Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'s Green Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularily germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
The English Beat - I Just Can't Stop It (U.S. Version)
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut - with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production - was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
D-Train - You're The One For Me
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon. James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper. Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Associates - Sulk
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiralling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace - with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief - but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors - shades of blue, green and violet - were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night. Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
Gwen Guthrie - Padlock
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a funhouse mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiralling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Barbara Mason - Another Man
(West End: 1983)
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers (I Got The Man), picking up where that tune left off - once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue - with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me - you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
Mtume - Juicy Fruit
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix (Juicy Fruit Part II) version), while its striking music video perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that - in a strange twist of fate - recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Wally Badarou - Chief Inspector
(4th & Broadway: 1985)
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version - from his 1984 LP Echoes - was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus - synths bathed in hypnotic half-light - it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
Keni Stevens - Night Moves (Ultra-Sensual Mix)
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Model 500 - Night Drive
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Lola - Wax The Van
(Jump Street: 1987)
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here - the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately - but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,3 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Virgo - Virgo
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life - with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine - while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second - in suspended animation - before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
Open House - Keep With The Pace
(Nu Groove: 1990)
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth - springing as it does from deep within the mix - certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The Future Sound Of London - Accelerator
(Jumpin' & Pumpin': 1991)
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet. A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiralling out into crimson swirls. On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8),4 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
Lovewatch - Wake It Up
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
JT The Bigga Figga - Dwellin' In Tha Lab
(Get Low: 1995)
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Marshall Jefferson - The Animals EP
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere - sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening - and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era - just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater - with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout. Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakeable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Luomo - Vocalcity
(Force Tracks: 2000)
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hotspots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but - with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest - this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.5
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos - that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track - all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Outkast - Stankonia
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) - its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time - and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra-glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Basement Jaxx - Rooty
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear). Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!). Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked funhouse mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx. Golden age is right!
Metro Area - Metro Area
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by. Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere. The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
SA-RA Creative Partners - Double Dutch (CO CO POPS)
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star (SUPERNOVA). First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance. Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself - after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche - marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outerrim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. Yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out autotune r&b of Double Dutch (CO CO POPS) predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it. As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings - picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off - sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
Gorillaz - Demon Days
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With Guns (featuring Neneh Cherry) and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown. The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiralling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
Dâm-Funk - Toeachizown
(Stones Throw: 2009)
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way. Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage. For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
Ryan Leslie - Transition
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions. That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air. I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon.
The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine. A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
Jungle - Jungle
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently. It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
Halloween. A day with a lot of memories through the years, but when it comes to music I think back to one in particular. It was about fifteen years ago. Futureform had recently parted ways near the end of summer, with Snakes doing his high desert thang with the Blinka project, while I'd been making moves with Shadez Of Colour. In the lab, crossing the machine soul of Timbaland and The Neptunes with the hi-tech funk of Underground Resistance. Putting together the Allied Heights mix and the New Reality EP (which was about to be pressed up at NSC).
This the era when Groovetech was still in full swing and you could catch live sets from the likes of Suburban Knight and Ian O'Brien via real video recorded at their premises, along with tons of footage from the DEMF (including Kenny Dixon Jr.'s amazing set - featuring an appearance by Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets on the mic - and Kenny Larkin's mind-blowing blues-inflected live performance). I'd been checking Kirk Degiorgio's Op-Art Hall Of Fame and keying into loads of great records from the past - things like Herbie Hancock's Headhunters material and Sun Ra's Lanquidity - augmenting the Curtis Mayfield, Parliament and Sly Stone records that I'd already had in constant rotation at the time. All of this of course lined up perfectly with the shades of computer soul that I'd been soaking up all the while, from the likes of Carl Craig's Innerzone Orchestra and 4 Hero's astral breakbeat jazz to those amazing Recloose EPs and even Drexciya's stark machine funk.
