I have a confession to make. I am a house music fan in exile.
I used to be a (deep) house zealot, resisting all attempts by my friends and musical acquaintances to turn me on to the more kinetic and above all less commercial world of drum ‘n’ bass. Yes, my some of my friends are elitist, obscurist dance music fiends (as they probably should be), and given the fate of house music over the past decade or so, I often felt like a pop devotee trying to defend the genre, post-Mouseketeer brigade (as a matter of fact I am a pop devotee, but there are some things beyond the grasp of mortal man). Then I absconded for a while into the world of underground electronica and hip hop, as one does, and when I returned things were… different. Drum ‘n’ bass had regained its funk, its flair and a slightly more open-minded fanbase, the lithe rhythmics and immense bass of the cream of the current crop proving very attractive to me. House, meanwhilst, seemed to have become a fairly aimless zombie of its former self, with good tunes or imagination in desperately short supply over those relentless four/four beats, simplistic bass lines and terrible pasted-on pop-diva vocals. Now, some people might say this trend has been going on since before I started listening to house, but being unable to see what the DJs on the radio were getting excited about, being repelled by house music: this came as something of a shock.
Which was precisely why I pounced on this double live album, recorded by two of the most acclaimed DJs in the business, like a man on a three-legged rabbit after two weeks in the desert. Recorded at Mezzanine in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day, it’s an attempt to promote a back-to-basics approach in a house market saturated by sequenced, sterile studio mix albums. What better way to find that lost vibe than out on the dancefloor with an enthusiastic audience whilst Mark Farina, beloved curator of the Mushroom Jazz series and all-round good guy, is on the wheels of steel, only to be succeeded by Derrick Carter, house legend and reliable bringer of that boompty boomp? I was already grinning in hope.
As you may have worked out from this review’s subtitle, things didn’t quite work out like that. Of course, a DJ’s choices are somewhat limited when it comes to a mix that’s going to have to be licensed sometime before Armageddon; out go all the dodgy but fun mash-ups and the groovy white label DJing tools from parts unknown. And you couldn’t accuse the sets on offer here of being limited to one area of house music: although things stay fairly chunky and straight-ahead, the jazzy and soulful sides are also blended in nicely. Neither could any fault be found with the mixing; in fact if anything the smoothness of the segues contributes to what I feel is the main flaw of Mark Farina’s set: it seems too pre-determined (as of course it had to be to a certain extent), and whilst he keeps the beats coming, there are no real peaks or troughs (not always a bad thing, the latter) to his flow. The scatting on DJ Freestyle’s remix of “The Sessions” gets a nice itch going under the skin, and the To-Ka Project’s “Revolution” takes things out into the mesmeric deep for a short while, but there are no really arresting tunes, just reasonable grooves.
His long-time friend does better, upping the general tempo, chucking a few classics in, keeping the beats slightly skippier and being more ready to drop them and switch to a different rhythm unpredictably, keeping things rougher and more exciting, as one would expect from him. Despite this, and whilst the Carter’s mix makes good driving music, there remains the feeling that the project as a whole is slightly hamstrung between licensing issues, dancefloor-set directness and an involving home listening experience. Indeed, my overall impression of these two CDs is of a pretty good party presided over by exceedingly skilled DJs; yet sadly (and crucially) I never felt that I was present at something spontaneous or really exciting, nor was I blown away by any of the tracks on offer. Consequently, whilst enjoying the music to a certain extent, I never really wanted to join the crowd on the dancefloor.
Perhaps it’s just me. If you’re a house head, the two names on the cover will doubtless get you to shell out for the album anyhow, and maybe you’ll be blown away. Good for you. Anyone for some dub?