Wednesday, February 02, 2005

House of Secrets

(Kahil El Zabar)

As a card-carrying punk rocker circa 1982-86, I officially hated house music . But at the time house was just a fledgling cast off of American disco, Euro synthpop and New Wave, floundering, until Chicago picked it up and reinvented it. In the Bay Area, what people called house music was actually "freestyle," a sound with roots in electrofunk (think Zapp, Wrecking Cru and Cameo), which lacked oomph or pizzazz in an age marred by a lack of mega-subwoofers in cars and the beginnings of rampant Capitalist over-indulgence. Malls rose in place of fruit orchards, and punks donned discarded Army surplus gear to protest the decade's rising militarism.

House was not on my map; I was more than eager to gobble up Two-Tone ska, roots reggae, West Coast hardcore and other vital music of the mid-80s. House was beginning to do its thing at Paradise Garage in New York and The Warehouse in Chicago, and even some of the discotheques of Spain and Italy. But to this day, despite my Sicilian heritage, I refuse to acknowledge the value or collectability of 80s Italo-disco; too much hair gel for my tastes.

House music gained variety and momentum from 1988 forward, and by the start of the 90s, with grunge, noise, indie rock and rave all emerging, house remained a mysterious and unknown entity to me, revered by its connoisseurs, and shared in lofts and disused storefronts at parties that began at 2AM. It was the underground aesthetic and primal architecture of early Strictly Rhythm, Nervous, Murk and Trax Records titles that got me hooked. Their electronic African polyrhythms arranged in looping, hypnotic patterns gave rise to a form of urban Voudu. At this stage I was in Los Angeles, where we'd drive to Long Beach or the Valley in search of that weekend's after-hours event. It was "house music all night long."

And house has stayed in my crates since. 2004 saw one of the better resurgences (of the many its had), as the music took in its electrofunk roots (see the Dirty House post on this blog), revisited early-90s melodic techno tendencies (nods to Jam & Spoon) as well as adding the 21st century schizophrenia of scattered and chopped up samples (kick-started by Canada's Akufen). Some of these new records are scattered about my apartment now. So, without further adieu, seven recent house singles that you should know about. And as challenge to my own lack of verbal brevity, I'll only write about each track in the time that it takes the song to play on the turntable.

Pictured at the top of this post is percussionist Kahil El Zabar of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, AACM and Art Ensemble of Chicago whose worked with Dizzie Gillespie and Pharaoh Sanders. Producer Charles "Love From San Francisco" Webster is charged with remixing El Zabar's "Running In The Streets" for Chicago's Deeper Soul Records, and the results are mesmerizing and sublime. Webster loops a softly sung vocal repeating the word "people" as violins are sucked backwards in to an ether of marimba-touched percussion. A faint, mournful saxophone blows a single time, like a foghorn down at the docks at 3AM. This track is about disconnected people strewn amid the high-rise and warehouse maze that is concrete Chitown.

(Rick Wade)

Rick Wade has been on the scene for a minute. With over 18 singles to his credit, he founded Harmonie Park records, and released singles on Music Is, Track Mode, and a really nice recent joint, "Night Phases" on Moods & Grooves. The three tracks on "Night Phases" rely on simple elements: faux Rhodes chords, jazz record samples and basic drum programming. Its music made for the kind of nights that Kerri Chandler evoked in his track "A Basement, A Red Light And A Feelin'", and evidence of the devastating simplicity of instrumental house; also known as soul traveling at 120 bpm. I can imagine vogueing and other non-verbal improvisation taking place to these stripped-down spoonfuls of honey.

New York label Nite Grooves (a division of King Street Sounds) delivers a lot of naff pseudo-tribal yawners, but is also known to drop a bomb or two that stays in your crate for years. Agora Rhythm's "Galaxy" is pretty close to being one of those tracks. Like the Wade stuff, its not bombastic big-room house music (truthfully, none of the stuff I'm interested in is), but instead relies on completely un-trance-like swirling synth riffs to anchor its sidelong shuffle. And the synths do take center stage, recalling everything from FAX Records ambient albums to OMD's richly padded analog keyboard chords. If you fancy losing yourself in seven minutes of melodic bliss this song is your e-ticket. It’s also an example of what I was mentioning earlier: house fluttering back to the early-90s sound of sweeping melodic motifs. Not a bad thing in my book.

(JT Donaldson)

JT Donaldson, one of Dallas's Fairpark Records crew now relocated to San Francisco invents a new alias, Dirty Kicks, for "Get Your Kicks" on Gallery. This is what house heads refer to as "tracky"--not to be confused with tacky. Tracky house is syncopated and steady, its locked in and marching, often with an upswinging hi-hat as sergeant-at-arms. Basslines on tracky tunes throb like a musical migraine, or rise and descend like taffy pulled by a machine at the carnival. "Sax & Violence," despite being an unfortunately named track, is five minutes of unadulterated, driving, loopy music. It dashes aside subtleness in order to inspire public undressing on the dancefloor. Its doesn't quite reach the ecstatic level of celebration of the Sunday choir at the First AME Zion Baptist church, but its something close.

Soda Inc. (Babak Shayan et Jon Silva) released their German progressive house-cum-techhouse long-player "Full Moon" in 2004 on Plastic City. It was checkable but not wreckable, meaning, you can live without it and instead just track down some of the better singles and remixes. "Full Moon Remixes" is one of those singles, which encapsulates the trancey-er side of house without going over to the dark side (not an epic snare roll in sight here, Captain). Two names I'm not familiar with (S-Sentials and Rene Breitbarth) provide standard "dubby-echoes-and-reverberating-synth-stabs" mixes, which you might use to warm up a crowd or warm down to in the bathtub. But Chicago's newest signing to Om Records, Greenskeepers slows things down and adds their quirky funk steak cubes to a track that could have been all broth.

(James Duncan)

Toronto’s James Duncan looks like a typical nerdy Canadian. But, as Americans are loath to forget, everyone successful in the States is actually Canadian. And Duncan is no exception, providing trumpet work for Metro Area and on Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers." Real Soon Recordings reckoned he could punch a button or two as well and gave him ample black vinyl space to do just that. The result is "D-Jam," replete with robotic handclaps forming a sturdy rebar beam off which the track's bass riffs cement themselves as stabbing synth noise rivets are driven in. Its sexiness on the construction site; metropolis-building soul, with plenty o' New York Shelter-club divas giving you their opinions in the men’s room to boot.

Finally, cause I'm exhausted, and so are you, you must find Cio D'Or's "Hokus Pokus" on Treibstoff. Here's all you need to know: it’s techy but its house; it’s jazzy but its tough. It’s distributed by Kompakt but not in the vein of their fey 80zoid releases. It sounds like smoking in the middle of the dancefloor at a house party packed with kids off their heads, but no one is puking yet. Some guy is playing his Coltrane records in another room while you're dancing your sneakers raw to a clackity Teutonic tech funk beat. You don't know your way home or how you got there, you're just there, among strangers, among friends.

Hon. mench: Landshark "Slippage"(Coco Machete) fuk yeh can't stop playin it, Eye Contact "Test Me" (Capture) for the jazzbos who fancy long beatless build-ups, and lastly "I Believe In You" a no label, no information release (possibly French) that sums up electro-influenced house without selling out.

Now, go find those warehouses and parties with only one light bulb lit, and bring these records with you to play.