All of which sets the scene for this particular Halloween back in 2002. Two records happened to arrive by mail that day: Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Lil' Louis' French Kiss. These two tracks had a huge impact on me (and both of them were considerable hits in their day), the former a sparkling slab of atmospheric modern soul while the the latter was a trance dance masterpiece (and a key record in house music's development). I'd only had the both of them on different compilations up until that point, but a new job meant that I finally had the money to track them down on wax. I sometimes wonder if this was the very moment that crystallized the concept of machine soul in my mind? I was in my room giving them a spin on my Gemini XL-500 II's - possibly even recording them to MP3 in the process - and soaking up their deep, nocturnal sounds (this back when the time change would occur before Halloween, rather than after... so it would have already grown dark outside) just before taking my cousins out in the neighborhood for a night of trick-or-treating.
Lil' Louis - French Kiss (Remixes)
This is the version of French Kiss that I had back then, a reissue with four mixes included along with The Original Underground Mix. I've always had a soft spot for the Talkin' All That Jazz Mix, but the original is undoubtedly the one you want. People often point to its motorik bass figure as a key moment in the birth of trance, but really everything about it is spectacular: that recurring chrome brassy figure, those rolling bleep loops, the TR-707 drum fills, the moaning lady during its protracted climax - where the track slows down to a halt before building up again - it all comes together in a shimmering vision of dancefloor psychedelia. Like Juan Atkins' Model 500 material - records like Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) and The Flow - it's one of those key moments at the nexus of tronix and soul that seem to act as a catalyst, opening the door to previously undisclosed possibilities.
Mtume - Juicy Fruit
The other record was the original 12" release of Juicy Fruit, which paired the vocal version - a sensuously surreal computer blue reverie, with one of the great synth progressions during its chorus - with an extended instrumental. It actually turned out to be slightly different from what I was looking for. The "Fruity" Instrumental Mix, as it's called, is lengthened to seven minutes and still features a fair amount of vocals over a stripped down backing track. It's a satisfying trip in its own right, no question, but the version I was looking for was even stranger.
Mtume - Juicy Fruit
Slightly later, I snapped up the LP, which - against all odds - had what I was looking for. I was absolutely sure that the version I was looking for could have only come from the b-side of a different 12" - so singularly strange was its trancelike shades of ambient soul - but it turned out to tucked away at the end of the album as a sort of reprise. The After 6 Mix (Juicy Fruit Part II) is an ethereal glide through liquid neon in the darkness, revelling in the lush textures of the original version while James Mtume and Tawatha Agee trade loose, off-the-cuff vocals and asides. In the seventies, James Mtume had played percussion with various jazz ensembles - including Miles Davis' (including the awesome Get Up With It) before recording deep astral jazz records like Rebirth Cycle and Alkebu-Lan: Land Of The Blacks. You can certainly hear that heady attention to texture here, as his crew (including other seventies jazz figures like fellow Miles alumni Reggie Lucas and Hubert Eaves - the man behind the deep seventies Esoteric Funk LP) get down to business within the context of eighties dancefloor boogie.
Lil' Louis - French Kiss
Lil' Louis was a Chicago original, operating his Future club night in parallel to Frankie Knuckles' endeavors at The Warehouse. He cut a singular path through the eighties house scene, with records like Frequency and The Original Video Clash (backed with How I Feel and Music Takes U Away, respectively) before dropping the French Kiss EP. This is the original release for French Kiss, which features the acid house shapes of Jupiter, New York's minimal groove and the hard-edged, almost-punk moves of War Games, and which I didn't get ahold of until some time later.
Lil' Louis & The World - From The Mind Of Lil' Louis
This, on the other hand, I did already have. The full-length statement that Louis released in the wake of French Kiss' runaway success in the UK, it includes an updated version of French Kiss with vocals from Karlana Johnson and an edit of Wargames. Hearing it for the first time was one of those great, unconfigurable listening experiences, and it remains one of the most fully realized house LPs even as it transcends that genre tag. The album opens with the contemporary single I Called U, which finds Louis dealing with the droning advances of a female stalker over a piano-led backdrop, before moving into the angular, trancelike shapes of Blackout. Deep house missives Tuch Me and 6 A.M. feature collaborations with the original deep house architect Larry Heard), while the rolling minimal groove of It's The Only Thing finds him working with Chicago industrialists Die Warzau. Ever the consummate sensitive artiste, Louis gets introspective with the ethereal Insecure and enters slow jam territory with The Love You Wanted, while Brittany is a two-and-a-half ambient piano sonata. The album-closing Lil Tanya is a low slung blues workout featuring his father Bobby Sims on guitar and lead vocal. A few years later, Louis released the follow up album Journey With The Lonely, a more organic-sounding record that often gets mentioned among the great house long-players of all time.
