks – the clicky, nervy “Sound of the Future” and the implacably booming, constantly mutating Ms Dynamite joint “Ramp” (how does Dynamite inspire garage producers to make such a virtue of minimalism, I wonder?), and even these harder, very slightly scarier records fit right in to his modus operandi, as if by sheer contiguity Bias was bringing to life the subtle, flickering snake-line sexual energy that pulses at the heart of these tunes (and likewise, they were oddly much easier to dance to than they should have been). Fittingly, Menta is a bit like an odder version of Sticky, the heavy reliance on dynamics and unusual grooves contrasting with a rough’n’ready no-nonsense production approach, such that when you get a good partnership – as is the case with Dynamite – the result is a bit like a garage spin on The Neptunes’ recent work. Unsurprising, maybe, seeing as “Grindin’ (Selector Mix)” in particular sounds just like a slower take on recent garage.
Somewhat disappointingly, Bias ended with an extended session of the syncopate-sophisticate jazz/funk/house he makes as part of Phuturistix, and although the sounds were nice, there was an immediate reduction in tension, in vibe. Clearly he needs to ditch the sonic refinery, get back into the studio and make more tracks like “Ring The Alarm.” As many as he likes, I don’t care – I’ll love all of them.
Here's a mix I made for an end-of-exams party I plan to make in a couple of weeks:
De La Soul - Ooh!
Backstreet Boys - The Call (Neptunes Remix)
No Doubt - Hey Baby (Outkast Remix)
Busta Rhymes - Pass the Courvoisier Part II
Truth Hurts - Addictive (Dirty Remix)
Noreaga - Nothin'
Erick Sermon ft. Redman - React
Faith Evans - Burning Up (Remix ft. Missy)
Missy Elliot - Work It
Bubba Sparxxx - Ugly (Remix ft. Ms Jade)
Elephant Man - Dr. Dre Riddim
Timo Maas - Doom's Night (Stanton Warriors Remix)
Sticky ft. Lady Stush - Dollar Sign
Pay As U Go Crew - Champagne Dance (Destruction Remix)
Clipse ft. Kardinal Offishal & Sean Paul - Grindin' (Remix)
Masters At Work - Work!
Basement Jaxx - Flylife (Brixton Mix I think - the one with crazy ragga vocals)
Aphrodite ft. Barrington Levy - All Over Me
It's no Gold Teeth Thief, but I'm pleased by how well this sort of pan-flava approach when there's a ruling ideology behind it (cf. eclecticism for its own sake) - here I guess I'm going for some sort of 'urban diaspora' thingy (fuck that sounds awful) although I'm hoping it's more party-minded than intellectual.
What I love about all these tracks is how gratuitous their exoticism/melodrama is. Most glaring example: in "React", after the bollywood vocal sample when Erick says "Whatever she said, then I'm that!" - funny sounds and samples purely servicing a "DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE?!?!" mindset. See also Pharell in "Nothin" - "homeboy, I came to party," he drawls so faux-thuggish, so simulacrum-of-menace that you can almost see the unnaturally-natural shades of his stage make-up. Meanwhile the end of the cd is pretty much just artists getting Jamaicans to sing on their stuff because, well, it sounds good.
The other attraction is the bootleg-like mix'n'match of flavours: I love Elephant Man's "Dr. Dre Riddim" (provided to me by the eternally heroic Nick K), which is just Elephant Man doing his stuff over Dr. Dre's "Still D.R.E."; this as well as the Clipse remix have this air of interchangable internationalism - like an international spare parts pop shop - that I predictably find irresistible.
The one track I should remember to talk about in detail is the Destruction Remix of Pay As U Go Crew's "Champagne Dance". "Champagne Dance" is one of those tunes that suffers from a surfeit of good versions - do you choose the smoov tropical soca of the original or the soulful/shrill jitter-funk of the Sticky Mix? Maybe this one instead: the Destruction Mix was done by a producer from Adam F's KAOS camp, and it sounds pretty much like a garage take on the KAOS album - ie. hilariously overblown end-of-the-world melodrama. Rough bass surges, blaring synths and valkyrie strings fill out the busy, taut groove in a display of slightly unhinged kitchen-sink maximalism. The best thing about it though is how brilliantly it recontextualises the MCs - who, are let us be honest, rapping about bling-bling culture and not much more. Here they sound thoroughly matched to the darkness of the music, their understated murmurs suggestive of a quiet menace and/or a deceptive collectedness, their high-speed delivery not merely stereotypically fast but rather trying desperately to keep up with (or keep on top of) the over-excited arrangement. It's a surprisingly sensitive piece of recontextualisation for a remix that otherwise seems eager to punch out any pretenders to the throne.
