June 2010

In a macro sense, the news this time around—to me, and definitely late—is that beyond-dubstep is really circling all the way back to drum-and-bass. Many of the artists are young and grasp their place on the timeline that Simon Reynolds coined “the hardcore continuum” (of London-centric bass-oriented dance music.) It leads to a dual effect: the freshness of kids having their first real go at making music and willing to try anything, and a historical awareness that’s putty in their hands rather than a stone tablet. No wonder old guys like me love it. 

PARED DOWN. Just for making an argument for the continuing vitality of minimal techno (sometimes known as “mnml”), Marcel Dettmann’s Dettmann (Ostgut Ton) performs a valuable service. Dettmann is someone who understands the whys and wherefores of making grids and patterns compelling, and his full debut finds a kind of menace in restraint: the water-drop sounds of “Screen” help allay the creepiness of the same track’s buzzing-bees sounds, while “Drawing” throbs as prettily as Pantha Du Prince minus the twinkle. It’s not a casual kind of listen, but moves like one thing, and sums up its field so neatly he could’ve called it Dttmnn.

GOIN’ SOUTH. For a few years around the late ’90s and early ’00s, kwaito, a homegrown hip-house hybrid, held sway on South African dance floors, though it connected to American fans of global pop more than with U.S. dancers. But while the loping rhythmic backbone common to South African pop since township jive is in full effect on Ayobaness! The Sound Of South African House (Out Here), the music itself has moved closer to American and European house. In fact, DJ Mujava (who is featured here) had a significant worldwide hit two years ago with “Township Funk” (which isn’t). Another burgeoning crossover S.A. star, Culoe De Song, is also aboard. But the album’s attraction isn’t any one person so much as that adaptable, forward-stepping groove, which I’ve long enjoyed and am rooting for to gain further traction. 

CITY TO CITY. Good news: Matthew Herbert is beginning to thaw. He used to follow a manifesto and would only sample everyday objects to manipulate into tracks. Now he’s made a straight-up singer-songwriter album with lots of electronic touches and a halting style reminiscent of the quieter work of Robert Wyatt, but more plainspoken. One One (Accidental) is as purely lovely as anything Herbert has made, though it’s also a very slow burner that requires some alone time. “Manchester,” the lead track, comes in with a whisper and only gradually builds its body. But the introspective mood is surprisingly upbeat: “It’s a love that is needed,” goes the hook of “Milan.” “Hot like a house on fire,” a careworn group of Herberts harmonize on “Leipzig.” “Share a little pill with me tonight / We’re gonna be, we’re gonna be just fine.” 

ON TO THE NEXT ONE. From the wobbly sub-diva coo of opener “I’m Comin’” to the electro-shakers and mechanical hi-hat that power “Marco’s Love” to the bare, propulsive drum machine that concludes “Dub Project 3,” New York producer Jus-Ed hasn’t got a single new idea in his head—and that’s a compliment. In a time when melting-pot music is running things, his bracing Chicago-house purism acts as a clean-lined yang to its yin. Jus-Ed’s Next Level (Underground Quality) is full of charmingly pitch-challenged vocals, thunking keyboard bass lines, bluntly mechanical four-four kick drum, and cheap synths in place of organs. It’s cheap, desolate, and soothing.

TRANSIT AUTHORITY. Efdemin’s Chicago (Dial) takes a number of detours, which is surprising coming from the head of Dial Records, a label that’s made its name by building and sustaining elusive moods for entire albums. (See Pantha Du Prince’s This Bliss and the first, self-titled Lawrence album.) Efdemin juices his tracks with quirky touches such as the squinching snare-substitute and oddly dissonant acoustic guitar dabs of “Angels Round Here Don’t Sing,” but his grooves tend to take their sweet time getting to the next phase—in the end, a little too long unless you’re listening on headphones, where all kinds of embedded detail seeps into the wide-open spaces. 

REISSUE OF THE MONTH. I was seriously tempted to give it this month to Google’s “reissue” of Pac-Man on its front page to commemorate the game’s 30th anniversary. But I’m cheating anyway by handing it to Once Again, Again: A Classic Ambient Mix By Matthew Hawtin (Plus 8), a new mix of old material. These 29 tracks were chosen by minimal king Richie’s younger brother, a veteran ambient DJ himself, to reflect his 1993-98 sets, so I’m fudging. I’ll be honest: I avoided most ambient at the time because I thought the likes of the Irresistible Force, Sun Electric, and MLO were mostly dry cheese. But set and setting is all, and Hawtin’s mix puts you right in its eye: wide-open languor, melodies that equally evoke pretty twinkling lights and stoned foghorn drift, and a promise that nothing will stay put for too long except your body. 

ON THE WEB. More podcasts are popping up than anybody at all can manage. That’s not counting freestanding DJ sets. Is this impulse toward too much, you know, too much? Yes, but for now it’s very pleasurable, if exhausting. For example, three of the selections below had competition from the same DJs. If I hadn’t decided to play nice it’s entirely possible that there’d only be seven DJs below. It’s a reminder how much of a crapshoot these things can be. But it’s a crapshoot that, for now, keeps paying serious dividends. I hate to be the boy who cried wolf in reverse, but the bar just seems to keep on going up. 