The two of them taken together certainly suggests something incredibly special...
Ambient soul/house music/trance dance/eighties boogie.
Machine Soul (Part 1)...
Have a happy Halloween.
Last weekend I put in work at the Parallax Gardens with some of the crew. Needless to say, there was a steady stream of great music flowing through the lush vegetation while we toiled in the sun. By the end of the (extended) weekend, a large pile of records had stacked up next to the soundsystem: the soundtrack to our labor, all laid out in chronological order. Seeing all of these tiles in one place, I thought it might be fun to delve into each of the selections for a button down glance at the sounds of the heights when no one's watching.
This is the first in an ongoing series, tracking the grooves that flow through the gardens. Now lean back and take a stroll through the garden of your mind:
King Tubby - Dub From The Roots
(Total Sounds: 1974)
Things kicked off with this stone cold classic from King Tubby, a massive slab of rock hard dub. Deep, dark and moody, the cavernous Declaration Of Dub sounded fantastic drifting through the gardens. Maybe the best dub LP of all time?
The Upsetters - Return Of The Super Ape
The roots flavors endured with this strange, dubbed out reggae tile from Lee "Scratch" Perry's golden years at the Black Ark. The lush textures of Crab Yars really caught the spirit of the moment as they pulsed through the palms. This one's another big record in the Heights.
Pato Banton - Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton
The first of the Mad Professor records we played. This one features a great four-dimensional soundstage, fronted by Pato Banton's rolling deejay chatter on the mic. The closing track My Opinion is the standout here, a cinematic slice of righteous roots vibration.
The Orb - Perpetual Dawn
(Big Life: 1991)
Tremendous dubbed out pop-reggae stylings from Dr. Alex Patterson. This very well might be my favorite Orb record, but it's a tough call. Andrew Weatherall's two Ultrabass excursions take the track even further into the subterranean bass experience.
Aisha - High Priestess
This the second Mad Professor pick. The crisp electro-tinged production is a real treat here, almost claustrophobic in comparison with the spacious expanses of the Pato Banton record. The methodical unfurling of The Creator - operating on its own strange internal logic - is the obvious standout here. You might recognize the wordless vocal chant in the chorus, which was later sampled in The Orb's Blue Room.
The Special AKA - In The Studio
Superb exotica/dub/mutant disco from the twilight years of The Specials, when the group was totally subsumed into Jerry Dammers' singular vision. I hold this to be one of the key records of the eighties; indeed, it often plays like a window into the future (nineties and beyond). This got played more than twice over the course of the weekend.
The Police - Ghost In The Machine
The choice Police record around these parts. This very recently figured into our Deep Space 100 list. The strong presence of heavy synthesizer textures and unruly jazz shapes mark this out as a logical progression from Zenyatta Mondatta's phenomenal breezy island music.
Grace Jones - Nightclubbing
Another Parallax record, and the first Compass Point showing for today. I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango) casually predicts the sort of thing Massive Attack would later do with Nicolette on their epochal Protection. A post-disco masterpiece.
Tony Allen with Afrobeat 2000 - N.E.P.A (Never Expect Power Always)
Eighties electro-tinged afrobeat from Fela Kuti's - and latterly The Good, The Bad & The Queen's - man behind the kit. Each side of the record pairs an original version with a dubbed out response. Another key eighties record... I sense another feature in the works.
Hashim - Primrose Path
I've gone in depth before about this dubbed out electro wonder from Hashim. A spacious expansion on the genre-defining template of Al-Naafiysh (The Soul), and a perfect tune for the descent of dusk in the gardens.
The Isley Brothers - The Heat Is On
Lush, synthesizer-drenched soul from The Brothers Isley. I've often thought that this record's a-side/b-side split between driving funk numbers and lush ambient soul preempted Bowie and Eno's similar moves during the second half of the decade. The second side bests even Stevie Wonder's excursions into verdant electronic soul, imbued with a deeply human touch.
Ocho - Ocho
(UA Latino: 1972)
Salsa-tinged Latin jazz from the city that never sleeps. This should appeal to fans of War open to the band's more outré instrumental excursions like City, Country, City, even if nothing here breaks the seven minute mark. The weather-tinged exotica flavors of Undress My Mind unique in this context and always make me think of Ocho's debut as the sister record to Harlem River Drive.