1. Luomo - The Present Lover People scratched their heads when they heard "Diskonize Me" and "Body Speaking" - why was Luomo retreating from his inspired melding of house, dub and IDM towards, well, pure disco house? I agreed with those who felt that this was slightly inferior product, but I'm sympathetic to Luomo's motivations - an infatuation with disco, with its romantic non-stop pump, its lush physicality and it's heartbreaking narratives, is pushing him deeper into its center and away from the technical peculiarities of his former work. "The Present Lover" is the pay-off: something like an endless volley from bliss-bridge to bliss-bridge, all urgent-meaningless evocations and heartrending disco riffs, while a lonesome guitar serenades a distant diva with a bereft, hopeless wail. "I'm the present, the true lover," the male singer exclaims (and aren't male singers just so much better for Luomo anyway?) his voice heavy with unvoiced desire as it slowly glides across the groove, dragged into graceful whirpools of sonic manipulation and stutter-riffs. He sounds confident, arrogant even, but its a coke-fuelled illusion, a show of strength ("nobody does it better!") concealing gaping vulnerabilites, a deep sense of inadequacy. Wannabe Cassanovas, they're playing our song.
2. Holly Valance - Down Boy I don't understand people who object to "Down Boy"; I mean, "Kiss Kiss" might be vulnerable to accusations of trying to hard (and even then it's pretty good), but this, this is near perfection. Less flashy but more captivating than "Kiss Kiss", Down Boy isn’t so much a pop song as an urgent throb. With its quiet Indian-jungle beats and tensely strummed guitar doing their best to avoid any sort of melody, it’s probably the most subtle piece of chart-pop in living memory, albeit with a fantastically twisted electro bridge. Holly adamantly clings to her ‘coy whispers and purrs’ preset – on the evidence at hand it seems actually singing isn’t an option for her – but it works perfectly, as does the Madonna-or-whore narrative. Raises the question: why is it that despite living in the age of machine-pop, so few pop stars have thought about using it their machines to become quieter? In any case, someone should send flowers to Holly’s handlers for a job well done.
3. Skandalouz United - Tiger; Gritty - Step Off Eager to prove that Horsepower Productions aren't just an inspired one-off, there seem to be a number of garage producers aping their dub-heavy, dainty-but-frantic beatslaying style at the moment, and it's all to the good. Most pretenders can't match the Horsepower trio for eerie reggae vibes, instead opting for more straightforward dancefloor spazz-out pyrotechnics, like a slightly more wired take on The Wideboys in their heyday. There's some great examples on dubplate.net right now: Skandalouz Unltd's "Tiger" is manic tropicalia, recasting exoticism as dangerousness with its fiddly beats and big bass hits - even the most over-the-top bongo fetishists in jungle never got so fucked-up as this. "Step Off" is perhaps even better, retaining a latent tropical flow but adding horror-ska organs and and eerie sound-effects ("look out! look out! look out!") in an even more blatant bid for Twilight Zone territory. The secret to this stuff is that the beats barely touch the ground, hotstepping across glowing coal basslines in a manner that could be agility, could be pained retraction. There's no time to rest, gotta keep moving.
4. Martini Bros - Boy/Girl Martini Bros may be merely another one of these micro-electro-pop groups that are springing up everywhere, but has anyone done this sort of thing better than "Flash"? The ominous bass riffs, the synth whines, the slightly-too-polite-to-be-trusted vocals - it's one of the very few songs that makes me feel that dreaded "why doesn't this get into the charts???" wistfulness. The snatches of the rest of the album I've heard suggest that the boys also take their cues from My Bloody Valentine - or Ride maybe - and Saint Etienne (if you can believe it), but "Boy/Girl" is pure micro-pop confection, a ventrical-pumping dub-house groove underpinning the oddly melancholy refrain, "disco girl/disco boy" while smears of tonal colour in the background imagine scores of emotional casualties on the dancefloor.
5. Camielle - Yada Yada Yada How many acts flagrantly aping Lina will it take for the original (and the best) to finally get some attention? "Yada Yada Yada" is even more strict in its adherence to Lina's blueprint than Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style" - ragtime samples, affected bluesy vocals and almost the exact same tune as Lina's peerless "Watch Your Mouth (Baby Blue)". Luckily then Camielle executes her homage perfectly, and is blessed with a nicely dirtied up variation on the 1920s theme from Dallas Austin that sounds almost live in its random clash of instruments and sounds (is that Kate Bush being sampled towards the end?). Two things make "Yada Yada Yada" extra cool: first, the lyric "you see, he was cool until he started to believe all the lyrics on his hip hop cd, tried to tell him that he wasn't Jay-Z, so don't try to please me!" - it sounds better than it reads, and I like the idea that Camielle's gonna pull herself up the ladder by blatantly referencing everything around her. Second: the subtle and shorts bursts of dancehall toasting she slips into; I love the idea that R&B is now so full of cultural and stylistic allusions that artists can pick and choose what they want from the shelf like kids in a candy store.
