When 'Jack' was a Verb . . .
As is the case with so many music phenomenons, the heyday of Chicago’s legendary Trax Records was neither as cut-and-dry nor as glamorous as it seems in hindsight. Though Trax deserves its reputation as “The Label that Invented/Introduced House Music” in the mid 1980s, its existence was fraught with tension and chaos almost from the start. Competition from other local labels sprang up immediately. Furthermore, backstabbing and ill will made it difficult to maintain unity within the Chicago scene that labels like Trax relied on for their support. And the eccentric, sometimes shady business practices of Trax founder Larry Sherman helped ensure financial shortcomings. Nobody has claimed to have made any money recording for Trax.
All of these factors contributed to Trax’s unduly short lifespan; after staggering into the 1990s, it had folded by mid-decade. Now Sherman and one of his original charges, “Screamin’” Rachel Cain, have revived the label with new financial backing and a new stable of artists. The first order of business, though, has been to secure Trax’s legacy with a series of retrospective compilations. Rarities & B-Sides gathers up most of what the 20th Anniversary Collection box set and Acid Classics didn’t. Despite its pedigree and the presence of some fist-rate music, it’s no less a mixed bag than any other such odds ‘n’ sodds collection.
Surprisingly since Trax is famous for pioneering a singular style of music, Rarities & B-Sides doesn’t play all that well as a continuous set. Some of that just goes down to the nature of the beast: a funked-up, sample-heavy, 2000s-style Basement Jaxx remix just doesn’t flow well when it’s surrounded by tracks that are over a decade its senior. Trax releases suffered from notoriously horrible sound quality (many of its records were pressed on used vinyl), and while an honorable effort has been made to clean them up, there’s still an off-putting range of volume and clarity levels here. You can remove all the clicks and hiss you want, but you can’t change the fact that a song sounds like it was recorded inside an empty warehouse—with the mic’s on the outside.
Rarities & B-Sides works best, then, as a cultural artifact. It’s an aural transporter to a time when dance music really felt new, exciting and dangerous; when a trebly drum machine, a sequencer, and a few synthesizer presets were all it took to turn heads . . . and shuffle feet. When “jack” was a verb and “house” was something you threatened to do to somebody. And the tracks that really nail down that classic Chicago sound—incessant basslines, rapid-fire handclap effects, and diva vocalists—are the most enjoyable ones here. Darryl Pandy’s anthemic “Searchin’ for Love”, Liz Torres’ moody “In the City”, and Screamin’ Rachel’s own “My Main Man” are irresistible 15-plus years on.
If Rarities & B-Sides boasts a real “hidden gem”, though, it’s Paris Grey’s “Don’t Make Me Jack” from 1989. A Number Three hit in Germany upon its original release (!), it’s sassy, groovy and effortlessly cool. Classic stuff indeed. Also effective is the UK garage remix of Kevin Irving’s “Children of the Night”. Unlike the Basement Jaxx track, it makes an audible connection between the original material and the sub-genre that it helped to inspire a decade later. After years of mostly instrumentals or trendy indie rock guest vocalists, the concept of R&B-style vocals laid over an electronic dance beat has come full circle. Much of the rest of Rarities & B-Sides, though, sounds simply repetitive and/or dated.
In an era where the term “house music” has become so general it’s all but lost meaning, it’s nice to be able to revisit the label that got it all started—warts and all.