There is a certain futility in dance music criticism. Words only take you so far. Beyond a basic evaluation of whether a piece moves you to the extent of, well, moving you, what else is there to say? By definition, dance music exists outside of intellectualization, appealing instead to a mysterious, hidden place—one cozied up tight to its sister Soul. All successful dance music comes from this place. When it emerges from elsewhere, you’re looking at the first reason for its failure.
Murk, the dance production team consisting of Oscar Gaetan and Ralph Falcon from Miami, Florida, have successfully tapped into this place over a 10-year career. The duo’s latest release, eponymous and a first for them on Tommy Boy Records, demonstrates that they haven’t lost their touch when it comes to crafting irresistible dance hooks. However, it’s also a record that disappointingly illustrates why club music so often fails to translate from the dance floor to the living room.
It is an album of instinctively brilliant bridges built between islands of emptiness.
The album opens with a mistake—albeit a popular and lucrative one. “Some Lovin’” is one of a small handful of bona fide house music classics, originally recorded by the Murk boys under the moniker Liberty City in 1992. The original track follows a deep, guttural bass line along an old-style vocal treatment, a flawless diva performance from Bebe Dozier that adds emotive layers to a live, pumping blues. Murk ought to have known better than to re-visit such a classic. While a trip to Number One on the Billboard Dance Chart might tend to refute such a statement, nothing about the 10-year-anniversary cut improves upon the original. The bass line here is watered down, and the vocal by Kristine W. is untroubled and flat, utterly uninspired. The track may have again become a clubland hit, but its success owes all to the original template and almost nothing to the re-considered performance.
If nothing else, this album ought suggest that Murk carefully consider the need to lay vocals over any of their tracks, period. Time and again, inventive hooks and hypnotic rhythms are concealed or destroyed by dreary and meaningless vocals: “Never thought I could feel this way / Never thought I could be afraid / After the words I said and done / This is the man that I’ve become”. We may not look for intellectual provocation on the dance floor, but Aretha and Otis would have trouble making this resonate.
Instead, Murk’s strengths lie in their Cuban-influenced rhythms, and in their ability to construct abstract sounds that we respond to almost involuntarily. UK DJ Sasha has spoken of certain pitches and effects that trigger reactions in those who are chemically intoxicated, and Gaetan and Falcon seem to possess an understanding of this process. While acid-house effects have long since become a matter of science and formula, Gaetan and Falcon integrate them as part of a much broader picture, so that they cease to be purely manipulative in the way that too many other, less talented producers use them.
Of course, dance music is perfectly crafted for the ADD generation, and practically all of these tracks can and will be looted for their moments of rhythmic splendor. High-points will be dropped in and out of DJ sets without the troubling lapses into vocal chorus, and for this reason Murk is an album to purchase on vinyl rather than CD. Most likely, few will sit home and listen to it all the way through, but out there in clubland they’ll find inspiration, whether for moving others from the turntable, or in recognizing it, blissed-out and boogying, on the dance floor.
// Notes from the Road
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