Electric Dinner Party

Electronica is too frisky and alive always to settle down into properly functioning albums, although Orbital manage the trick. The duo have been vital and influential for years, but The Middle of Nowhere is a curious masterwork of odd poise. As sung descants and tripping minimalist pulses shade their obsession with neon repetition, Orbital refer to places, emotions, and eras outside themselves—to country air and city streets, to the '90s and the '60s, to seasons that allow their crudely advanced sonic contraptions to seem artificial and organic at once. Todd Terry's Resolutions, like some futuristic r&b album, boasts stupidly great highs amid filler; Basement Jaxx's Remedy is best enjoyed in full-force single shots. And Thievery Corporation's remixes, well, that collection works in classic electronica style: You throw it on. You fasten onto this passage or that track or sonic re-think. You zone out on others. Some days it's in different places.

As electronica has so impressively gone its diverse ways in the '90s, the music itself less frequently throws people; records still exist that cause some to wonder about the auditory health of their fans, like Belgian hardcore used to in the early '90s. More often, though, people find Underworld or Massive Attack or remix magicians like Kruder Dorfmeister fun to hear. No, what makes electronica albums still somewhat stressful is their unaccountability, maybe even the puritan cardinal sin of irresponsibility. While there are Americans who stroll up to water coolers and say things like, "Did you hear what that guy did with the Strauss last night?" more often—instead of discussing treatment or manner—it's "What about that Meatloaf tune?" But in a climate where tracks either "rock" or don't, where hip-hop loops are either "dope" or not, listeners would seem easily capable of responding to approaches like Todd Terry's or audio designs like Orbital's, or to cushy mood music like Thievery Corporation's. They just don't always know how to talk about them. This creates the odd situation where, because such recordings can't be talked about, perhaps they shouldn't be. Something seems wrong, even when it doesn't sound that way.


The Middle of Nowhere

Todd Terry

Basement Jaxx
Astralwerks/XL Recordings

Thievery Corporation
Abductions and Reconstructions
Eighteenth Street Lounge Music

In fact, nothing is. Electronic pop, stylistically established as it is in our world just now, functions as pure romanticism. Flowing or busted-up, it dramatizes the dream that your computer will never stop working, that it will always function flawlessly, like one of Orbital's thrilling cascades of minimalism. At its cleverest, as in the case of Basement Jaxx or Fatboy Slim, it doesn't presuppose a day when machines stop highway construction, but only a time when technology can be as witty as the right dinner party. And at its most parasitic, as with Thievery Corporation's remixes, it doesn't pillage its sources but instead crafts alluring alternative versions of them, occasionally having the effect of rendering the host track more, not less, unshakable. And so far, there have been no reports anywhere in the world that guitars can no longer be plugged into amps.

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