James Brown - Hell
The godfather's dense double-album (a perennial favorite 'round these parts). The extended fourteen minute low-slung funk jam Papa Don't Take No Mess - encompassing the entirety of the final side - was a particular highlight in the blazing sun, closing the day out on an undeniable high point.
Prince - Sign "O" The Times
(Paisley Park: 1987)
Not my favorite moment from the man, but it's close. Another double-album, this has a whole bunch of my favorite Prince songs: the title track, The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker, Starfish And Coffee, If I Was Your Girlfriend and Strange Relationship all qualify. A masterstroke.
Mtume - Juicy Fruit
The greatest eighties funk long-player that I know of, this has all its bases covered - from the post-disco boogie of Green Light and Your Love's Too Good (To Spread Around) to Hip Dip Skippedabeat's hard electrofunk (shades of Hustlers Convention in the rap), and of course exquisite, chugging atmospheric slow jams like Ready For Your Love and both versions of the title track. An Oak Park staple, this is like sunset at Chollas Lake.
Womack & Womack - Conscience
The soulful grit of husband and wife Cecil (Bobby's brother) and Linda cuts loose within cutting edge soundscapes of their own design - as The Gypsy Wave Power Co. - recorded at Compass Point Studios. The rolling widescreen drive of a track like Conscious Of My Conscience sounds like the sort of verdant futurism one might expect from Arthur Russell or even Underworld.
Wally Badarou - Echoes
A whole LP worth of the Compass Point man's lush sonic rainforests. This is another one of those eighties records. From the opening ambient shades of Keys, you can tell that you're in for something special. Highlights, including Mambo (the basis for Massive Attack's Daydreaming) and Chief Inspector (even better in its 12" version), are like peering through a window into the next decade's sonic sensibilities.
Various Artists - Earthbeat
(Jumpin' & Pumpin': 1992)
Case and point. I think much of The Future Sound Of London's early Jumpin' & Pumpin' output owes a huge debt to the Compass Point sound (see also The Orb). This indispensable compilation of early FSOL sides rolls up a wealth of stellar material from projects like Mental Cube, Indo Tribe and Yage into one vibrant package. There's even an exclusive in the shape of Yage's oceanic Theme From Hot Burst.
The Future Sound Of London - Accelerator
(Jumpin' & Pumpin': 1991)
Picking up where the Earthbeat compilation leaves off, this is one of the great techno albums period. Everything here incredibly lush and cinematic. I suppose part of the reason that I sense such a strong connection between this material and that of the Compass Point All Stars is that they both share the same four-dimensional sense of space, that same tactile percussive quality - submerging drums you can almost reach out and touch within a mesh of palpable synthetic shapes and textures - drawing all instruments into deep orbit, brilliantly arranged in such a way as to evoke pure atmosphere at the street level.
Jah Wobble/The Edge/Holger Czukay - Snake Charmer
Three-way head to head to head collaboration between PIL's bassist Jah Wobble, U2's guitarist The Edge and Can mastermind Holger Czukay. Jaki Liebezeit and Jim Walker even get roped in on drums. Featuring stellar production by François Kevorkian, this is yet another glimpse into the shadowy corridors of the Parallax Eighties.
Bandulu - Redemption
(Music Man: 2002)
I've been reading this rather excellent book - via a hot tip from Woebot - that in part traces the strand of eighties music that I keep alluding to up through the nineties (a nineties that I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand). I was particularly pleased to see Bandulu's name mentioned in tracing the influence of digidub throughout the decade, on one hand because I've often thought this to be the case and on the other because I'm a huge fan of the crew's output.
This their final album and a culmination of everything they'd done up to that point, featuring their trademark hard techno shapes rubbing shoulders with weird breakbeat dub missives and even a couple straight up reggae covers (Willie Williams' Jahquarius and Dennis Brown's Detention). Note that the CD version of the album - featured here - is a drastically different beast from the (also excellent) vinyl cut.
Simple Minds - Empires And Dance
A close second to Real To Real Cacophony in my book. Empires' hard sonic futurism does give the shrouded mystery of Cacophony a run for its money though, and its cold European atmosphere imbues I Travel's punk-disco and the epic bass-heavy dirge of This Fear Of Gods with a striking sense of gravity.
