Electro-swing has been scattering itself around for a while now, Wikipedia tells me, with the odd track here and there—Mr Scruff’s “Get A Move On” charting in 1999—but nothing constant, nothing sustained. That is, until recent years, when European compilations dedicated purely to that sound came out and the people behind one of them, a British label known as Freshly Squeezed, started a monthly White Mink night in Brighton, dedicated to the same sound. On the dark and luxurious graphic accompaniment you can see the head and hand of a flapper biting her pearls, and then there were other compilations, and now this one.
The musicians take swing jazz tracks from the ‘20s and ‘30s—scandalous provocations in their day—and mix them around, chop them up, in variously inventive ways, often scavenging the taut and knobbly honk of a Charleston, making the song kick forward, and borrowing a trumpet or a piano note, giving the modern music a crackle as of old gramophone horns, often picking out a phrase sung in the voice of someone long-dead. “I’m going to wash my hands of you,” croons a man in Kormac’s “Wash My Hands”. Then sharp punctuation: “Get out!” Matt Kowalsky’s “Supertwarz” opens with crackle treated as a sampled sound in its own right and segues into a stretch of synthesizer nu-80s pop that keeps getting lassoed by a few old chords and dragged back. The pop pushes up again, the swing comes in and says, “Forestall”. A live singer appears and sings with a dead one.
It’s the irrepressible upbeat bounce of the swing that differentiates this music from other sub-genres of electronic music—the very lighthearted carefree kick that it has. Eastblok brings in Jewdyssee’s “Fiselekh Tsum Tantsen” and Nôze’s “Dring Dring” to suggest affinities with klezmer and Roma party brass. The oom-pa oom-pa carries through into the Charleston-ing. There’s no sadness on Swing Discoteka, no doomy electro-booms and thunders, no contemplation, no pausing to think, and the fun is sometimes borderline hysterical. It can’t stop, it’s on happy pills. Two British newspapers have separately suggested that electro-swing’s maturing popularity might have been fertilized by the economic downturn. People are depressed, they say. They want to dress up like a natty flapper, go out, and have a carefree evening.
And the siren call of fun is this music’s weak spot, the temptation to be too superficial for your own good, too mindlessly happy, and then facing the kind of criticism that was aimed at Moby when his Play came out: you’re just stealing a good old song, bastardizing it and making it dumber, and those dead trumpeters and singers had more talent in their little fingers than you have in your whole… etcetera. But these 1920s swing tunes were pieces of popular dance music already, and why shouldn’t they be so again? Why shouldn’t the present collaborate with the past?
Yet listen now, says a voice, listen to Eldoko’s “Run for the Trees”. Isn’t it disappointingly basic? Sort of charmless? Where the original was probably charming? Well, all right, but look at the Moscow-based duo Messer Für Frau Muller and the nice fresh salmagundi of its “Sex Inspector”, full of unexpected samples pulled from who-knows-where. That’s full of life, isn’t it? Someone was thinking when they made that, weren’t they? And life’s the thing, the complicated energy of life.