With last year’s swan-song-cum-video “Windowlicker,” Richard “Aphex Twin” James retired from music-making, which was just as well. As electronic music’s resident funnyman, he hadbecome more its Rich Little than its Andy Kaufman, shtickishly pantomiming his role in the usually humorless scene. First there was 1996’s”Girl Boy Song,” its spazzy breakbeat dry-humping a classical interlude, as much a punchline as an ersatz “Swan Lake.” Then came his remix of Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut,” rechristened “Richard’s Hairpiece” after he stripped the low-end off and sped up the vocal to a grating ping of hi-hats. But “Windowlicker” was the crowning glory, its spare, rubbery rhythm serving up as good an excuse as any for a pimp-playing James and director Chris Cunningham to ride around in a block-long stretch limo, indulging and subverting T&A imagery like gender-challenging director Matthew Barney making a 2 Live Crew video: Teases of string-bikini-clad curves end up belonging to women that all have James’s grinning, bearded mug. As the old Chas and Dave song put it, “Nice legs, shame about the face.”
But if James has moved into pop culture proper with his megabudget videos making fun of other megabudget videos, his Rephlex label carries on the Aphex Twin aesthetic on the underground techno front. Founded in Cornwall in 1991 by James and partner Grant Wilson Claridge, Rephlex (www.rephlex.com) has in the last few years shifted from its initial rave-era renaissance, when it boasted releases by Squarepusher and µ-Ziq, into its current post-rave, post-everything mannerist jag, putting out music by artists who sound as if their only contact with electronic music is from listening to squelchy ham-radio broadcasts in remote parts of the world: Ovuca in Finland, proudly representing North of the Arctic Circle with his chilly, scattered, free-range tundra-jungle version of soul music; Lektrogirl in her native Tasmania making infantilistic electro, from the sounds of it, while reading the software manual on her lap; Bogdan Raczynski in Poland or Japan or (judging from his album Thinking of You‘s poster insert) wherever he’s wearing that flowered dress and pushing that shopping cart, with his battered laptop full of stream-of-consciousness bleeps and broken beats over which to rant about DJs and Ibiza, buoyed by the oddly sentimental segue of embittered lost love to lull him to sleep, those Brit bastards be damned.
Then there’s DMX Krew, who evidently have never heard music made after 1984, at least any made with guitar. This has yielded an alarmingly consistent string of albums-that-time-forgot that sound like the Monkees trying to be Kraftwerk: obliviously, and-your-point-would-be-edly reactionary, blissfully free of all that herky-jerky future-retro irony that fuels smirky neo-electroids like Add N To (X).
Likewise, compared to the running commentary of IDM (so-called Intelligent Dance Music) about other, one infers, less-intelligent music (current IDM poster boy Kid 606’s new offering scrambles N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”), Like A Tim’s Rephlex release Red and Blue Boxing seems beamed in from some parallel universe where laws of 4/4 tempo, melody, even simple coherence, sometimes brilliantly, usually annoyingly, don’t apply.
But as wildly varying as Rephlex releases are, they all share the naïve eccentricity of their label founder, so uncannily that if all these folks were really just elaborate aliases for James’s own schizophrenic output, nobody would be shocked. But if it is all a joke, dance music, and music in general, is finally getting it. As lines blur between “good” and “bad” with the emergence of the so-bad-it’s-good category of “amazing,” usually favored by brainy critics to excuse guilty-pleasure love of dumb rock, Raczynski is indeed amazing, fueled by a brave (everybody has those weird minutes squinting in the bathroom mirror half-singing embarrassing songs; only Raczynski makes albums of them) and occasionally shocking confidence (his misogynistic hate-rants against British consumerism have gotten him banned from England). Though inspired by dance music, he’s free from its shackled-to-club-play tunnel vision, even if, for now, he’s defined by it—not unlike the insanely un-punk Butthole Surfers playing hardcore-punk clubs in the mid ’80s.
James and Claridge themselves prefer to call their post-dance aesthetic “braindance.” But as a recent spate of dance records exhibiting Rephlex-ian eccentricities shows, this post-dance “amazing”-ness is converging with dance music’s need to find the funk in new ways. The best Detroit techno single in 10 years, the helium electro sex-up “Sandwiches” by Detroit Grand Pubahs, owes more to Dr. Demento than Derrick May, while techno granddaddy Sven Väth and France’s Mr. Oizo have both released records of no-it’s-not-a-joke kindergarten techno more kindred to Lektrogirl than Jeff Mills. Even house homeboy Armand Van Helden’s new Killing Puritans album, with its street-person conspiracy theories, human beat-boxing, and rampant middle fingers to the dance status quo (in between requisite jiggy tracks, of course), sounds more like Bogdan Raczynski’s Thinking of You, itself full of noisy beats and hilarious “Fuck you DJ” lines (“lazyass DJ shit . . . my dog could make better beats than you . . . and I don’t even have a dog”) than, say, the last Basement Jaxx record.
Dance music more and more lets us down with tracky albums that bounce between ever more hermetically sealed genres. (Question for house producers: Is disco the only thing worth sampling in the last 25 years?) So when, after an afternoon of braindancing to Raczynski, a colleague of mine commented, “This is what your parents hear when you play them techno . . . a bunch of noise,” all I could respond with was, “And your point would be?”