[13 November 2008]
I often think of techno and house music—or all protracted electronic music, for that matter—as carrot-on-a-stick music. Let me explain. Perhaps you’re a devotee of techno, house, or whatever (and please excuse me as I momentarily devolve into unapologetic generalizations), and perhaps your attraction to the pulsating, incremental evolutions of machine-made grooves is that payoff at the end of the tunnel, as it were: that climax where everything—the rhythm, the energy, the stakes—is taken higher. In fact, we can all relate to that thrill, ever since we first heard Sly & the Family Stone inform us of a destination at some great height.
I would argue, however (or at least clarify my particular perspective), that it’s not so much the climax that does it. What appeals to me about this music, and more specifically a collection like Nobody Knows Anything: DFA Presents Supersoul Recordings, is not so much the fabled payoff in the distance, but the promise of a payoff. Carrot-on-a-stick music. To be led along, balanced atop something myopic and faintly ersatz that gradually builds both steam and realness, while polyrhythmic accents knock at the door—this is something to be charmed by, to be led in the direction of its siren call.
The promise of a payoff is infused within all of the 18 tracks on the two-disc Nobody Knows Anything, a compilation of vinyl- and digital-only tracks released by Berlin’s Supersoul label since its inception in 2006. Supersoul is being imported to the US by DFA Records’ new Death from Abroad imprint, and its music (most of which is either made or overseen by the label’s founder, Xaver Naudascher), while not as post-modernly aware as the DFA’s own creations, is flush with a similar reductive aesthetic.
That’s most obvious in a track like Naudascher’s “Lost”, which sounds like it has cribbed and digitized the tight, crisp drums from “Billie Jean”. A sonar pings steadily, percussion gets shifty, and layers collect and disperse, all of it encircling the purpose-driven rhythm. “Lost” has a misleading title, because this music knows exactly where it’s going, even if you remain cheerfully oblivious, and it will take you there. Likewise, polyrhythmic clicks play off the hi-hat upbeat in Skatebard’s “Marimba”, drum rolls pepper thunder over the shimmering synths in Naudascher’s “Motor City”, and even vocals (cheerleaders, natch) are delivered sans embellishments on Plastique de Reve’s “Resist”.
Mogg & Naudascher’s “Moon Unit” series (there are four separate parts here) are the stuff of sonic minimalism, evoking straight lines and walls to climb. The pulsing rhythm and melody in “Moon Unit Pt. 2”, appended with fingersnaps that echo like shaken dice, suggests suspended animation, movements on hold, even if the entire thing is moving nonetheless.
Though Nobody Knows Anything has the right idea, it feels like it backtracks on the newness that the DFA has charted in recent years; if the DFA’s music is a new translation, this stuff is the old text. Everything here is a manifestation of a similar sensation—two steps up, one step back—and so, while it’s energizing to seek out that promise, it’s also incredibly streamlined and goal-oriented. Here, things do have a tendency to become one big throb of forward-looking stasis, endlessly offering rhythm and forever extending promise.