Time was, people loved or ignored or scoffed at dance records the same way they bought or didn’t buy other kinds of pop records. The music would come from a singer like Donna Summer, say, during disco’s ’70s commercial peak. Or, during the ’80s, when dance music flaunted an exotic-obscure vibe, an outfit like the Montreal duo Lime. Or a soulful Italian production concern like Change, which occasionally would show up on the U.S. r&b charts.
But during the ’90s, with the rise of techno in England and its more open-ended and mostly marketing-derived relative electronica in the U.S., Things Seriously Changed. Songy stars like Summer, the rare techno-identified face like Rozalla notwithstanding, were out. The old exotic-obscure vibe grew increasingly moot as techno and electronica operated from the perspective that both existed as large-scale movements, even if U.S. radio and TV didn’t always program and party with them as willingly as did their U.K. and continental counterparts. And as for sharing chart real estate, contemporary forms of soul music—hip-hop and r&b, those American worlds connected by raging industry ambition, cell phones, and jewelry, not to mention a furiously fruitful musical back-and-forth—usually seemed oblivious to techno and electronica’s repetitive rhythms, not to mention its Brit-Euro passions for really cool T-shirts and unfindable Japanese sneakers.
International dance music, though, took neither the U.S. indifference nor the attempted U.S. biz exploitation nor the U.S. pop annexation of its devices lying down. Instead, it built an impressively sturdy, dramatically potent medium-sized little world for itself and continued to repeat beats. And repeat beats. And repeat beats: The establishment of the legend of the DJ—the Oakenfold-Van Helden-Digweed mold of a mere guy with (almost always) superhuman aural-rhythmic sense and concomitant taste and ability to spin (and, on occasion, electronically doctor) records in clubs from New York to Cairo to São Paulo—began to define the ordinary record-buyer’s experience of dance music proper: This was the real stuff, not the flavoring that DJ-remixers often bestowed upon releases by rock and pop stars.
DJ compilations took over, becoming the usual way in which people consumed dance music. Occasionally, these albums emerged, on their own terms, as efficient or canny or even artistically superb; other times they were like sonic space-fillers. Make no mistake, however: Whatever the genre highs, future generations will remember these collections as recorded artifacts that were, while perhaps not as odd as, say, gravely serious late-’60s instruction records like How to Train Your Dog, still pretty strange animals. They are shows by invisible DJ magicians at work during an era when almost all dance stars had, like servants in a ghost movie, vanished.
Except a few. In the mid ’90s, no dance music came on with greater rock ambitions than the Chemical Brothers’. Unlike the trance-mad DJs who succeeded them in profile by decade’s end, the English duo never tried to make the experience of doing long geometry proofs into the sonic equivalent of tantric sex. Although the Chemicals were infrequently as blunt as, say, Fatboy Slim or Propellerheads in turning electronica respectively into rock or pop, they built big beats anyway (then backed away from them). And, especially as they were rangy white guys with fried hair, the U.S. rock press adopted them enthusiastically as Moby’s eccentric English cousins. The Chemicals’ acclaimed recent Come With Us (Astralwerks), characteristically, recruits non-dance collaborators like Richard Ashcroft and Beth Orton, and a piece like the tellingly named “Star Guitar” marvelously impersonates Coldplay as a quartet of loud horseflies. And, to be fair, interesting technological energies animate songs like “Hoops” and the jizzy “Denmark.” But Come With Us is mostly just OK, a well-crafted soundtrack to being the Chemical Brothers.
Which stasis, as techno purists always implied, is one of stardom’s consumer risks: When recordings don’t have the option of relying on their artists’ personae—when they can never bank on someone pulling out a wallet just to find out what verbal crap Alanis is actually taking credit for, or what drum sound Lenny’s surrounding himself with these days—there’s likely more attention paid to the music itself. Consider Herbert, an English producer-writer immersed but not defined by Kruder & Dorfmeister’s great Austrian downbeat music, and a tiny star at best. His Around the House (!K7), a reissue of an album he made before debuting in the U.S. in 2001 with the jazzy Bodily Functions, is skeletal and quiet techno warmly warped into fragments and memories and shadows of actual pop songs; it’s Satie-scaled, at times, but never inaccessible—just weirdly, alluringly toned. All of a sudden, a brushy female voice will arrive to flip her hair and sing “The Last Beat” like Heather Nova at her most drained; the next minute, the music—and the singer—will scat.
