Just published a long (2200 words) article in the local rag re the "urban diaspora" (New York, London, er, Bombay, Kingston) which, coupled with my essay on SF-as-avant-garde in Jameson's postmodernism (3700 words) and organising my 21st b'day party for last Friday (very fun, theme was early nineties, my housemates ruled the event by dressing as Salt'n'Pepa, while I went as (sorta) the dark haired fellow from East 17 as seen playing piano in the "It's Alright" video clip) has conspired against Skykicking updates. I'm not inclined to post the article on the grounds that it's more of a Cliff's Notes than anything else, and heaps of people linked on the sidebar have done better on the topic. The most fun part was compiling a CD so that my editor could understand what the hell I was banging on about, which had the side-effect of him gettin' down to "Get Busy" in a major way on Friday night. More "Get Busy" converts are needed though - it's totally unknown in Australia!
ANYWAY. The idea that I had for a subsequent article I might write would be on the topic of microhouse. Or rather, what comes after microhouse-the-first. Was listening to Hypercity
the other day and it struck me that, while I love the album dearly, I'm not really interested in hearing that much more microhouse in that "central" category - clean minimal grooves with snaps, crackles 'n' pops and luscious synth textures. It's not boring yet, but it's been so perfected (particularly by MRI, but most especially on its early peak, Herbert's remix of Motorbass's "Ezio" from '96) that any new material in that vein is pretty much already obsolete. So maybe microhouse as a mini-genre is also starting to fit into that dead-star model for house - the center of the genre being effectively dead, or dormant, with all the interesting vital stuff happening on the orbital peripheries. Think "shuffletech", "digital disco", Coloma's micro-pop. What all of these share with "microhouse proper", apart from interlinked artists and labels, is a spiritual rather than necessarily sonic sense of shared purpose.
Listen to good shuffletech, best displayed on Michael Mayer's Peel Sessions mix, and it's clear that, formally at least, there's not much that connects it with the sound of Hypercity
or Herbert. The latter is all about inserting interruptions into a template house groove, making the basic structure seem to writhe or shimmer. Shuffletech meanwhile is almost monolithically consistent with its own groove structure, but it is the groove structure itself
that writhes, all on its own. Tracks like M. Mayer and Reinhard Voight's "Unter Null" - with its snares and hi-hats angled sharply against the kickdrum to create a swing-lilt, the friction of its stabbing bass riff counterpoint, the warp-and-weft of its Jam & Spoon guitar figure - bring to mind the house groove matrix as a rubix cube, where the top and bottom squares have been turned to diagonals, creating a structure dominated by peaks and depressions; where the house beat is a smooth forward glide, shuffletech turns each bar into miniature roller-coaster, the groove seeming to buck and shudder at every turn. It's not microhouse as we traditionally understand it, but it shares and extends microhouse's project of destabilising our assumptions of what a house groove is; and as with microhouse-proper, by radically distorting the fundamental action of the groove, shuffletech opens the possibility of each superstructural arrangement detail sounding much more innovative than it probably is - on "Unter Null", an arrangement that would otherwise be shamelessly Jam & Spoonish (or at least cynically Balearic) becomes revelatory. The juddering groove forces the pealing guitar into an entirely new role: it becomes the glue that holds the cranky, cantankerous beast of a groove together (something that would never be an issue in the seamless propulsion of trance), and the tension of these competing demands (groove component vs melodic detail) gives it an unexpected sense of organic purpose; the guitar is the product
of the groove, the trebly manifestation of the spurting beats'n'bass's internal logic.
So there's one option: extend the lifeline of this meta-narrative of experimental house music by introducing new base-level sonic tricks from out of leftfield (in this case, the ugly, jarring anti-grooves that seemed to typify and form the borders of shuffletech right up until, oh, Thomas Fehlmann's "Gratis" maybe?). The other option is zooming out from the base level, investigating how to insert rupture into house at a more superstructural level. This is where I think "digital disco" operates - or at least that which best fits the somewhat meaningless term. To my mind the best and most defining digital disco track is Luomo's "The Present Lover" (especially the slightly superior version on the actual Digital Disco
compilation): the traditional distortion of the house groove is almost entirely absent, but everything
at work here, from the stuttery male diva to the synthesised guitar to the achingly perfect procession of lovelorn jitter-riffs, seems somehow unique and vaguely disorientating. What was Luomo doing? The function of "The Present Lover", I think, is to deliberately present a fusion and re-infusion of all of house's best potentialities, combining sonics, emotions and pop into a glorious and seamless whole (cf. Basement Jaxx, who don't have much truck with seamlessness). Of course I don't think this effect is particularly new, both because house in general has done this intermittently since its inception, and because this particular version of it wasn't (in my opinion) started by Luomo or Force Tracks, but by Daft Punk... Discovery
is the first "digital disco" album, and "The Present Lover" is merely the rightful successor to "Digital Love", a house track purpose-made for transcendence.
The Present Lover
is the second proper Digital Disco album, and right now I like it about as much as I like Discovery
, which is to say that I love it dearly but not uncritically - both albums suffer from an unwillingness to fully embrace the possibilities they grasp in their best tracks. With Luomo, I suspect it's a case of wanting to remind people that he's not, like, a straightforward house producer, so he peppers tracks like "Talk In Danger", "Cold Lately" and the remixed "Tessio" with mistakes, glitches and stuttering effects that rupture the groove in the typical microhouse fashion - only, surprisingly, these moves are much more obvious and blatant than the comparatively organic profusions of Vocalcity
, to the point where they sound self-conscious. The best moments on the album are when he unabashedly reaches towards unblemished house-pop perfection - the tearjerker synth ripples of "Could Be Like This", the heartfelt refrain of "What Good", the endless depth of sincerity to the vows of fidelity on the flawless closer "Shelter". It doesn't sound like mainstream house, really - it's too intricate, too restless, too consistently focused on emotional intensity - but it's the sort of difference-to-the-mainstream that has the potential to change the mainstream rather than simply isolate itself, because it speaks the language of house music with eminent grace. Fittingly, propulsion and emotion are unified on this album - as a general rule, the more straightforward the groove is, the more correspondingly heartbreaking the song that houses it. There's this great trick Luomo uses on a couple of songs (eg. "Body Speaking" and "Could Be Like This" I think) where what sounds like the beginning of a very slow build-up into a full-steam groove is abruptly cut short by the unexpected return of the kick drum, and I imagine he's thinking of a lover trying to express in words their feelings of devotions, starting to phrase the sentences with their lips but being driven by frustration and the impatience of desire to simply take the object of desire into their arms and kiss them instead. It's an impatience with dancing around the forms of desire, with skating on the surface of emotions. Luomo himself might be impatient with stretching desire over twelve minutes of delicate, luscious unfulfilment when he could just puncture straight into the heart of it and dwell there in near-euphoric bliss.
In my head I've been calling what Luomo is doing "neuromanticism" - ignore William Gibson and the pun makes better sense. The main reference point is New Romanticism, and the broader project of New Pop in the early eighties: "smart" "outsider" musicians attempting to invade the territory of pop, to learn the language of straightforward emotions, to do it themselves and to perfect it. The idea of experimental producers necessarily doing pop music better than pop itself is uncomfortable for me, but pop-proper is a healthier beast now than it was twenty years ago, and there's no reason why Luomo and likeminded producers can't operate on the same level as Timbaland, The Neptunes, Shakedown, what have you. Whatever their motivations and results in the future, right now Luomo's love - of house, of pop, of love itself - sounds genuine, and sublime.