Last year’s renaissance of interest in house was based largely on a craving for pleasantness in dance music. With techno and drum’n’bass both locked in grinding hair-shirt minimalism, house’s sensuousness beckoned hipsters like a quenching oasis. But in truth, house can be as punishing and dehumanized as the hardest-core techno. Right from the start, there’s been a vital tension within house culture: “songs” versus “tracks”; diva passion and gospel-descended uplift versus treadmill beats, trippy FX, and blurts of inorganic synth-slime.
Called “tracky” or “trackhead” by cognoscenti, this mechanistic side of house began with the mid-’80s jack tracks (palsied vamps, stutter-afflicted vocal riffs, mind-evacuating “jack your body” chants), then mutated into acid house in 1987. Acid contained its own microgenre of vocal-based tracks, a world away from the melisma-drenched fabulosity of Ultra Nate and Robert Owens. On the flipside of Phuture’s “Acid Tracks,” the very first house tune to deploy the fractal wibbles of the Roland 303 bass-synthesizer, the astonishing “Your Only Friend” personified cocaine as a robot-voiced tyrant: “I’ll make you lie for me, I’ll make you die for me.” Other classics of this ilk include Adonis’s “No Way Back,” Bam Bam’s “Where’s Your Child?” and Sleazy D’s “I’ve Lost Control,” all themed around disorientation, mindwreck, abduction, and sexual dread.
Green Velvet’s Curtis Jones single-handedly brought the creepy monologue back to house in the mid ’90s. This Berkeley dropout founded two Chicago labels: Cajual, for effervescent disco cutups (including his own Cajmere releases), and Relief, for cranium-denting beats and drug-noise delirium. Jones first made an impact with 1995’s “Flash,” now the opening track of a Green Velvet anthology just released via the Warners-affiliated dance subsidiary F-111. Over a battery of rivet-gun snares, Jones plays a mushmouthed guide escorting a tour group of worried parents armed with cameras through “Club Bad” and revealing all the decadent things their teenage kids get up to. Like sucking on balloons of nitrous oxide—”laughing gas, but this is no laughing matter.” Slyly playing on the wired paranoia of ravers (“Ohmigod, what if Mom and Dad really do arrive and see me all fucked up?!?!”), the chorus “cameras ready, prepare to flash” transforms the club’s occult murk into a panopticon space of exposed and documented delinquency.
Green Velvet songs are so funny, the temptation is just to reprint the lyrics and be done with it. “Answering Machine” is a litany of bad news deposited on some luckless chump’s incoming message cassette: a landlord’s eviction notice, his fiancée announcing that the baby’s not his, a Psychic Friend advising, “Stay in your house today, tomorrow, and FOREVER.” “Water Molecule,” originally from Green Velvet’s 1999 debut album, Constant Chaos, is a fantasy about being reincarnated as H2O—the appeal being the access-all-areas (including human bodies) privileges. Mind you, deadpans Jones, entering the sewage system would be a drag: “Not that I’ve got anything against rats, I just don’t want to hang out with them.” Most darkly hilarious of all is “Abduction,” an unnerving ditty about being molested by aliens midway through doing the dishes. Jones delivers lines like “They touched a part of me that I didn’t know existed” in the faded, faltering voice of a survivor’s confessional, with a feel for conversational cadence that’s Method acting in excelsis.
Of course, none of this would work so well if the backing tracks weren’t so compulsive, deranging, and, well, tracky. Green Velvet’s sound reactivates a forgotten branch of house’s family tree: not the symphonic sashay of Philly and Salsoul, but post-Moroder artpunk—the heavy breathing, guttural vocals, and pervy pulsations of DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago’s early-’80s dance floors), the soiled electronics of Throbbing Gristle, the Normal, and Suicide. Built around a kinky, rubberwear-glossy analog synth bassline that lodges in your brain like a tapeworm, “The Stalker” is Cabaret Voltaire if they’d been drag queens. What saves Green Velvet from Les Rhythmes Digitales/DMX Crew retro-kitsch, though, is the production, which incorporates ’90s house’s advances in programming and texturizing beats. Back in 1982, they didn’t know how to make kick drums so thick and wide and voluptuously concussive.
Jones has described what he does as “folk music for the rave scene.” Like the Horrorist, he’s adept at finding narratives that fit the abstract emotions and weird energies generated by techno but don’t detract from its posthuman intensity. He is also a star in a faceless scene, and one of the few live performers in electronica whose physical presence really adds something to the records. Playing live with two synth-wielding minions in Twilo’s Y2K Lounge a few weeks ago, Jones showed off his trademark luminous green plastic scalp nodules, changed his buff-chest-hugging outfits a couple of times, deployed a panoply of voice-warping devices, and generally palpated the audience in the palm of his hand. What came across as unexpectedly forceful was Green Velvet’s electro-punk attitude. Jones even indulged in some autodestruction theatrics, fake-smashing aNew Romantic-style guitar-shaped shoulder-strap synth. One new track pivots around a chorus (“They say, ‘It’s just a phase’/IT’S NOT A FUCKING PHASE!!”) that Jones delivers with the defiant staccato phrasing of Negative Approach or Bad Brains. Which brought a whole nonrave spin to the crowd’s cries of “HARDCORE!!!!” at the end.