Chicago’s Trax Records is one of the most influential and important labels in the history of electronic dance music. They’ve been called “the Motown of House”, and it would be hard under any circumstances to dispute this statement. Trax wasn’t the only label to produce house music back in the hazy Paleolithic era of the 1980s, but they were certainly among the very best.
The label’s history was wonderfully and lovingly excavated on the recent three-disc Trax Records: 20th Anniversary Collection box set. It marked the first release from the newly resurrected label, and for fans of electronic dance music history, it is as close to an essential purchase as you can possibly get. But listening to the accompanying Trax Records: The Next Generation two-disc set, I can’t help but feel that if the label is seriously intent on making another bid for dance music history, they are not off to a good start.
I’ve said it before, and it remains true: electronic music is a very strange beast. Because of the unique nature of musical advancement in electronic music, sounds are created and abandoned at a furious rate. Musical movements and pop trends are incorporated into the club scene and the club scene feeds back up into the pop world with a cyclical regularity. Twenty years may not seem like that long in some genres of music, but in the world of house music the past twenty years have represented several lifetimes. Those rare artists who have been able to survive into the present day with active careers have had to be extraordinarily agile at keeping their sound current and forging new trends themselves. It’s harsh and it’s painful and maybe a little bit Darwinistic, but it’s the way things work.
Twenty years ago, Trax set the curve for the entirety of the dance music world, spreading house music across the globe and helping to transform it from a regional phenomenon into one of the world’s dominant genres of music. (Maybe it doesn’t seem like it in America, but the music is a lot more universally popular everywhere else except in the country that invented it). But now, twenty years on, their resurrection seems positively quaint.
This is not to say that the music on The Next Generation is bad, not by any means. But it is slightly disenchanting to see that one of the most innovative labels in the history of American music has become just another in a sea of hundreds (thousands?) of house music publishers.
The label’s president, Screamin’ Rachael, is well-represented, appearing on five out of the album’s 29 tracks (the first disc is a mix selection by Maurice Joshua, featuring most of the same tracks which appear on disc two in an unmixed form). Rachael’s “Don’t Make Me Lonely” is a pretty typical slab of radio-friendly pop-house, complete with vocodered chorus vocals and the same type of over-processed acoustic guitar favored by modern producers like BT and Kaskade on recent releases. It sounds like a lot of other songs that have been released in the past decade, in that it owes a lot to Madonna and is practically dripping with steamy queso. The fact is that it could conceivably be a hit, but it’s hardly going to do a lot to win back their reputation at the cutting edge of dance music. (The same could be said for another Screamin’ Rachael track, “Do What You Wanna Do”, which features Rachael’s vocals.)
Paul’s Johnson’s “Follow This Beat” is a retro-house number, built on what sounds like a vintage disco hook (but which could easily be original instrumentation). It’s the type of track that always does well in clubs, but again, it sounds very similar to a lot of other popular tracks from the last few years. Two tracks by Lidell Townsell, “Duh Duh Da” and “King of the Party Records”, sound as if they could easily have been released at any point between about 1988 and 1992. They have that same famous Roland-808 drum pattern, complete with the fuzzy snares and the slightly Latin kick patterns, in addition to the same repetitive piano riffs and melodic basslines you heard when you were clubbing during the first Bush administration.
This is not to say that the album is totally dominated by pop and retro. Jere McAllister and Reggie Hall’s “Perfect Love” would not have been out of place on Blaze’s recent Found Love mix disc, with it’s Latin-tinged vocal house flavor. Similarly, Naked Soul’s “Dance With Me” has a very timeless Detroit-influence to it, along with an eminently hummable vocal melody.
There are also two rather odd cover tracks. First, the Platinum Orchestra cover’s DJ Sneak’s 2003 hit “Fix My Sink”. The original “Sink” was an undeniably funky jam set over a broken Chicago house beat and lathered with a thick layer of greasy sex. The Platinum Orchestra cover is essentially bloodless, offering up an almost note-by-note interpretation of the original. In terms of sheer chutzpah, however, the trophy goes to Observer’s cover of the Kraftwerk classic “Radioactivity”, which injects Kraftwerk’s rather austere source material with a surprising early ‘90s proto-trance vibe. It won’t replace the original anytime soon, but it’s worth a listen, as it represents a considerable departure from the Chicago house sound that dominates most of Trax’s output.
So while this is not a bad collection by any stretch of the imagination, it is basically redundant. If you’ve got the recent 20th Anniversary Collection, you have all the music that inspired the current crop of Trax artists. As could be predicted, few of these tracks measure up to the timeless originals. It remains to be seen whether or not the new Trax will be able to successfully make a mark on the world of modern dance music, but if these tracks are any indicator of their new direction, I seriously doubt that they will be able to emerge from the shadow of their formidable history any time soon.