Shut Up And Dance - Death Is Not The End
(Shut Up And Dance: 1992)
I was reminded of the second Shut Up And Dance record by A Cracked Jewel Case, as it factors into the book's section on that crew. Kevin Pearce's coverage is excellent throughout, shedding light on many heretofore unacknowledged connections between various movers and shakers as they blazed through the decade. For example, I didn't know that Kevin Rowland (of Dexys Midnight Runners) played guitar on the Autobiography Of A Crackhead (Acoustic Version).1
Death Is Not The End features a fusion of SUAD rap tracks (Raps My Occupation, Down The Barrel Of A Gun and So What You Smoking?), hard techno stompers (Cape Fear and Blue Colour Climax) and straight up ardkore (Raving I'm Raving (Remix) and The Green Man), the disparate elements all woven together into a stunning display of rugged breakbeat magic.
And with the wild strains of My C-Lab Crashed And Did This spiralling off into the warm summer evening, the first phase of the project was complete. Pictured below is just one wing of the gardens that we worked last weekend, The Southwest Terrace:
The place where we dwell.
The Jungle record came out a year ago today. It's crept up on me in a big way over the course of that year. At first I almost heard past it - pleasant enough, I suppose - but as much as I casually dug the record, I hadn't yet totally succumbed to it's brilliance. Then Sari took me to see them live at The Belly Up last September. In the context of the live show, every corner of that venue teeming with such deeply atmospheric dance music, I was totally drawn into their trip; finally everything made sense. You could feel all manner of young people having their first rave experience to this music, eyes closed, hands in the air and dancing with wild abandon. Immersed in the vibe. It lives on even now?
I know that in my case it all took me back to a youth spent dancing in nightclubs and out in the desert to whatever strains of house and techno I could find in San Diego at the time. Cruising the city streets between work and school and the lab, bumping Stacey Pullen and making beats whenever I had the chance. Lot's of time spent digging in the trenches with my head in the clouds. Downcast but not out. The wild shapes and sonics of that music's synthesized pulse kept a young brother's head up and feet moving forward. And forward. Fast-forward to the present. Now here was a live group on stage conjuring that same atmosphere, sidestepping any familiar rock concert forms to approximate the sound of the deepest of grooves coming off a hot 12" in the club - reworked from scratch backwards in widescreen and bang up to date.
The record itself is fantastic. I was baffled by the veil of silence that seemed to cloak this album in the music press. Any coverage the group did happen to garner seemed to focus on the most superficial aspects of their profile. Much has been made of the crew's mysterious nature, for example, but growing up as I did on crews like Drexciya and UR (operating in the shadows at all times), in Jungle's case it just seemed to be some cats who wanted to let the music speak for itself. And speak for itself it certainly does. Yet when all of the 2014 end-of-year polls rolled around, I couldn't find it even mentioned in a single list that I checked! What gives?
This was without a doubt my favorite album of the year, and one of a handful of occurrences that made me want to return to writing about music. I planned to fire this site up in late October just to talk about the record, but various real world concerns pushed that plan up until January. Then, as the year wore on and I got back in groove of writing once again, it just never seemed to be the right time. I caught them live again a few weeks ago, and realized just the other day that it had been a year since Jungle first dropped... so what better time than now?
Jungle quietly inhabits a place all its own on the sonic spectrum, seemingly formed from a single slab of onyx and then submerged in quicksilver. The songs within seem constructed from pure atmosphere rather than any formal structure or notation. You want to reach out and grasp at its amorphous surfaces even as they seem to slip and slide just out of reach. Its beats threaten to crumble to the touch, often seeming to stagger sideways even as they commence to propel the grooves ever forward. The soundscape seems a blur, smeared against distant lights on the horizon, until you squint to notice the intricate details found within. Worlds within worlds, a dream within a dream.
In a sense, its methodology reminds me of Dâm-Funk's Toeachizown in the way they both seems to spool out widescreen sonic vistas sourced in some half-remembered dream. Drawing both on years of his own g-funk sorcery and the atmospheric boogie of his youth (things like Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Kleeer's Tonight), Dâm-Funk wove moods and grooves from the deepest recesses of machine funk and stretched them across five LPs - a sprawling canvas of two hours and twenty minutes - to create a monument to these dreamtime soundscapes, previously essayed only in fleeting glimpses on b-sides and the odd album cut, resulting in a stone cold slab of perfection.
