In dance music’s boom times, miniaturization equaled keepin’ it real, a way to hold outsiders back from the gates. But like the economy that fed its mid-’90s commercial peak, clubland’s soundtrack has been scaled back out of necessity as much as willful aesthetics. For post-ravers burned out on eight-hour sets of feel-good fuckall from superstar DJs (there they go . . . thataway) and wishing to, you know, sing along to actual songs again, punk-disco, mash-up bootlegs, and neo-electro feed the need. By its very name, you can figure that microhouse—a woozily atmospheric, super-minimalist style in which our old friend the 4/4 thump glitches its groove on—plays the other side of the field. Only there’s something warmly inviting about it. Microhouse takes plenty of cues from techno minimalism and laptop dinking-around. But unlike them, microhouse pares away not to diminish itself but to expand its scope and bear down on details—staticky clicks, voices inhaling just before they begin to sing, the decaying sizzle of a hi-hat—in order to blow them up widescreen size. It’s probably the most inward-looking genre ever explicitly made to get asses moving: the ideal meeting point between IDM hauteur and floor-first rub-a-dub-dub. (And yes, dub is in there too.)
Surprisingly, microhouse isn’t (so far) a particularly New York-specific subgenre. While the people making the stuff come from all over (London, Montreal, Chile), the genre’s (can’t quite call it “scene” ‘s) capital is Germany’s second cities: Cologne (home of the Kompakt and Perlon labels), Hamburg (Poker Flat), and Frankfurt (Force Inc.). Nevertheless, microhouse’s sonic strategy, with voluptuous asceticism playing between gummed-up beats and up-top tics’n’timbres, form fits the confines of the smaller spaces that have become the sad face of NYC clubbing post-Giuliani. Imagine lounge music with the seams showing.
Pantytec, a/k/a Cologne duo DJ Zip and Sammy Dee, stitch their music from the seams alone. Pony Slaystation (Perlon import), their debut, is all droll drop-basslines, spine-shivering echo (“Micromission,” the first track, opens with a duet between tuned static and hovering vocal blurs), and funked-up glitchbeats. Every track has eight or nine ideas fighting for space, the beat holding steady as everything else flies around the speakers. “Candy Coated Conspiracy” even pays sly homage to the Age of Love’s self-titled 1992 single, which helped set trance’s template—a neat joke in a song whose slo-mo scratches, slithering synths, flip-flopping multiple basslines, and jumping-jack rhythmic sense do everything but lull.
Pantytec’s freneticism stretches house forms as far out of shape as they can pull. Most microhouse, though, is content to ping-pong between the lines. Take Toronto producer Mike Shannon, whose debut, Slight of Hand (Force Inc.), marches its submarine-glub basslines and synth riffs in lockstep with scissoring hi-hats and just-thick-enough clickbeats. The rhythms themselves, though, are eccentric enough to guard against tedium, especially when Shannon grabs a good riff and rides it out. The central figure running through “Unexpected Vengeance” bubbles up from the swamp, then dissolves like a firework when it hits air, while “Sextoy” and “Flaco Blaco Funk” play off the tension between found-noise riffs and narcotic house keyboards.
Shannon’s keyboard lines tend toward the cocked-hat jaunty, but Lawrence‘s are closer to music-box wistful; think Boards of Canada positioning their melodies front and center instead of slightly left of your ear’s direct reach, and replacing their shuffling breaks with ye olde boom-tick. But although some of the tracks on Lawrence (Ladomat import) work up a head of steam, its pulse is pokier and its shading too subtle to encourage peak-time club play. Instead, the overall effect is exemplified by the third track (no titles are included), in which a grainy, just-out-of-reach shudder, like house keys absently sliding against a bottle, reaches up three-fourths of the way in and swallows the piece whole.
Such shuffles are all over Thomas Fehlmann‘s Streets of Blah (Kompakt)—people have even called it “shuffle-tech.” Fehlmann is a veteran techno producer, but Blah ambles through the brambles instead of powering the plant; where most microhouse, even those show-offs Pantytec, achieves a making-out intimacy, Blah feels like a stroll through a greenhouse. (So hey, why not call the genre that?) His use of aural static is less suggestive of electricity than of water rivulets running over wading-pool stones and/or your mind’s eye—which, right, can be tedious, particularly when the last three songs abjure beat for mood. But his groove, particularly on “Streets of Blah” and “Gratis,” has an appealing lope that’s friendly even when his ideas fall short.
It’s ideas, though, that separate great DJ-mix CDs from this pack, which is probably one reason I have friends who claim to hear God on Immer (Kompakt), the second mix-CD from Cologne DJ and Kompakt label head Michael Mayer. Or maybe ideas isn’t the right word—more like connections, meta-structures, interlockings, feeling-as-meaning. The cut-up cocktail piano on Auch’s “Remix Tomorrow Goodbye (Farben Remix),” which opens the disc, is a sly nod to the label’s sit-down ethos, but there’s a menacing undercurrent as well. By track five, Carsten Jost’s “You Don’t Need a Weatherman (Superpitcher Remix),” we’ve reached the dancefloor—a crowded one, in a warehouse. Ah, memory—even the bird noises bring us back to early rave anthems like “Pacific State” and “Stella.” Only there’s something faded and foggy about “Weatherman” ‘s trance-like glacial synth pads: If Oakenfold et al. make you reach for heaven, this is closer to a disoriented comedown, gorgeous but unsettling. No wonder the disc reaches its climax near the end, when Phantom/Ghostand Selway each slither into near-goth mode. Instead of shifting the parts while maintaining the whole, Mayer’s selections are relatively static. But his segues refuse to stand still, even on his brand-new Speicher (Kompakt), which is closer to straight techno.
If Immer isolates microhouse’s secretly epic gestures, Friends, a mix by Mayer’s Cologne cohort Triple R (a/k/a journalist, producer, and DJ Richard Riley Reinhold), offers something more unassumingly workaday. It’s also more vocal-heavy than its fellows. When microhousers play with house’s diva ideal—see Luomo’s 2000 album Vocalcity, or the glitchy parts of Björk’s Vespertine—they tend to cut the voices up as much as the rest of the instruments. Not here; for the first hour of Friends, women sing-song or mutter or giggle in relatively straightforward fashion while buried in the mix—not quite understandable, not quite ignorable, not unlike indie rock’s celebration of ordinary speech.
No wonder the disc crests with Superpitcher’s remix of Dntel’s “(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan,” featuring Ben Gibbard from Seattle’s Death Cab for Cutie. It’s the only particularly song-like track here (Dntel/ Gibbard’s new album as the Postal Service, Give Up, is closer to neo-new wave), but the other tracks’ tentative linearity prepare us for its straightforward structure. Likewise, their unusually frisky array of sonic devices—the scrumptious crackles of Oliver Hacke’s remix of Process’s “Pelican,” the gold-dust paddlewheel ripples of Metaboman’s “Easy Woman (Robag Wrhume Mix),” the lipstick-wet rustles of Dialogue’s “Gigolistic”—get us ready for the head-emptying moment when Gibbard’s voice is overtaken by ghost bells shaking in the distance. And when that’s over, we get Oxtongue’s “Delight,” which sounds like—take your pick—Boards of Canada covering Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” or Daft Punk doing BoC’s “1969.” Another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do except play with the stuffing pointing out of the couch.