I’m no techno purist. In fact, I’d have to say that I’m one of the least reliable and fickle fans of the genre. Part of my ambivalence comes from that fact that, as a musical category, it contains some of the worst bad music. When I imagine hell, which I do to prevent me from smiting my enemies with Jehvoah-esque wrath, I always imagine it to be a typical gay club packed to fire hazard density blaring standard house music: thin, heartless and like some wet metallic libido built by a web-addicted meth dealer. Having said that, whenever London-based James Taylor and David Brown make a new record, I know that it’s off the beaten path enough to be more than worth a listen regardless of how I end up feeling about it.
Dirty Dancing opens with the slinky pop number “Make Up Your Mind”. Hats off for being probably one of the first dance tracks for the disaffected polyamorous set. Framed in Claire Dietrich’s tightly reined, coldly simmering vocals, it’s the stand out track, particularly the way that the beat slides in underneath her gorgeously out-of-breath acapella intro. However, the song falters in its typically bloated dance floor length and the spoken word segments that sound like the satin room soundtrack for a disreputable massage parlor. Madame Dietrich shows up again on “Sob 1” reprising her guest vocal role with a much chestier bi-lingual moan over mirage-like ebbs of sound. Again, the track chucks aside it’s good start with descent into a hackneyed club thump and the slithery interruptions of some guy busting up the track’s current.
I don’t have the time or wherewithal to unpack all of the prejudices and cultural history that are embedded in our preferences for certain accents over others. Having said that, I can’t help but find myself mildly terrified when German men sing-chant over thumping techno. After I’m done shuddering, I can’t help but think like it sounds like incantations for a sado-masochistic apocalypse. When Dirty Dancing uses its male vocalists such as “In the Car Crash” and “Buffalo Seven”, I can’t seem to shake the belief that something wicked is afoot or alternately massage my temples and wonder how such an intense headache could arrive so quickly.
“I Dance Alone” sounds like a rainy concrete duet between Miss Kitten and the Pet Shop Boys. Like many of their songs, it treads a fine blade between driving techno minimalism and kitschy ‘80s rehash. What salvages many of the tracks, is their flippant nod to a chunky sense of hip-hop’s bottomed out beat mastery. This paean to the decadent lone wolf manages to be nihilistic and indulgent without making me laugh. In fact, it may have convinced me to get tinted windows and drive at night with white sunglasses on.
“Take My Hand” may as well be sketch comedy. With its drab, tinny, plinko beat and existentialist ennui, it sounds like a skit about the hilarity of European bathos. “When we walked, I felt so unnecessary” muses a bored British voice in a affected tone fit for those plodding Merchant Ivory films where limeys have strawberries and cream, overdress for summer and complain about the rigors of colonization. Interestingly, the song made me think about some of my major objections with musical revivalism. Many times, I think that contrarian indie instincts lure snarky musicians into practicing acts of kitsch defiance. Some of the music of the ‘80s, after all, was maligned not because it was misunderstood, but because it was so manufactured that it may as well have been designed to sell sweatshop shoes or toddler choking action figures. Swayzak’s inspirational provenance is heavily burdened with those aspects of ‘80s techno that sound dated in the “bad idea” sense of the word and not in the sense of mining some fruitful musical tradition. I guess in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter that some people erect temples on top of manholes, but don’t expect me to come to church.
The instrumental tracks fare best on Dirty Dancing, though the percussion and bass lack any fullness, it sounds like half the tracks were played on amped up rubber bands. Perhaps it’s with fleshy British irony that “The Punk Era” is so inaccurately named. A languid uncoiling track, it sews a bug-zapping beat into the sleepy, echoing ambience, but still one the album’s most consistently beautiful tracks. “Ping Pong” ends the record with a pleasant wander. It’s the perfect cross-country road trip song, one of those techno epics that build varying helixes around a central beat core. When Swayzak foregoes the awkwardly spliced vocals and junior high existenz, they make engagingly off techno.
Dirty Dancing works best when there is something to balance against the brittle, Atari-era underflow. Just because music lacks warmth, does not mean it can’t sound arctically lush. Despite the fact that I obviously didn’t exactly love this outing, I can’t say that I hated it or that I didn’t find it interesting in sporadic skids. Find a speaker tweaker in touch with the Tao of Techno and you’d probably get a second opinion declaring me mad, blind and an arrogant novitiate. That, I can live with.
// Notes from the Road
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