Jungle's sound itself is different, and the record's length far shorter, but it seems to spring from the same drive to build a world of its own from some dream half-remembered. The experience of listening to this record is like nothing so much as that moment when you absorb your surroundings for the first time in a strange new city: it seems wholly distinct and yet there's nearly always something that will make you say deja vu. A cul de sac or stretch of road, a building or bit of hillside that almost feels like some mirror image of home. This record embodies that feeling, coming on like some solarized vision of the world you've known.
On one hand, its tempting to compare Jungle to groups like Hot Chip and The Junior Boys - and maybe that's not a bad thumbnail on the face of it - but those groups always seemed to be coming at dance music from an indie mindset, much like Scritti Politti or Orange Juice did in their day. Neither does Jungle's music truly sound like any of those groups. You'll also often hear allusions to neo soul when describing the group's sound, but that's a red herring as well. This music is soulful, no doubt, but its sound seems to spring from somewhere else entirely. Like Escort and The Sunburst Band, this is post-disco dance music through and through. The only trouble is, Jungle don't really sound like those groups either.
What the record immediately made me flash on were the spaciest passages of the Metro Area LP, especially its lush second side (Soft Hoop and Caught Up, in particular). Those tactile, spongy basslines, the sense of longing stitched between the glistening lines, and that same overwhelming sense of four-dimensional ATMOSPHERE. Loping grooves half-lit in neon, a lone streetlamp and the moonlight. Jungle operate in a similar dubbed out terrain, even as they extrapolate it out into a cinematic scope that makes the most sense in big rooms or under the open night sky. It's perfect that this came out on an imprint like XL, with its well-documented roots in rave culture.
The other comparison that I would make, appropriately enough, is Chicago's Jungle Wonz. A collaboration between Marshall Jefferson and Harry Dennis (also of The It), Jungle Wonz dealt in ambient house before the phrase had even been coined. Records like The Jungle, Time Marches On and Bird In A Gilded Cage fused three-dimensional bass pulses, lush cascading synthesizers, environmental sounds and dreamlike vocals to establish a mood of endless longing. Where Harry Dennis was a street poet, expressing his ideas in spoken word, Jungle trade in fragile falsetto (I'm occasionally reminded of the Fine Young Cannibals' Roland Gift).
Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man OST, a recurring Parallax favorite, is the third and final comparison I could make. That may seem to contradict my earlier dismissal of the neo soul tag, but bear with me. What I hear in Jungle is a similarity in atmosphere to instrumentals like "T" Plays It Cool and "T" Stands For Trouble; an atmosphere that threatens to overwhelm the songs themselves even as it's kept in check by beats and synthesizers tapping out a steady pulse. Chords press on in the face of a hard life, the odds stacked against at all times. One is reminded of Bobby Bland's immortal words: Ain't no love when you're living in the city.
Album opener The Heat, with environmental sounds of the street bleeding into the mix, illustrates this point perfectly. Right on time, backed by the beach... still gon' bring the heat. An organ runs resolute beneath the beat, pressing forward as a falsetto intones pure longing. Distant sirens run throughout. Something strummed, not an instrument but pure atmosphere strummed from some combination of sources. Or formed, perhaps, from the depths of some machine? Conjured from thin air, even. That amorphous sense of sound permeates the whole of this record, cloaking its every corner in a veil of illusion.
The pacing throughout is perfect. Absolutely perfect! Accelerate comes on like some downcast permutation of The Heat. Can I get the car to jump start, please?, intoned in desperation. Everything just seemed to happen at once. Sentiments that I've understood well, and I suspect you have too. I just can't push on any further, won't you cut me a break just this once? Sari told me that it always makes her think of me. That woman knows me too well!
Those guitars that creep in during the tune's second half seem to recall the mood of Roxy Music's Avalon, only heard from within a dream. The masterful Crumbler seems to channel that same vibe through the prism of Love Inc.'s Life's A Gas - shot through with that same sense of ambient bliss - even as those great churning synth figures rev like an engine beneath the whole thing, rushing and overflowing before sinking into the ether again.
