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A few years back, the rock critics of the world started going apeshit for a new dance music subgenre variously called microhouse and minimal techno (or at least I think they’re the same thing), especially the music coming from a German indie label called Kompakt. The word around the campfire was that this stuff worked as a stark counterpoint to the cheesed-out overblown caterwauling of trance by stripping high-gloss dance-music down to a simple pulse, adorning it with just a few layers of quiet, woozy synths and thus bringing a sort of forlorn new-wave romanticism that dance had never really fully achieved before. The producers making this stuff were all very mysterious and faceless, and all the records came in similarly unadorned packaging with the same simple font on the covers. By replacing all those histrionics with a restrained, cooled-out sense of melody and an unadorned emotional resonance, this stuff was supposed to push all of us into the future. I read all the reviews, and then I ran out and bought a bunch of Kompakt compilations, all of which were selling for crazy-expensive import prices and none of which I could properly afford, and I was pretty disappointed. There were a few transcendent singles (I totally loved Mayer and Voigt’s “Unter Null”), but most of it felt way too placid and bleached-out and boring. The thing I didn’t quite realize when I was buying all those records was that I like cheesed-out dance-music histrionics; I like to be punched in the face by the obviousness of what I’m hearing, and this stuff depended too much on implication and slow repetition. None of it ever really sounded like actual club music, like anything you could really dance to if you weren’t on some expensive and exotic drug, though I’ve still never been to any minimal-techno club night and so maybe I should just shut up about stuff I don’t understand. Most of the time, I only really liked minimal techno when its influence manifested itself outside dance music, as on the fuzzy-sweater emo-synthpop of the Postal Service or the impressionistic analog haze of the new Soft Circle album. As far as straight dance music went, I liked bells and whistles and amped-up tempos and quick-tongue rapping and airhorns and sirens and noise. Or at least I did until this new album from the Swedish minimal techno guy who calls himself the Field emerged on Kompakt and fucked all my shit up.
The Field’s From Here We Go Sublime is definitely a microhouse album, and it doesn’t try to transcend its subgenre. Mostly it just elevates its genre by pulling off the usual microhouse tricks and doing them really, really well. The songs are long and repetitive, and there’s rarely all that much going on, but they know just where to put their tricky little counter-rhythms and their soft, gurgling synths and their muted little vocal samples to achieve maximum effect. As a long-player, the whole thing fits together really well, subtly moving from mood to mood without ever breaking stride or getting too monotonous. And there are enough weird little attention-grabbing touches to keep me interested, as on the album-closing title-track, when halfway through it dissolves into whatever song the Fugees sampled for “Zealots.” The sound is thick and full, and all the little reverbed-out drum-ticks all punch hard enough to register but not so hard that they break the all-important mood. From Here We Go Sublime walks a thin tightrope throughout, and it does so with a sort of effortless grace. But I’m having trouble deciding whether I like the album so much because of its own merits or because of something else entirely: the weather. The album leaked a few weeks back, and I did with it what I usually do with microhouse albums: I downloaded it, listened to it once, and decided it was pretty meh. A few days ago, though, I doubled back to give it another chance, mostly because every other Pitchfork writer is loving it to pieces. As I was walking to the subway and listening to the album on my iPod a few days back, I started hearing what I guess the rest of them heard. I live in Greenpoint, and I walk a mile to the L stop in Williamsburg every day on my way to work. The morning I threw on the Field album was the same day the sun had finally come out in force and thawed the fuck out of the nasty-ass ice that blanketed the city this weekend. And the album, in its blankness, somehow made the beautiful day around me feel even better. The sun seemed warmer and more vivid, the lawns full of melting snow looked more peaceful, and the sound of meltwater rushing into storm-drains became more soothing. At one point, I looked down at my iPod to check the song-title, and it was “Sun & Ice,” a pretty perfect little bit of synergy. The whole experience sort of felt like that old car commercial where a couple is driving through a city listening to some techno song and all the people outside their window suddenly seem to be moving to the song’s rhythm.
But so the question remains: do I like From Here We Go Sublime because it’s a really good album or do I like it because everything in the natural world came together beautifully at the exact moment that I decided to listen to the album seriously? I don’t know the answer. But something similar happened a few months ago, when Jesu’s slow, expansive experi-metal album Conqueror came out at the absolute nadir of winter hell and somehow reflected the general environmental misery with a sort of romantic grace. Maybe that’s the secret to people who make soft, subtle music: the smart ones send it out into the world it at the time of year that best reflects the music’s mood, and critics like me confuse their feelings about the music with their feelings about the weather around them. In a way, I think the Field may have done something with From Here We Go Sublime that’s a lot more interesting and shrewd and maybe valuable than just releasing a great microhouse album. He’s released great microhouse album at the exact moment that the world most needs it.