Tuesday, April 20, 2004
While its songfulness quotient is always on the rise, the role of the singer in the microhouse/pop/electro corner has largely been limited to that of the cipher or siren. As dance music first and foremost, most of these songs - even those of a neuromantic persuasion - shy away from personality in favour of deliberate and precise stylisation: as with the traditional house diva, the vocal is pure signifier. This remains so regardless of the singularity or the uniqueness of the grain of the vocal or nature of lyrical conceits on display. In the intentionally generic post-Kraftwerk effeteness of the male German vocal so predominant in the genre, the essential absence of Luomo's desiring divas, and even the arch histrionics of Coloma's Rob Taylor, there is a sense that the purpose of the vocal is purely or largely effect, and not for it to act as a conduit for some active consciousness behind the music (let's leave aside the question of whether such a thing is actually possible - it's the sense of its possibility that I'm interested in).

I don't think this overwhelming preference is lamentable, really: the very undemanding gentleness of the pop persona in microhouse is a very large part of its charm, its retiring nature eminently suited to a style of dance where the tension between songfulness and trackiness remains, and should remain, a going concern. But this very constriction of possibilities inevitably raises the question: is such a formulation an essential component of microhouse's engagement with pop? If the music sought to prioritise the personality of the singer, would it remain microhouse, or would it become something else?

That Princess Him's album More Equal Than Others seems to be grouped in with stuff like Peaches suggests that, indeed, the decision to prioritise the persona of the singer necessarily places this outside the parameters of microhouse. The Peaches comparison is perhaps not so unfair: the thick and clunky electro-flavoured house grooves which the duo favour actually remind me more of a middle ground between Playhouse and Areal, but using a very broad lens one might be forgiven for thinking they edge toward "Set It Off" territory. And yes, the female vocalist (Barca) is strident and often brazenly sexy, and she has a song called "Madonna" which starts of with shouting and ends with an interpolation of "Express Yourself" and it's all very blank postmodern innit? But the point of convergance between Princess Him and Peaches for me is actually the same point where they separate: Peaches is so focused in on personality and statement that it's the music which becomes mere cipher; sometimes I suspect that she's so determinedly lo-fi and beatboxy because to try harder would be to totally miss her own point. With Princess Him, there's an uneasy tension between the music and the persona, with both trying to grab your attention simultaneously, to say, "I am the center, the rest is just background detail."

This uneasiness, this inbetweenness, makes Princess Him oddly uncomfortable listening, and it took me a long time to decide whether I liked this album or not, whether in fact I should like it. Was what it was doing something I could broadly agree with or tolerate? I'm so used to the deferential nature of microhouse vocals that the stridency of the vocals seemed somehow inappropriate and unseemly, setting off unfortunate memories of Kosheen post-"Hide U" (a classic example of a misguided tipping of the scales towards personality and away from groove). And at the album's weakest moments (the overly serious closer "Single Action" for example) this may indeed be the closest reference point, but otherwise this was mostly an overreaction on my part, a reaction against the difficulty of pinpointing exactly what the singer was trying to do. In general I'd place her at a midpoint between early-Moloko and Curve's Toni Halliday, and she embodies a lot of the unpredictability that such an equation implies, moving from saucy to ethereal to angry to sly with an uncalculated randomness a world away from microhouse's typically strict and subtle stylisation. And I recognise that such a description could easily be categorised as glowing, but instead, perhaps because of the context, the performances struck me as undisciplined more than anything else.

But I kept listening, even as I wondered whether I liked the songs I was listening to. By now I've probably listened to this more than any other release from this year, which surely counts for something. A lot, perhaps most of my loyalty has resulted from the music, which is frequently excellent: I tossed off that Playhouse-meets-Areal comparison before, but you know that this is exactly the sort of thing I get all unnecessarily hot and bothered about. There's a satisfying bottom-heaviness to most of the grooves here, from the lurching and splurting disco of "Again" to the more urgent electro whines of "C'mon" and "Madonna" to almost Underworld-ish techno throb of "Underwater Kissing". It's not surprising that producer Lizer M shines most obviously when Barca takes a turn on the bench, and the three instrumental tracks are among the album's highlights: "Not Rock" in particular is the kind of all-embracing dance record you could imagine James Murphy making if he'd grown up in Berlin and never liked rock (who knows what relevance the title has in this regard), uniting stuttery early-nineties house-pop with apocalyptic acid peals and a chorus in the form of the most winsome, cute little electro riff ever (imagine an electro riff trying to be a lap dog). This is typical of his ADD-afflicted production approach, apt to pull in different directions simultaneously like siamese twins with no co-ordination.

This unstable identity is perhaps why the fusion of his grooves with Barca's songs finally does seem to work - at the end of the day any strict genre setting for either would seem arbitrary and confining. The Toni Halliday/Moloko analogies can be stretched far enough to suggest that twelve years ago the duo could have easily been making guitar rock, and six years ago just as easily trip-hop, and the record would be quite similar in feel. That said, I'm glad that they've decided to make More Equal Than Others now, with the sonic setting they've chosen: when it all comes together, as it does on the marvellous first single "Gone", it's difficult to imagine them doing anything else quite so successfully. "Gone" is house-pop par excellence, another lobby into the void stretching out beyond Cassius's "The Sound of Violence" marked "where to now for French house?" That record's answer was to emphasise the imbalances in what was by that point a very tried and tested sound. What's thrilling about "The Sound of Violence" is the yawning chasms between the shimmering guitar licks and that deep and deadly bassline. "Gone" edges out even further: the bass resembling the sluggish movements of a water-submerged and slumbering dinosaur, the all-encompassing rumblings of tectonic plate shifts; the disco guitar riffs work themselves into a dazzling coked-up frenzy; the xylophones and strings and chimes blur into an amorphous glow of palatial over-satiation, flushed with a fleshy pinkness. Meanwhile Barca is surprisingly straightforward and by-the-books in her story of irrational sexual desire: "When your gone I like the way you're walking, I like the way you act, I like the way you touch yourself. It's your smell that paralyse me, makes me forget myself." But if Princess Him are more macro than micro, it still shouldn't come as a surprise that what absolutely makes "Gone" their best song by a mile is a tiny little quirk in the groove, a whipcrack snare lashing out too soon in every fourth bar like a sudden foreshadowing of climax. A trick learnt from a dozen microhouse minimalists, it effortlessly propels "Gone" beyond sleekly appealing post-Frech House into a Frankenstein's Monster of brazen sexuality. Despite all the emoting on display, stylisation wins the day once again.


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