[22 February 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
They are both signed to Om Records. They both deal mainly in progressive house music and its subsets—chunky, two-step, etc. They are even sharing some club dates as part of Om’s Winter Sessions Tour. But in many other ways, Justin Martin and Johnny Fiasco represent opposite ends of a spectrum.
Martin is from San Francisco. He is relatively new to the scene, having first gained attention through Ben Watt’s UK-based Buzzin’ Fly label. Fiasco hails from Chicago and is a veteran, having first made his name in the early 1990s with legendary Chi-town labels Trax and Cajual. He even shared an early residency at the famed Smart Bar with Martin’s San Fran forbearer, Mark Farina. Given their backgrounds, it seems natural that Marin and Fiasco should have two different approaches to house music and mixing. And they do. On Winter Sessions, each gets a disc to do his thing, making for a playing time of well over two hours; and, especially for an Om collection, the juxtaposition between the two styles is striking.
In terms of dance music, “winter” implies one of two approaches: either a stark, melancholy feel that reflects a frigid spell, or a sunny, upbeat, carefree approach that tries to counter the doldrums by letting some light in. If you had to put Martin’s mix in one of those two camps, it’s definitely the former. It immediately recalls the Buzzin’ Fly sound: It’s minimalist, cerebral, and often abstract. This being house music, the rhythms are all four-on-the-floor, but within that context Martin puts together a set that you could most optimistically call “challenging”. A remix of Skye’s “What’s Wrong With Me” fits the bill with dejected vocals and sad synth strings. Mike Monday’s widescreen “I Dream of Ducks” sounds enough like a trek through the frozen tundra.
But the glistening snow soon becomes dirty and tarnished with salt. The tracks become more chunky, glitchy, and bleepy. Vocals are pared down to sampled syllables. The entire mix hinges on the electronic zaps and zooms of Martin’s own remix of Damonkenutz’ “Yellowpants”, and the squeaks and heavier beats begin to pound you. There is a barren, almost trancelike urgency in Claude Vonstroke’s “Who’s Afraid of Detroit”, but the spindly, mechanical pitter-patter of Jochen Trappe’s “Organic” will try any cabin fever sufferer’s sanity. Analog sirens do battle with electro basslines, and tracks break down and start again at seemingly random places. It’s good that Om’s branching out beyond its smooth, soulful signature sound, and lots of clubgoers out there doubtlessly love this stuff. But, like winter in the American Midwest, it goes from impressive to intolerable in a short while.
And then comes Johnny Fiasco to save the day. Or, at least, warm things up and get the party started. If Martin is guided mainly by his head, Fiasco follows his feet with a much more straightforward, funky, fun mix. UK two-step meets cheesy ‘80s sax solos on White Lotus Society’s “Space Cadillac”, and there’s no turning back. Fiasco can certainly bring the heavy beats, as he does with Mastiksoul’s “Just a Feeling”, and you’ve gotta love the optimistic, old-school-style monologue (“we can make this dream our reality ... keep music first in your heart”) on Mark Knight and MTV’s “New Reality”. The fever-pitch of the entire two-disc package belongs to Fiasco himself, where he brilliantly lays Ladybug Mecca’s sassy rap over his own beat-heavy “Conduction”. Furthermore, the set is held together by Fiasco’s talent for seamlessly blending basslines from track to track. This is a mix that you can put on, sit back with, and simply enjoy. Or, you can dance to it in your snowed-in living room. If anyone’s going to cure you of the winter blues, it’s Fiasco.
The tour is sure to be worth checking out. And, since Om makes the package available at the price of a single disc, Winter Sessions is worth it for Fiasco’s mix alone, regardless of whether you find Martin’s interesting or simply a chore. Don’t let the silly, borderline-sexist cover photo dissuade you—there’s some floor-pounding substance here.