This record is above all a mood piece, but there's a couple relentless club burners hiding in its depths. Julia builds up from skeletal verses into the all-out assault of its chorus, tension ever escalating. Busy Earnin', which seems to be the biggest single so far, for some reason always makes me think of the opening sequence in Rocky II, in which Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed are rushed to the hospital after the big fight. Its sentiments do seem to capture the prevailing mood of today. Feeling like nothing so much climbing out from some abyss, every beat - every step - taking you closer to the surface, those horns (not horns) climax in a fury.
Platoon follows, once again illustrating the absolutely perfect sense of flow and pacing in this record. A downcast mirror image of Busy Earnin', it pushes forward on a low key Reese bassline and some siren song that could be vocal or synthetic in origin... or perhaps something else entirely. The driving pulse of its buildup ever unfurling into gentle pools of texture before eddying into another glimpse of the divine. That's the secret of this record: even as it reaches for the epic, it manages to never come off as forced or bombastic, everything remains undercut by a sense of longing. Dread even. Each step may take you closer to where you're going but then the destination seems to be moving too.
There's this whole other aspect to this record that seems to key into that same headspace that much of the greatest trip hop did. Drops' crawling beat staggers along, barely keeping together. Textures unfurl gently, the creaking of a door somehow worked into the rhythm. Barely keeping on. Indeed, as the record staggers toward its denouement, this spirit really does seem to tip over into dread. Son Of A Gun seems to struggle to press on, threatening to collapse at any moment, often cutting the beat to retreat into its gloomy refrain.
The flipside of the coin: no matter how bleak this record may turn on you, there's always a glimmer of hope hiding somewhere between the lines. Lucky I Got What I Want seems to have an almost zen-like acceptance of the passing of time, submitting to the way of the world. It's elegaic refrain simply asks Don't you forget about me, before ultimately drifting into the ether. Lemonade Lake slips quietly into view like something from Warp's Artificial Intelligence series, unassuming keys playing out right there in plainsight, before exploding into lustrous moonlight. Sequences run up and down the spectrum as this river of pure sound, lush as you could possibly imagine, flows steady beneath. This is the sound of the night's own internal logic working itself out, however it may transpire. The record ends on an electronic hymn, and then silence.
One day, out of the blue Sari noticed that a group called Jungle were playing at the North Park Observatory. But was it the same group? It seemed unclear. Being such a die-hard fan, she sprung for the tickets anyway. It turned out to be the same Jungle after all, and we would get to see them once more. Before the show, a DJ warmed up the crowd. I heard him spin The Bottle from outside the club. We made our way inside. Without the presence of an opening act, Jungle took the stage.
The group began to fill the venue with the Morricone-meets-Get Carter-meets-Moroder inflections of Smoking Pixels, the record's lone instrumental. With the group's casual, eerie whistling, the room filled with anticipation. Massive lamps cast their figures as stark silhouettes against dazzling colors shining down from the rafters. I was reminded of the time I saw The Secret Machines perform at Soma back in the day (Fall 2004, if memory serves), where they had these massive lamps blasting white light into the crowd from behind the band. The effect made it feel as if you were in the closing scene of Heat. Jungle's seemed to recall American Gigolo, or even Drive, cloaking the room in that same sumptuous palette.
The Observatory show was, if anything, even better than the one at The Belly Up. Their stage show had graduated in scale without sacrificing any of its intimacy. Passages in the songs opened up into new avenues. There was a point, in Drops I believe, when the sequencers took over and began spinning fractals out into space. Sari had it pegged as sounding like Tangerine Dream circa Thief. The group encored with Time, the record's latest single, its endless cascading waves of sound - bass resonating on three separate planes, each morphing into the other - a perfect note to close on. It turned out that this was the final date of their North American tour.
I can't think of a moment in my life in which, had this music existed at the time, I wouldn't have been blown away. It seems to exist in a space all its own, hovering just out of reach between any number of sonic possibilities that I've called home. Indeed, as we started to file out of the Observatory, a thought that had been materializing in the back of my mind for months finally came into focus: this is exactly the sort of record that Larry Levan would have caned at The Paradise Garage.
The DJ played Water Get No Enemy as we walked out into the streets.