So allow me to explain my methods. I arrange my downloads in folders by date. When I want to hear new music, I add both the most recent and the oldest folder into an iTunes “Unheard” playlist and proceed. This helps me catch up and keep up more or less simultaneously, but it also creates gaps; thus the time spread of those listed below. The podcasts I subscribe to are added to “Unheard” upon arrival, but it can take six weeks or more to get to other likelies, depending on my assignment load. My rule is that if I choose to acquire something (as opposed to it being sent by a publicist), I should hear it once, even if I don’t finish listening (which happens about a third of the time). Podcasts and mixes have come to make up about two-thirds of what I play.

What do I listen for? I like consistency—dead spots are grounds for dismissal. (Sorry, Trentemøller; sorry, Aeroplane.) I like variety: I listen widely and hope to find something worth pointing out in every corner. I like an arc, the feeling that I’m somewhere different at the end of the mix than where I began. Sometimes, as is the case with a lot of techno sets, those differences are minute but acute; other times a DJ will go through a few genres while keeping the beats lined up. Presence is hard to quantify, but I like that too. A good mix feels purposeful, always. I think of—hear—mixes as entities distinct from albums, but I want similar things from both. Is that vague enough for you? Me too. Top ten: 

RockTits, Heavy Cosmic Groove Mix (posted March 2)
Philadelphia rock DJ Joel Flood melts down 70 dusty ’70s tracks into a fearsomely rhythmic entity here. Sometimes fidelity is an issue—a few selections are sourced from MP3s and sound hissy—but it’s so deftly put together it hardly matters. Hearing The Guess Who’s “American Woman” (shudder) go straight into Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” (ooh) is so wrong—and so right. 

Brackles, Rinse FM 2010-03-04 (posted March 7)
The young London DJ had two sets in the running this month. His GETME! Guest Mix 11, from March 17, is a banging 41-minute set that takes a while to get going, but this two-hour pirate-radio episode from two weeks earlier, featuring Brackles’ excitably mumbled talk-over and a dizzying selection of tracks from the still-rich funky-grimy-two-steppy-dubsteppy interzone, is more consistent. He juices things with lots of female vocals—DJ MA1’s “Give It Up To Me” (around 38:00) is especially exciting—that give it an unabashed sauciness akin to circa-1999 two-step garage, but still unmistakably 2010, especially when it gets sparser and woozier. And we get to listen in as he receives his 800th follower on Twitter. Awww.

Newworldaquarium, The Bunker Podcast 66 (posted April 7)
Two hours recorded live at Brooklyn’s premier techno party on Feb. 5, during New York’s first ever Unsound Festival, this set from Amsterdam’s true Detroit believer skips all over the techno spectrum while keeping the basics intact. The selection is loose as a goose, and the tone is anything but rigid.

Untold, Live At Resident Advisor And Red Bull Music Academy, T Bar, London, 04-03-2010 (posted April 8)
If Untold is capable of a subpar set, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. To go with his sterling FACT Mix and XLR8R Podcast from last year, here he brings it live, showing off his gift for locating tracks that are nimble rhythmically and burly in the low end. If Brackles (above) harks to two-step’s golden period, Untold seems to be channeling jungle’s vintage mid-’90s, especially on the track around 33:00 that hooks on a hip-hop sax sample staple. 

Maayan Nidam, Bodytonic Podcast 077 (posted April 14)
House’s latest wave keeps bringing the goods, as Nidam, a.k.a. Miss Fitz, from Berlin, who’s recorded for many of the key labels in her ambit—Freak n’ Chic, Contexterrior, Raum...musik—puts together an hour of bump-as-life-force that’s not ostentatious but sparkles. And her dubstep forays are just as slinky.

Mike Dehnert, FACT Mix 146 (download) (posted May 3)
A blazing live-programmed (rather than deejayed) set from Berghain, in Berlin, complete with stops between songs, edited into 33 fatless minutes. Dehnert’s techno is rough, hard, and more elegant than you might imagine from its factory-smoked scowl. 

Jennifer Cardini, Club Ding (03-05-2010) (posted May 4)
Vacillating between house and techno, Cardini goes hard as a matter of course: I put last year’s punishing two-hour Halloween set from Paris in my top ten. This time around she’s much more playful, even as she refuses to mess around. 

Ikonika, XLR8R Podcast 136 (posted May 11)
Last month, about her album, I said Ikonika was kind of great. This there is no kind-of about. Weeks after a Ustream performance that had fans agog, the London dubstepper kicks this mix off with a bang, and proceeds to get more biting, more intense, sharper, and more creative as she goes. The second half is unimaginable without the first, but ratchets up the pleasure with a steady, intense arc. This is possibly my non-CD mix of the year. 

Ben UFO, XLR8R Podcast 137 (posted May 13)
Ben UFO’s two-hour Rinse.FM broadcast from March 4 (see fellow Londoner Brackles above—same link) is a gift for its immediacy and its in-the-lab quality. This clean and deadly podcast for the venerable San Francisco music mag concentrates every part of the bass matrix into 74 jam-packed minutes. It’s a real trip—a patchwork post-dubstep narrative with look-ins from all over—and feels like a story being told, or better yet, lived, both hyperreal and documentary. 

Soulphiction, Bodytonic Podcast 080 (posted May 19)
Stuttgart, Germany’s Michel Baumann told the Deep Transmissions blog that the difference between his main solo pseudonyms, Jackmate and Soulphiction, is that the former is closer to straight Chicago house and the latter more wide open, particularly from the hip-hop and R&B end. This lively set from the latter lives up to the ideals of both, swiveling between hypnotic, tunnel-vision near-techno to limber, percussive, played-live grooves with soulful vocal snatches to sneering post-punk. Mesmerizing.