By Seth Colter Walls
By Brett Koshkin
By Spencer Wilking
By Christina Black
By Calum Marsh
By J. Pablo
By Phillip Mlynar
By Jenna Sauers
If you took your way-back machine anywhere into the prehistory of dancing, you'd probably find the music wavering between two poles: musical forms with beginnings and endssuch as songson the one hand, and nonstop grooves on the other, a key difference being that the groove stuff improvised its tension and release, its excitement and lulls, whereas in the beginning-end stuff such things were mostly predetermined.
A Beat Down in Hell Town
Though you probably always got a combination of these two tendencies, by the sixth or seventh decade of the 20th century song form pretty much dominated North American dance music, at least on record. So when melody or the chord progression brought a song to an end, the record (or album cut) ended too. But the dominance of song form wasn't absolute: Almost any recorded song, no matter what its ostensible purpose (love song, murder ballad), had a dance beat attached, and records would often end in fade-outs, implying that though the song ends, the beat goes on. And Bo Diddley and James Brown were scoring hits with records that were basically rhythm vamps, and Dylan with vamps interrupted by choruses, and the Yardbirds with songs interrupted by vamps. But as the century continued, disco and hip-hop went from the DJ idea of playing separate tracks in an ongoing groove to the idea of tumbling the tracks all over each other, as a single track, and also mixing into the track what had formerly been between-track DJ patterand this evolved into the idea of putting anysound into the mix. So you got Double Dee & Steinski pasting in old Groucho Marx routines ("I could dance with you until the cows come homeon second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows, and you come home"), and after that, the kitchen sink, anything available from the soundscape. And people dancing in the disco round had already decided that you could resurrect square old music like show tunes and Beethoven simply by pasting a disco beat underneath. So you could use not only any sound but any style as well, and a single dance track could contain multiple sounds, songs, and styles without the songs' determining the form of the music.
But in the last 15 years or so in electronic dance music, you've got some music makers who barely use song elements at all, some who will use elements from songs but basically for groove or trance purposes, and then some who use song-like material for its emotional payoff but are in the process of working out how much to use, and in what way. These last include (among many others) Daft Punk, Arling & Cameron, Basement Jaxx, Morel, Les Rythmes Digitales, Bosco, and Joey Kingpin. Sometimes they'll go whole hog into beginning-to-end songness, but always with a DJ's sensibility, so there's the sense that this is an ongoing track that just happensto start at the beginning of a song and end at its end, as if to say, "We're ending now because we want to, not because you told us to." And the sensibility is of an artist who's not just a songwriter or singer who expresses himself by interpreting a song, but someone who expresses himself by choosinga song or a style and bringing it into his universe.
Bosco, for one, might come across a bit too cutesy in doing so. I mean, what kind of a band calls itself Bosco? One that wants to sound like chocolate syrup? They're a French duo, Stéphane Bodin and François Marché, and if you fear that they'll be twice as twee as Daft Punk, you won't be heartened to learn that their album Actionstarts with an electronically treated voice singing the word "satellite" in robotic treble, or that there's a country-blues song narrated by a dotcom guy going on about his startups and his stock options. (Like ha-ha-ha, yuppie entrepreneur sings the blues, aren't we clever.) Or that there's a song, "Christian's Decision," whose main lyrica voice intoning "Christian, what is your decision?"comes across as mockery in this context (though that might not be the intent).
The fact is, though, this is a visceral, powerful album. On the country-blues number, for instance, the guitar actually has bite, the added disco-synth touches intensify it, and the four-on-the-floor disco beat works like a bluesman's pounding right foot. And despite the apparent detachment in "Christian's Decision," its music is intensely beautiful and menacing, with a viola intoning along with the main voice, machines whirring in the background, and drums playing busy beats (almost hip-hoppy in their off-rhythms) that, rather than denting the slow beauty, simply make it more edgy.
And some of the humor on the record is genuinely funny, e.g., "Mr. Fresh," a guy who sounds like Right Said Fred being too sexy for their shirts, except this guy is too sexy for his whole damn life, which he seems to have misplaced anyway: He's looking for his shirt, pants, head, bed, house, car, and keys. Might as well stay home from work. (Good advice for sure, when your head is missing.) The title track finds Bosco "on the highway to action," though the background singer pronounces it "eyeway." I found love on a two-lane street, and lost it on a lonely eyeway.
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