Had a semi-recent (perhaps unnecessarily heated) discussion on ILXOR w/ Jess re: the ongoing pre-eminence of house and whether it is justified. It's not, obviously, but I ended up being in the position of defending house anyway, which got me thinking a lot about why I do continue to like house, find it worth spending time, energy and critical thought on. One reason is because, well, it's fucking great to dance to, but that doesn't really advance it to a status beyond current drum & bass, which can also be fucking great to dance to but still seems for the purposes of discussion 'dead'.
Maybe house is 'dead' too (in fact it almost definitely is; is this my way of saying sorry, Jess?) but it's harder to say it with certainty because, well, if house is dead, where is the corpse so that we can bury it? Unlike drum & bass, house hasn't arrived at a singular endpoint but rather a messily differentiated series of gradations, like dying stars in an impossibly over-extended universe. It strikes me that house isn't even really a genre anymore, but a set of stylistic co-ordinates which other dance musics exist in relation to. Jess said, correctly, that all the interesting house music being made these days isn't really house - Basement Jaxx, Luomo etc. are all improving or debasing house, and by including them within the definition of 'house' we render 'house' meaningless. Good. Perhaps we don't really need 'proper' house anymore. Perhaps it serves us better by being a non-existent reference point. I'd go so far as to say that house's current best function is to work as a magnetic north for artists working on the peripharies, on the borders between house and other countries. All the best house these days - microhouse obviously, but also electro, NY jack house, Basement Jaxx, Todd Edwards, Daft Punk - is that which exhibits a tension between becoming full-fledged house and spiralling off elsewhere, like planets orbiting a star in precise but dynamic gravitational balance. If the star exerts too much gravitational force, the planets plummet into heat-death (the warm, mushy tedium of "proper" house), but if it relaxes they disappear, free radicals travelling the solar system. Maybe the latter story is more interesting, more exciting and even plain ole' better (see "the hardcore continuum"), and maybe the fate of peripheral-house - to endlessly go round and round its redundant star - is hardly cause for celebration, but 2-step, the first musical obsession that I was able to both register and articulate intelligbly, has instilled in me an overriding passion for counterbalanced forces, for musics that constantly teeter on the edge between strict groove-conformity and innovation, and you'll see that potentially sad fact lurking in almost every theoretical explanation I offer for the music that I like.
Hooj's Le Future Le Funk compilation dedicates itself to this margin-walking orbital progression, taking in a good deal of the interesting impulses flickering within house at the moment - the chimerical rhythmic flickers and chromatic delicacy of microhouse, Daft Punk-style open-hearted emotionalism, the brutish pound of Audio Bullies, the avant-classicism of Metro Area, and lotsa great electro. As margin-expeditions go, it's fairly polite - there's not actually much in the way of "real" microhouse here, for example, though the fluttery, wet-sounding disintegrating grooves of Chris Lum or SWAG, say, certainly imply it - but its all-encompassing celebration of house's capacity for anti-purism is heart-warming, and eminently listenable. What I think is notable about it, though, is how affecting - physically and emotionally - it is for such a relatively low-concept collection; which is to say, this is a collection of mixed together tracks designed to sound good on a dancefloor or in your headphones rather than a statement along the lines of Digital Disco or even Immer. Even for those of us who recognise the value of functional dance music, there's often a near-imperceptible ideological divide that keeps us away from, I dunno, a Global Underground compilation while we happily embrace Shakedown and S Club 7: a distaste for any emphasis on "quality dancefloor sounds" that seeks to limit its own capacity for existence and effect beyond the dancefloor setting - spiritually and culturally devoid dance music, maybe? But if Hooj are likewise spiritually and culturally devoid, you'd never know it from this thought-provoking, tear-jerking, booty-shaking compendium.
Too many top moments to recount, but here are a couple anyway: the giggly glamour of Danmass's "Haze (Danmass Remix)", swathed in cocaine strings and globular synth squiggles drawn in crayon; the simultaneously foggy and glorious electro-pop of Oko's "Because", an imaginary collaboration between Data 80 and Daft Punk; the plushly furnished clouds of sadness in RJ Project's "What Colour Is Love (Red Jerry's Monkeyhouse Mix)", a gorgeous companion to Michael Mayer's "Falling Hands"; the sparkling Sascha Funke-style tech-house of 16B's "Behind The Face"; the jitterry, timestretched and mysterious anthem-pop of Psycho Radio's "In The Underground", which oddly reminds me of Depeche Mode. On this last track you can really hear how much house is benefiting from the space opened up for it by the rise of electroclash: its casual use of an addictive song hook (with that wordless, groaned chorus!), its metallic glitter and joyfully remorseless grind are all straight from electroclash, but its warm jetstreams of evil bass render it closer to the brutal house machinics of early Frankie Knuckles, early Warp, early 4 Hero. Could this have been a mainstream house hit four years ago?
