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Ben Watt

Buzzin' Fly - 5 Golden Years in the Wilderness

Unmixed and Selected by Ben Watt

(Buzzin' Fly; US: 1 Jul 2008; UK: 23 Jun 2008)

Buzzin’ Fly is everything an independent record label should be. It has a classy, immediately-identifiable look, evident in its sleeve designs, posters, and t-shirts.  It promotes a tightly-knit, international stable of artists providing a focused, signature sound—in this case, clean, hip, minimal/deep/tech house. It’s credited with long-running, taste-making residencies in London nightclubs. And, in Ben Watt of now-dormant British pop duo Everything But the Girl, a founder and boss who understands artists and knows how the business works. Add it all up, and you have a half-decade of what seems like charmed existence, a virtual eternity for a dance-oriented indie label.


To celebrate, for 2008 Watt has replaced Buzzin’ Fly’s annual mixed sampler CD with 5 Golden Years in the Wilderness, an ambitious, unmixed three-disc set hand-picked by Watt. Ironically, it’s in commemorating the label’s consistent success that Watt puts himself at the greatest risk of taking a wrong step. Nothing drives home the notion that you can’t please everyone all the time more than the sweeping, multi-disc retrospective. What’s more, arranging the discs thematically smacks of New Order’s disastrous 2002 Retro set, the textbook example of how to turn musical history into a critical whipping post.


Instead of two decades, Watt has five years and three dozen 12” singles to work with, which makes his task a lot less daunting. The “Up” disc collects ten uptempo “floor” tracks, most of them a-sides, while the “Down” disc contains, you guessed it, ten atmospheric-leaning cuts. Many of these 20 tracks have already been featured on CD compilations, including the Buzzin’ Fly annuals, but Watt sweetens the pot by adding a third “Forward” disc of seven new, previously-unreleased tracks. 5 Golden Years in the Wilderness retails for about the cost of a two-disc set. So, while disc three precludes the collection from being a true best-of, it’s really more of a bonus anyway, and it ensures there’s something here for even the most die-hard Buzzin’ Fly junkie.


5 Golden Years in the Wilderness is ultimately about “Up”, and you’d be hard-pressed to even quibble with Watt’s selections for the disc. Here you have nearly all the label’s high-water marks, both artistically and commercially. Buzzin’ Fly has uncovered at least one certifiable superstar in San Fransisco’s Justin Martin, and he’s the only artist save Watt himself to be represented on the disc by more than one track, with good reason. The rippling synth and descending bassline of 2003 breakout track “The Sad Piano” remains enchanting. Four years later, “Nightowl” is more tech-y, but no less hypnotic. As floor-fillers go, Rodamaal featuring Claudia Franco’s “Insomnia”, with its evocative synth sirens and “Find it / Keep it / Work it / Share it” mantra, is tough to beat.


Watt weighs in with a trio of club hits. “Lone Cat”, the first official Buzzin’ Fly release, is dated a bit by some ill-advised sax. Terence Trent D’Arby, appearing under his given name, Sananda Maitreya, lends some smoothly soulful vocals to “A Stronger Man”, a very pop-leaning track that borders on the superficial. “Pop a Cap in Yo’ Ass” remains Watt’s best musical contribution to Buzzin’ Fly, Estelle’s no-nonsense spoken-word vocals providing just the right balance for Watt’s bubbly rhythm and breezy synth hook. Most of the tracks on “Up” are club staples, and many are headed for “classic” status. This is the sound that made Buzzin’ Fly famous, and it’s a great primer for new fans, as well as a timely reminder for old ones.


As Buzzin’ Fly is not nearly as well-known for its more downtempo numbers, the decision to dedicate a whole disc to downtempo is a bit of a mystery. Also, the “Down” title is a bit of a misnomer, as at least a few of these tracks would fit easily on “Up”. Still, Kayot’s ambient, thunderstorm-enhanced “One Week on Cuba” is genuinely melancholy. On “Mon Ange”, meanwhile, Mlle. Caro and Frank Garcia offer up gorgeous, minor-chord synth-pop a la Depeche Mode. The cyclical, churning rhythm and calming synth-washes of Barbq’s “Barbi in Love”, previously available only on one of the mixed annuals, are a further reminder of how, when it’s done right, progressive house really can accomplish more with less.


As for “Forward”, it’s mostly a showcase for artists who are new to the label, a “coming soon” of sorts. If nothing else, it evidences the label’s subtle yet unmistakable move toward more minimal and tech house, a shift belied by the non-chronological sequencing of “Up” and “Down”. Stimming’s “Kleine Nachtmusik”‘s steady ebbing and flowing is hypnotic enough, and Gavin Herlihy’s “Give Me a Tune” makes clever use of vintage Roland TR-808 snare hits, a near-novelty in the Buzzin’ Fly repertoire. Although the label’s sound has always been airtight and a bit studious, “Forward” at times comes across as too clinical. The relatively workmanlike vibe of the disc is only highlighted by the presence of a new mix of “Insomnia”, which basically trounces everything else.


It will be interesting to see where Watt takes Buzzin’ Fly over the next five years. The always-risky offshoot, indie-pop centered Strange Feeling Records, has yet to take off like the mother label did. With electronic music in general fairly stagnant during Buzzin’ Fly’s existence, will Watt remain content to hone the fine reputation and signature sound, or will he make a bold move? In any case, though with Buzzin’ Fly he has hardly reinvented the wheel, he’s made that wheel a whole lot sleeker and reliable. Far from the curatory landmine it could have been, 5 Golden Years in the Wilderness provides ample evidence of Buzzin’ Fly’s considerable contribution to house music.

Rating:

John Bergstrom has been writing various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2004. He has been a music fanatic at least since he and a couple friends put together The Rock Group Dictionary in third grade (although he now admits that giving Pat Benatar the title of "first good female rocker" was probably a mistake). He has done freelance writing for Trouser Pressonline, Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, and the late Milk magazine and website. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two kids, both of whom are very good dancers.


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