So the question remains: Where goes a genre that is queasy about stars and beset with a gazillion shifting style denominations meaningful only to club professionals? Lately, accessing a pop sensibility that’s always been the flip side of dance separatism, beatworld collections have gone lifestyle. Tired of trekking across various time zones with trance DJs and the vibey yet unhummable tracks they sequence? Settle back into one of the most chic enclaves of Paris! That’s what the four volumes of Hôtel Costes offer: the fantasy that, with the insertion of a single CD, you are a guest at one of the city’s hippest accommodations, awash in the sounds of gifted remixer Stéphane Pompougnac. Where the packaging of a trance DJ set promises, “Yes, you too can jet to Istanbul this weekend,” the Costes collections ease the dance experience into Second Empire sofas, into the relatively far more sedentary world of cocktail hours and glossy magazines.
The cover of the current Hôtel Costes Quatre (MSI Music) depicts the backlit gorgeous face of a young woman with Chanel lips, her eyes covered by her hands, themselves covered by a pair of artfully designed and crafted light-gray leather gloves. The Costes music, which in the past hasn’t hesitated to put frisky Yves Montand and Shirley Bassey remixes next to plushly pop-minded new French dance stuff, extols the virtues of things like “London in the Rain” (done by Variety Lab) and pet ownership (as in the Method’s “I’ve Got a Cat”). Pompougnac likes comfortable vistas of rhythm wherever he can get them: guitars, strings, keyboards, as well as the usual tech-percussion overlays. The tone approximates that of stereo recording during the high hi-fi-’50s moment, but without any of the Esquivel-style shrillness; Pompougnac is as much of a midrange freak as, say, the dudes in Massive Attack. Which of course only echoes his stylistic bent: Where a soul hound like Dmitiri of Paris says, “Let’s party!” and Belgian brainiacs like Autechre respond with a dour “I don’t think so,” Pompougnac at Hôtel Costes isn’t even in the conversation; he just steers his own hip-classic way, saying much in the process about the sheer pleasure and materiality of sound.
The Naked Music label offers several series of a similar yet more r&b stripe, minus the Paris provenance. Their ambition, in fact, is much more Pottery Barn: While steadying a dependable and professional air, these enjoyable albums provide unfailingly soulful dance music for your unfailingly soulful living room. Having softly unleashed, the past few years, volumes of their Nude Dimensions and Bare Essentials, in which remixer Miguel Migs sequenced track after track of music keyed to a flowingly sung quiet-storm underlaid with easy-grooving lite-jazzy dance pulses, Naked has now released Miguel Migs: Nude Tempo One.
The music has the stress level of ’70s Burt Bacharach film scores, which is to say intentionally low; the apparent complication of a Patrice Rushen track, which is to say hardly none; and the sweet-harmonic appetite of Philly Soul, which is to say high. Packaged, as are most Naked releases, Emanuelle-like, with super softcore color cartoons of sensuous women hosting the dance music inside, these releases are the other side of the world from the sonic dancefloor laboratories of prog-trance. Although the Nude Tempo One set has its Latin flourishes that flower in a track like Batidos’s “Tengo Sed (Ron Trent Dub Mix),” more typical is something like Louis Benedetti featuring David Ruffin Jr.’s “Show You My Love (Dub).” It’s old-school vocal-group soul and groove riding and hot-tub jazz all seamlessly and subtly aligned to produce an all-mixed-up integration of motion, motion, and more motion.
But sometimes a lifestyle is just what exists in people’s heads. Indie rockers rarely master dance music, but for Rinôçérôse—Jean-Philippe Freu and Patrice “Patou” Carrie, husband and wife from Montpellier, France—the move from brainy crunch to brainy luxe seems no more prohibitive than the couple’s professional standing as psychology professors; it’s as though, for Freu and Carrie, all music was meant to evolve into witty and expansive, inevitably loquacious, seriously guitar-accented disco. On Music Kills Me (V2), the even more fluent successor to their impressive 1999 Installation Sonore debut, Rinôçérôse lead with a tune (“Le Rock Summer”) so string-laden and melodic—so disco-mad—that only the dance-crazed French, right now, might have assembled it this adamantly. Turns out, that’s the overstated overture to their chewy Moby-blues, reimagined TV themes, kinetic Africanisms, and uncanny Womack & Womack soul. All of which are, for Rinôçérôse and so much current dance music, less problems to be solved than pleasure to be heard.