Above and beyond them all though: Ewan Pearson's Ni NRG Remix of Freeform Five's "Perspex Sex", a frankly astonishing electroclash masterpiece that seriously sets a new standard for the entire genre - that pulverising electro riff, like an icy fist squeezing your heart; those androgynous ectstatic/painful sighs that could double for lions' roars; that ever-so-slight syncopation to the beat that could just go on forever; that commanding male-robot who wants to change my name as a sign that he owns me; that drained diva demanding, "gotta give me what I want!/gotta give me what I need!", cut up into an endless procession of me-me-me desire ('gottagivemewhatiwhatigottagimmegottagimme..."); those arch, dramatic orchestral synth-stabs outlawed since 1982; the eerie the-end-is-near strings that swoop at the end, like angels sent to destroy a culture mired in hedonistic self-worship, or their own sexual depravity and indulgence giving birth to some new force destined to rise up to destroy them - this is the music that plays whenever Angel has sex and "turns", clearly; the soundtrack to a thousand apocalyptic sex scenes. At this point, theories fail me; how could I deny this music, even if I wanted to?
What I think is immediately noticeable about Mis-Teeq's "Scandalous", and what I consequently love about it, is how clearly it's been designed to register impact. Take a straightforward string-riffing "No More Drama"-style Dre groove but remove the slight crippling hesitancy that Dre loves so much, add some tense, rising horn chords and buzzy bass fills, take some not-necessarily-memorable choruses and at the least make sure that there are three (three!) of them in a row, and then add a perfectly calibrated amount of Alesha's rapping, designed to stand out as a necessary element of the song (cf. "One Night Stand") but not actually interrupt its monolithic flow in any way (cf. the remixes of "B With Me" and "Roll On"). And then, finally, sirens. Of course. There's no way in which "Scandalous" is anything but derivative, but with Mis-Teeq that's hardly the point is it? Or is it? I think I was resigned to Mis-Teeq's essential derivativeness when I first bought Lickin' On Both Sides - the garage numbers aside, there was never much sense that they were doing anything novel; they were just doing it so damned well. Their subsequent development, however, with its emphasis on innovative remixes and lotsa rapping, suggested Mis-Teeq were something more: a pop group in transition; the singing, dancing, chart-topping embodiment of the urban diaspora.
On Eye Candy they play with and deliberately highlight this essential conflict within their nature: product vs innovators. The innovation stuff is very good, often thoroughly great: "Dance Your Cares Away" is more hyperactive garage action, reinvoking that thrilling tightrope between 2-step twist and breakbeat clatter; "All In One Day" cycles through sounds and approaches with a self-conscious awareness of the group's lack of boundaries; "Nitro" employs meta call-&-response and a groove so aggressive most rappers would tread carefully; the Baby Cham-guesting "That's Just Not Me" isn't as good as Foxy Brown's similarly Jamaican-slanted efforts, but its groove's as slinky and exotic as anything dancehall's produced lately, and Alesha's own dread-toasting on "Do Me Like That" is more than passable; the title track not only imagines a point where the group's singing/rapping ratio passes equalisation point, but concocts the most exotic-sounding, danceable groove you'll hear this year, the closest reference point I can think of being the explicitly feminine quasi-garage Zed Bias was playing on tour; closing track "Just For You" is, if anything, too out there.
And yet, and yet: this ambition sounds so deliberate, like Mis-Teeq have yet to internalise this sense of boundless possibility. The territory explored on Lickin' On Both Sides was clearly staked out; here, they hold their new territory tenuously. You can't hear it so much in the experimental songs themselves (all of which brim with confidence), but in how they rub up against the other stuff here: the moist, almost gooey Janet Jackson balladry of "Strawberrez" and "It's Beginning To Feel Like Love", the pleasingly hard-edged but ultimately familiar "How Does It Feel" and "Best Friends"; the classicist hip hop soul of "Can't Get It Back". I like all of these tracks to varying degrees, but they have a slightly uncomfortable feel to them, like Mis-Teeq aren't sure whether they're supposed to push them further or not. In contrast, the two thoroughly derivative tracks here - "Scandalous", and the "What About Us"-rerun "My Song" - feel so absolutely unselfconscious and undeniable, boasting grooves you can't help but ignore and choruses you can't help but smile at. It's clear that Mis-Teeq are both product and innovators; I'd be hard-pressed to say which they're better at though.
