Somewhere along the line, dance music lost its power. I don’t know if I could pinpoint the exact moment, but there’s a chance it could have been when two-step / UK garage morphed the frenetic chaos of drum and bass into soft-focus R&B, or it could have been when the club kids decided to resurrect the 1980s and became much more interested in following fashion trends than in creating compelling music. Either way, at some point the feverish reinvention of the 1990s eventually stalled in the early years of this current decade, leaving those of us who follow such things slightly bemused and thoroughly discontented.
But then something strange bubbled up from the underground. The new-wave revival that had spellbound the rock world crossed over into the dance world, and suddenly it was OK for hipster kids to get their groove on. Electronic music struck a rock pose and grew a scruffy beard. It was once more suddenly okay to sound like a real, live band — disco drums and Gang of Four guitars locked horns with an arch post-rock sensibility, and the new wave of dance-punk was born. Championed by the likes of James Murphy and his DFA label, the new sound was a polyglot’s wet dream, exchanging the hermetically-sealed atmosphere of early ‘00s dance music for the kind of musical eclecticism that had gone out of style with the Chemical Brothers in the late ‘90s.
This is the nature of any music scene that prides itself on living wholly or partially underground; periods of inward-looking isolation alternated with periods of relative openness wherein generic boundaries become more porous and outside influences are courted. You can see this cycle at work in hip-hop, punk and especially dance music, all diverse movements with a significant degree of commercial appeal but also possessed of rigidly appointed self-definitions that reassert themselves in inverse proportion to the level of formal innovation at any given moment. There’s always a conflict between “keeping it real” and “following your muse”.
The Gomma label has stayed mostly under the radar for the past few years, despite the fact that the music produced under its aegis has been universally interesting. It helps, perhaps, that there’s not too much of it: Gomma seems to have a small, tightly-knit roster of artists, and as such, every release carries something of a intimate handmade quality. The music is very much of the moment — it makes perfect sense that the aforementioned James Murphy would appear alongside Gomma mainstays Munk (on the track “Kick Out The Chairs”, included here). The Rapture drop by as well, with the remix of Whomadewho’s “Space For Rent”.
The DFA and Gomma sounds are very closely related. Both labels take as their starting point the slightly anachronistic notion that dance music is more than simply the cutting edge, but the sum of its historical precedents as well. There’s an alternate universe somewhere wherein disco is actively celebrated as a vital forebearer for modern dance music, where the funk never lost its slightly sleezy, sexually omnivorous flavor and the punks and hip-hoppers never decamped to their own mutually exclusive tents. Whomadewho, represented here by two tracks (including the Rapture remix and the first single, the coy “Satisfaction”) are perhaps the most distinctive act to come out of the Gomma camp. I’ve been listening to this debut album for many months now, and I still can’t get my head around it: the band plays shit-hot disco music without any trace of irony or facetiousness. It’s such a welcome change of pace, I can’t really decide whether the music is any good or if it just skates by on the sheer chutzpah inherent in such an idea. I’m beginning to suspect the former; with a bigger push from behind, Whomadewho could be 2006’s LCD Soundsystem.
The rest of the CD is pretty good, too. Hiltmeyer, Inc. is represented by two tracks, the NICKY remix of “Final Ahh” as well as “Chefsong”, the original versions of which were taken from Hiltmerer’s sleeper 2005 release Sendling 70. Munk is represented by three tracks, but the cheeky Midnight Mike remix of “Disco Clown” is probably the best, even better than the James Murphy abetted “Kick Out The Chairs”.
There’s a lot of good music here, which presents itself as an excellent primer for the Gomma label. Mixed by Munk, the CD succeeds in putting across the label’s strengths while also doing a decent job of simulating the type of sweaty, dank club environment in which the music is best heard. Like the best old-school dance music, Gomma makes smart music for your ass. If it sticks closely to this template, it should thrive in the coming months and years.