1. Madonna - Die Another Day This sounds better as a buzzy radio curio than as a clean and pristine MP3, perhaps just because it's so cool to think of this pumping out of soundsystems around the country. As I was saying on ILM somewhere, what is really striking about "Die Another Day" is that it's the first Madonna song in quite a while that isn't immediately referable to a better non-Madonna song - this sounds genuinely odd and entrancing. Comprising a stop-start mess of electro beats, a profusion of micro-details, a swamp of sludgy acid whines and a flock of harrying cut-up string riffs, as good as "Die Another Day" is musically, really this song begins and ends with Madonna's performance. Still vocoderised, but this time meaningfully, she exclaims "Sigmund Freud/analyse this" - a rubbishy look-at-me line, but one which gives weight and context to everything else here that we might otherwise pass over quickly and unconcernedly. "I'm gonna destroy my ego/I'm gonna close my body now/I'm gonna suspend my senses/I'm gonna delay my pleasure/I'm gonna close my body now" she chants like a mantra, a final plea. There's always been a certain will-to-oblivion within Madonna's more electronic work ("Deeper & Deeper", "Bedtime Story", "Skin", "Impressive Instant") but "Die Another Day" moves beyond dancefloor daze in favour of total ossification. She's not just a disco machine, she's a dreaming android
with major developmental problems. Obviously this is a great, great thing.
2. Amerie - Need You Tonight I love "Why Don't We Fall In Love" - shimmering aural confection like nothing since "Girls, Girls, Girls", and Amerie's is the most interesting facsimile of soul since Mary J Blige started out. "Need You Tonight" isn't better, but it's just as good, which is impressive in itself. Hard to describe, this one: an ultra-slow dance groove, dirty bass drops setting off scintillating flights of glass-smash percussion, while Amerie gets a bit raw and ragged with emotion over the top. Apparently this is her idea of a club track, but it's too deliciously frustrating for that, too painfully drawn out, too interested in emoting all over the place (for once in a good way) to ever really settle into something as uncomplicated as a hook. Amerie's idea of a club, maybe, is one of spiked desires, of agonising pauses and missed chances. Can't wait to hear the album.
3. Babu Stormz - Electricity; Blowfelt ft. Slarta John - Back Up Back Up (Mr. Shabz Mix) These two are linked in my mind for their none-more-perverse Jamaican-garage biznizz. "Electricity" lurches and stomps with drunken abandon, unsure of whether it wants to be 4/4 or dancehall, while a succession of female vocal stylings - ruffneck ragga rumbles, raucous hardcore chants ("rollin' like a trilogy!") and gaseous diva wails - cater for every taste. "Back Up Back Up" is the male-fronted sequel "Booo!" never had, the same evil dirge bass propping up frantic, live-sounding 2-step rhythms while Slarta gives a superb don't-test-me performance, incomprehensible to these ears and perhaps all the better for it. For all their weirdness and wiredness, both are irresistible pop songs. see also: the great Bump & Flex Dub of Ladies First's "Last Chance", where just before the excellent bass-driven hook the girls warn, "Don't be afraid of the bassline!"
4. Erick Sermon ft. Redman - React I quite like Sermon's last album Music - there's a certain truck-rockin' consistency to it that makes it quite hypnotic - but the sameyness tends to frustrate me, mainly because Erick himself doesn't captivate as easily as Redman can on a similar sort of track. "React" solves both problems, bringing in Redman to spice things up in his effortless manner, and jumping on the back of the latest big trend: Indian sound-tourism. On "React" though the Indian vibe feels more arbitrary than in other tracks, just something to distract you while you nod your head to the stomping beat. I mean, it works well (the little vocal samples are lovely) but it sounds more like some cool sound that the producer stumbled across than some deliberate lurch into exoticism. Which is actually sort of cool in its own way: it suggests that Timbaland-style adventurousness is being naturalised within hip hop, such that the common intention is simply to make a slamming track, but the ingredients for such a track are expanded far beyond yer usual funk samples. And, previous comments notwithstanding, I love Sermon's flow too, his epithets carrying a stamp of authority that strangely reminds me of recent Posdnuous, investing lines like "Come through and storm the block like El Nino!" with a... credibility? self-belief?... that makes them sound much stronger than they otherwise might be.
5. Further - Stone Cold (Original Mix) Playhouse are probably the most Chicago-obsessed of the big and great German house labels, and one of my favourite tracks on their Famous When Dead compilation is Freaks' "Turning Orange (To Please You)", where a lust-struck Romanthony-esque male diva spends nine minutes working himself into a sweat over an endless, remorseless funk-inspired house rhythm. Further's "Stone Cold" (on Ricardo Villalobos's Lo-Fi Stereo label) is less frenetic than "Turning Orange" but more decadent, its clapped-out disco-funk groove and Zapp-like electrobass burbles latching onto a subtler, sleazier sort of pleasure. The current German house paradigm, apart from its plethora of sonic thrills, has also created as a side-benefit a sort of quiet, voyeuristic eroticism that's as German as Kraftwerk. It's this feel - hammered out lovingly by artists like Markus Nikolai, Decomposed Subsonic and Closer Musik - that Further latch on to. "Have you seen her? There she goes. It's all about her walk and her pose" a quiet robot-not-robot explains, and then, "it's all about the cut of her clothes." Lurching back and forth suggestively for seven minutes, "Stone Cold" is real cocaine music, as dazzling and dizzying as anything on Daft Punk's Discovery, and almost as thrilling.