I've been meaning to link to Guy's (and the unknown Elanor's) new blog Symposiasts for a while now, but I was waiting for a particularly good/relevant thread to direct y'all towards. Happily I knew it was just a matter of time before Guy weighed in on Madonna's new one (which is way less interesting than "Die Another Day", obviously), and his broader Madge critique is pretty spot-on. Like Guy, I'm pissed off by the banning of the "American Life" video not because it's conservative or ethically inconsistent or potentially calculated, but because it's now clear that Madonna's trademarked tendency to "go too far" is never gonna actually go too far ever ever again. The Madonna of '92 wouldn't have made, then banned, the Sex book, even though it probably would have done wonders for sales of Erotica (sometimes my vote for BEST ALBUM EVER! - although often not, admittedly). This is why she rocks. Or rocked. But go read Symposiasts in the meantime.
If The Blue Nile were the most profoundly and resolutely humanist of the early eighties studio pop groups (“discuss…”), theirs was most definitely a technologically savvy brand of humanism; the gleaming electronic surfaces of their songs evoking a glittering city of the near-future, wherein humanity is not radically changed but, rather, radically changeless, fundamentally grounded in the timelessness of emotions. For The Blue Nile, there was no world past or future in which the question “Do I love you?” cannot be asked, or answered affirmatively.
The potential futurism of The Blue Nile is an aspect of their music that is tempting to pass over; listening to the burnished, gauzy atmospherics of 1989’s Hats, it’s easy to assume that the trio’s ultimate desire was merely to sound expansive and expensive, and that they dabbled in electronics because they were handy rather than because they placed any emphasis in them. This is partially true, of course: I never get the sense that there was a conscience aesthetic of futurism at work within their music, and it’s entirely possible that their songs could just have easily been made with a conventional guitar-based set-up. I suspect though that if that had in fact been the case, their music would have lacked its essential strangeness, that remarkable emotional and sonic bravery that make their first two albums so compelling even now.
The spare, experimental production on 1983’s A Walk Across The Rooftops tells the story best, the overlapping and interlocking patterns of piano, string pads, samples, electronics and especially found sounds rendering nervous and unpredictable the grand inevitability of the choruses and refrains. If The Blue Nile’s songs are triumphantly unified, this unity is a simplicity containing within it worlds of complexity and difference - the final love song of a city that plays host to countless private love songs, in the hiss and clatter of the trains and the muted chatter on the streets. It’s this contradiction that allows their first two albums, along with the first side of Kate Bush’s The Hounds of Love, to sound like the lost heralds for a stillborn movement: a combination of eighties pop modernity with a grand, stirring but utterly individual romanticism - a ZTT for the heart.
Upon first listening to their first album Silverware, I pegged Coloma as reinvoking The Blue Nile’s project (if it can be called that) through the lens of Bark Psychosis - by which I mean that the their sonic approach (simply put, atmospheric indie + micro rhythms) was not purely utopian but rather suggestive of a potential utopia. In retrospect though, there’s a crucial difference between Bark Psychosis’ and Silverware’s approaches: namely, that Bark Psychosis checked their reliance on aural beauty in order to lend what was there a wistful sadness, a sense of paradise lost, an appreciation for ambiguity that they probably learnt from Talk Talk. Silverware, in retrospect, seems to check its reliance on aural beauty out of some unnecessary reflexive tendency towards austerity. Microhouse beats are present but deemphasised and self-deprecating, choruses are frequently absent, and almost everything is drenched in mournful organ drones. Again in retrospect, all these decisions seem tremendously unwise.
I wouldn’t have concluded any of this though without hearing Coloma’s new album Finery, which is not only an astonishing improvement on the duo’s first album, but also puts aside any lenses and wholeheartedly resurrects The Blue Nile’s blueprint for romanticist experimental pop. Listening to the simple joy that infuses so many of these tracks - the wistful “You Are Here”, the plaintively optimistic “Summer Clothes”, the breathtakingly panoramic “Welcome to Arcadia”, the enraptured “Coat of Senses” - it’s hard to believe Coloma ever thought the dour blues and greys of their debut were an adequate frame for their vision.
