Electronica used to shake people up in the early ’90s, when every body called it techno. English publications covered electronic dance music as if it were an exciting new field, teeming with records as wonderful and relevant as punk. But Americans mostly muttered about audio wallpaper, and told horror stories of entire Paris streets whose nightclubs played nothing except techno records so numbing and repetitive that, God, if they ever overtook radio stations you’d have a cultural catastrophe of science fiction proportions right here, in the land of Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, on your hands. And in the birthplace of Donna Summer, too: By the mid ’90s, clerks in exclusive dance shops, bound by law to stock the latest trends, just barely tolerated techno when people inquired about it, sniffing how they still chose house divas. “Good Lord,” Billy Corgan said one evening in Atlanta, in town making an enormous guitar album, “techno is the world we live in. Why should the music be found so out of the question?”
Then, by ’96 or ’97, the industry interceded in America, which annoyed people further. Christened “electronica” by marketing zealots, techno was shoved out there to eradicate goopy pop, guitar rock, and everything else. So by ’98, when nothing like that had even remotely taken shape, electronica began to be discussed as a failure—even with Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim all platinum. A parallel universe of electronic pop stretching from Rob Zombie to Air to D.J. Shadow had sprung up, obliviously establishing fleeting and lasting allegiances to guitar conceptualism or orchestral grandiosity or “‘ techno itself. These days, the field lopes along, hardly in any sort of panic or failing aesthetic health, proving that older artists who embraced it—people like U2 and David Bowie and Garbage and Björk—were not, for once, merely jumping on the hoopla bandwagon, but rather trying to patch into the thing that techno-haters always missed: reality.
Techno nowadays isn’t devising anyone’s new rocket ships, exactly, or foreign-attack missiles. It’s doing something better: offering a mind-
bogglingly rich variety of recording pleasures that are crusty, experimental, cheesy, suave. Some of them, you might even hear on the radio. At the beginning of “Style,” a track that ends The Middle of Nowhere, the ravishing new album from England’s veteran brother duo Orbital, one of those nerdy old voices long familiar to house and techno fans turns up. “Let’s listen to some of the effects you can produce with a stylophone,” the guy offers in an official tone equally suitable for some 1956 How To Train Your Dog LP. “Just by flicking a switch, you can get a vibrato or tremolo effect,” he continues, lightly amazed by the scientific-technological possibility of his hot new musical gadget. Orbital then pounce out of their antique spoken-word prelude into one of their contemporary glosses
on ’90s techno—softened in places, per the current vogue, with clarified statements of those shiftingly cinematic rhythms trip-hop bestowed on the game. Bagpipes (of course) parade around. Orbital end the piece with a hushed female voice confessing how she’s “aching for you”— a haunting reference, in this context, to traditional pop records from the Beatles to Backstreet.
Memory of pre-microchip kicks shows up, too, in Todd Terry’s “Let It Ride,” the high point on the veteran New York dancemaker and remix honcho’s Resolutions. The discernible sonic body of a really fizzy pop song is twisted, as if made of aluminum foil, and encouraged to dominate the middle of a slamming house track. Like in so much dance music conceptually born of hip-hop, contrast rules: The pop tune, which seems to have swung to Earth from Pluto, is sweetly harmonic and precocious, while the house track it vies with is bass-toned and thudding, even thick. The effect is like seriously organized Osmonds bent on commandeering a jeep.
The vibe on “Red Alert,” the single from Remedy, the debut of Brixton duo Basement Jaxx, is post-cool happiness—the careful kind of swing-like delirium that has replaced grunge and hip-hop misery on the radio. Like Soul II Soul without the gravity, almost. The track, wherein an all-purpose diva advises against panic and hypes music that “keeps on playin’ on and on,” is the brand of house that, though technologically astute, aims to come off like pre-techno funk played in real time with traditional instruments. Nonetheless, Basement Jaxx rely on their favored ploy of slipping noises or loose sound effects above their rhythms, up where
the listener might expect riffs or more developed hooks.
In contrast, the vibe on Gus Gus’s “Polyesterday,” one of the standout remixes on Abductions and Reconstructions, a collection by D.C. partnership Thievery Corporation, isn’t vibe at all; it’s mood. Dub-crazy, quietly insinuating, fond of isolating only a few lyrics and then trancing out over them as the repetitions gather force and mysteriousness, the track is dance music Sade would understand. As the Gus Gus singer keeps disappearing into and reappearing out of a reverb cloud of his own voicing, the reconfigured music subtly beeps and vamps and spins around, creating a seductive world of junk reimagined as luxury, secondhand rayon behaving like finest silk.
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.
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.