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James T. Cotton: The Dancing Box


James T Cotton

Album: The Dancing Box
Label: Spectral

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A dated movement that never had enough spotlight-time to fade, Chicago house music started in underground clubs where DJs and dancers tried to marry disco to the weird new machines that grew legs in the '80s. The marriage played like one in a John Cassavetes movie: fitful, strained, electrifying, full of loud arguments and tender regret.

Linked to the more austere sound of Detroit-born techno, Chicago house stands as a sanctified focal point in the backstory of electronic dance music. But it's still ripe for an update, as James T. Cotton asserts on The Dancing Box. A pseudonym for Tadd Mullinix (who dabbles in glitchy ambience and jungle under names like Dabrye and SK-1), Cotton serves as a hands-on moderator to an internal debate between the working parts of the Chicago house sound. In "Press Your Body," he stirs up a storm of clacking drum machines, wheezing synths, and looped vocals that siphon sensuality from their automaton urge. In "The Drain," similar parts circle each other with a leery sense of suspicion, surrounding a funky center they never quite swirl into.

Cotton's sonic vocabulary invokes the '80s on faithful terms, but his tracks play sly structuralist games in their own tongue. "Distant Trip" drapes a would-be airy house track over the echo of a marching band, while "Blood Red" uses a spray of drum cymbals to warp the wood of claves tapping around the beat. Some tracks idle through an overlong parade of samey sounds, but the album springs open in anthems like "Buck!" and "The Dancing Box," which show Cotton's shifty ways with the seductive and the sinister.