Digitalism’s DJ-Kicks, The Soundtrack of a Dull Party
Some parties are awkward. You get there just a little too early and suffer through forced conversation with a host you don’t know quite as well as you thought. You find yourself among a small group of people with nothing in common and nothing to talk about. You seek refuge in a quickly dispatched bowl of potato chips as though it were the focus of the entire affair. Someone suggests music and chooses from a collection they’re unfamiliar with. What follows is a cacophony of chopped up, low-quality loops with intermittent censor bleeps and no apparent intent or direction. They serve to exacerbate the already socially toxic atmosphere. Somewhere in the middle of the muddle a house beat emerges and because there’s nothing else to say, you raise your voice, careful not to sound aggressive, and ask, “Is that the song or did something go wrong with the download?” Your new friend looks at the playlist and informs you that this is the new DJ-Kicks compilation mixed by Digitalism. The track is Axel LeBaron and Kurbitov’s “Menace”—apparently it took a collaboration to make this.
A girl over in the corner adds brightly, “Huh.” It is open to interpretation whether or not she’s enjoying the track or just conveying recognition. Either way, you’re locked in. Nobody’s going to press “skip” now that she’s ambiguously endorsed it, so you stick it out. Digitlism, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that sense of obligation. They simply give up and go for a do-over, chopping it off abruptly and switching moods and rhythm with all the grace of a falling anvil. The new track is slower, more spacey, elements of high-pitched and heavily effected guitar, choir of angels over a lazy plodding beat. This is “Travellers (The Sharooz Remix)” by the Surrender and it’s leans more on melancholy than party music. The mood in the room dampens even further. Worst party ever!.
But then your host offers a few brew and you wash down the openers with a giant swig of bitter. Before you realize it, a deeper bass kick surfaces. A funky house rhythm erupts out of the sallow audio levels. Digitalism has apparently found the mixing board, corrected a few things and started taking this seriously. Track three, entitled simply “83” by Hey Today! breaks things wide open. Around the room faces brighten up. The noise level rises. Have more guests just arrived? There’s the tell-tale sign of moving hips and tapping feet. This is what one has come to expect from a DJ-Kicks record.
The momentum continues as we mix (smoothly now) into Alex Gopher’s “Brain Leech”, a fully vocalized pop number which sounds so much like an outtake from New Order’s Substance record that you wonder if the samples are in fact just that. You’re inspired to rewind and strike up a conversation with the guy next to you about whether this is a little known Bernard Sumner project. No sooner do you ask the question then things start to get choppy and loopy again.
“I don’t think so.”
Twr72 breaks in uninvited with “Summer” and crashes—no—decimates the burgeoning party atmosphere with a 1990s club throw-back which seems to harness all the worst aspects of that era. This track seems constructed simply to remind you for a moment how bad house music at its worst can get. You have to conclude that its presence here is ironic—intended to make you long for whatever is next. And this strategy works because once again Digitalism cut it short and launch into what will easily become the core of this record. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s their own song and the first single to be spotlighted in the promo material—“Falling”.
You could be forgiven for leaving on this high note. You could also be forgiven for clicking on the ‘repeat single’ button and just let this one fly over and over again. This heavy hitter of a track pounds with beautiful production, and layers of syrupy, moody, arpeggiated synths. It makes you wonder if the entire album was nothing more than a launching pad for this mind blowing anthem.
Their “Electroclash Edit” of Gai Barone’s “Alicudi” follows, keeping up the level of quality while dialing down the energy. Just when you thought the soundtrack of the blogosphere had run its course, Electroclash makes a reappearance. I would undoubtedly be lynched by a gang of german club kids if I tried to paint Digitalism with the Electroclash brush but suffice it to say that I am not overly surprised to see this on the playlist. I feel safe saying that Jens “Jence” Moelle and İsmail “Isi” Tüfekçi make electro-house with a heavy leaning toward grimier, indie-rock-influence. Call it what you will. However, where it could be said that many of their contemporaries have a deliberate and calculated knack for the sound, Digitalism seems unsure of themselves in the mix. Nevertheless, they’re an obvious choice for !K7’s DJ-Kicks series which can boast no prejudices with respect to the sub-genre spectrum under electronic music. There are no prerequisites other than “this is cool right now and you can dance to it”. Digitalism’s approach thus far on the record, however, has been oddly compiled and equal parts jarring and exciting—something which could also be said for their own catalog.
Through the middle of the record we take a journey through new-disco sounds and samples which recall ‘70s basement parties, shag carpets and an era when a music player was a giant piece of furniture encased in real, varnished wood. Again we see this rollercoaster of great nod-along anthems and high pitched looping banshee synths. The keyword here is analog. Let it never be said that electronic music has to be clean and spotlessly produced. Come the end of this record, however, you might wish it were. No amount of organic grime can cover the searing, unrelenting annoyance of a high frequency loop that goes on too long. The only commonality from track to track is the preference for analog instrument samples over more typical house track samples. We hear jangly guitars, synths, horns, and horns which appear to have been beaten irreparably and drown in the sink. The whole thing fades away and comes back repeatedly, becoming background noise to zone out to and then re-emerging for your party mix.
We don’t really pick things up again until Vitalic’s “Second Lives”, another reprieve which is quickly followed by Digitalism’s “So Totally Good”—which is true to its name. The Rapture’s “Sail Away” remixed by Digitilism is a third stand-out which will inevitably sit right next to the previously mentioned “Falling” in the epic and emotional dance anthem department.
The album closes on a Chemical Brothers “Leave Home” sound, equal parts funky bassline, fuzzed out percussion loops and a House-healthy dose of repetitive vocal sample. That is until we hit Digitalism’s “The Pictures”, which just dies a slow death and then asks you to stick around while it decays.
That’s about the point where you look around and realize it’s 2am, you’re 22 tracks in and everyone’s already gone. You find your host passed out starfish style on his sofa and you wake him up long enough to ask him where everyone went. He’s incoherent but he stops you on your way out the door and asks you if you want to borrow that record.
“No, thanks.” you say. Even if you grant that a good compilation should challenge you and introduce you to new things, those things need to be worth introducing. So you’ll pick up the three or four great singles which you made note of and bring them along the next time you get invited somewhere.
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// Notes from the Road
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