Sonically, their songs are almost completely transformed: the former static beats and mournful drones are replaced by wonderfully precise, frequently jaunty rhythms and a lustrous web of electronic sparkles, piano chords and warm guitar. It’s no coincidence that this description is remarkably close to the one I used above for A Walk Across The Rooftops; the way both albums approach the use of sound is startlingly similar. As with The Blue Nile, Coloma’s formal sonic context (microhouse?) seems to have less and less bearing on their work, not because Coloma are explicitly moving away from the sound of their label Ware - if anything the underlying house carriage is stronger, and the vaguely muscular groove of “If You Can’t Be Good” and the slow-burn disco of “Illegible Love” demonstrate an increased appreciation for house’s physicality, although I also detect hints of Plaid and Boards of Canada this time around - but because the songs themselves are so clearly etched out, so openly courting the perception of timelessness.
Whereas on Silverware the musical vision seemed to weigh heavily on the songs themselves, here there is a seamless and organic relationship between arrangement and song, with the latter always perfectly complemented (rather than augmented) by the former. Coloma use intricate electronic arrangements the same way that The Blue Nile did - because it helps them to better visualise the world of their songs. “If You Can’t Be Good”, for example, makes allusions to the taut, rigid friction of the dancefloor with its surly bass riff and slashing snares, but its glorious, dramatic choruses so thoroughly dominate the song that the “aggressive” groove resembles a translucent mask through which the song’s face peers out. On the one hand, that muscularity is crucial to the song, providing the tense drama that frames singer Rob Taylor’s portrait of an unscrupulous, vivacious muse. On the other hand, it is not by itself the arranging or even dominant force within the song; it is content to play a supporting role in the service of the whole. I’m reminded of Disco Inferno too – that uncanny ability to resolve conflicting musical elements into something quite purposeful. But Coloma have bigger choruses than Disco Inferno had, which makes the effect much more pronounced.
I’m mindful of not relying on my chosen point of comparison too much, as there are pretty substantial differences. Coloma are perhaps less naïve than The Blue Nile, more prone to moments of knowing irony, as much reminiscent of Martin Gore’s gentler moments of desire (not innocent desire, but a desire for innocent desire). Maybe it’s from Gore that Rob Taylor draws the almost rococo flourishes of his lyrical concerns, which are part Tim Rice neatness and part intricate observation. “I could hear the drummers drumming at the head of the parade,” he sighs on “The Tailor”, the album’s most unabashedly lyrical moment, “I saw you coming as I watched the whole charade/all dressed up in your finery and with somewhere to go/I asked you do you know me/you said you don’t think so/I was the dapper dresser/in my buttonhole a rose/I’m the tailor who sews the emperor’s clothes.” This is typical of Taylor’s style: a heady, almost unpleasant concoction of bird’s eye detail, metaphor and cliché, literary and mystical allusion, and above and beyond it all a poetic precision that’s almost inhuman.
Check the perfect intersection of rhyme and alliteration in the chorus of “If You Can’t Be Good” – “if you can’t be good/be beautiful, be brash/if you can’t be good/be radical, be rash/be insolent, inspired/be decadent, desired/be everything I knew you would/if you can’t be good.” It’s the emphasis on craft as well feeling, coupled with Taylor’s compulsive urge to “set the scene”, that gives Finery the feel of an unfolding musical, with each song pointing to a moment of emotional transcendence, of transformation, crisis, resolution. “Welcome to Arcadia” – a song whose unfolding beauty reminds me of nothing so much as Bow’s glorious “Royalise”– explicates the musical idea by appearing as a self-conscious “opening number” (actually it’s track 4), complete with a shopping list of carefully assembled details (“decaying iron railings/deck chairs set out in rows/orange rust sticking to my fingers/I hail the humped back and hooked nose/past the death star and horatio’s bar/shivering in the stiff sea breeze/in the pale end of the season sun I look through the scratched lps/older than the birfs and bees…”) that cycle around the simple refrain of the title, “Welcome to Arcadia…”
This, Coloma are saying, is the basis of their particular utopia: a profusion of small lives and stories building to almost unbearable interwoven complexity. The tendency toward classicism that complements their musical modernity is not like the simple timeless of The Blue Nile; rather, it appears almost archaic in its mesmerising specificity. This time-distortion (or, rather time-communion) achieves the same end, however, in positing the future as the stage upon which we shall continue to live out age-old concerns. The song remains the same; the sounds change.