[24 October 2010]
There’s a scene in the movie High Fidelity where John Cusack, as the obsessive record store owner Rob, describes the rules for making the perfect mixtape. Obviously the opening cut has to throttle you, or else the thing gets trashed. That’s not enough, however: you need to take it up a notch for number two, only to cool it for track three. “There are a lot of rules,” he admits.
He didn’t begin to scratch the surface—what about the “third-quarter surprise gem”, John?—but even if Jas Shaw and James Ford (together, Simian Mobile Disco) had seen that film, Cusack’s guidelines have fallen on one deaf set of ears. It’s pretty hard to hear a soft-spoken music geek in a throbbing nightclub, anyway.
From the initial rush of Brain Machine’s “Eternal Night” to the creeping calm of Delia Derbyshire’s mushroomed monotone on “Dreams”, the duo’s mix CD Is Fixed is a start-to-finish thrill. In the trash compactor are burbling synths, hissing drum machines, faint hand claps, saxophone mimicking jazz’s aural body language—and that’s just the first song. Simian Mobile Disco doesn’t play around; from the first pulse, this is intense, knotty music that rarely lets up. Anywhere else, “Eternal Night” would be a sufficient mid-album cut, but here it slices through the handshakes and goes right to running from a drunken meathead after spilling a drink on his girlfriend.
The songs might carry a note of discomfort, but the sequencing doesn’t. This is kinetic music, with no jarring sequences. Simian Mobile Disco are party professionals: songs seamlessly blend into each other like an expertly woven quilt to keep you warm when you’ve passed out on the couch at 3 a.m.
The title celebrates the duo’s residency doing New York’s traveling Fixed parties, and Is Fixed is just a sampling of what comes on when Simian Mobile Disco takes over. Appropriately, the mix CD is the first US domestic release for the UK-based production team, but the surprise is how such a grab bag flows so well, arguably smoother than both the team’s dancefloor debut Attack Decay Sustain Release and the robo-soul of follow-up Temporary Pleasure. Instead of the usual Halloween-haul feel that even the most professional mixes have—a few reliable brand names, some fairly faceless stuff, one or two oddities from the kind of people your mom told you to avoid—it’s a consistent sugar rush.
Attack Decay Sustain Release feels almost lethargic compared to Is Fixed, which is, for one thing, louder. Simian Mobile Disco brings the noise, but there are pretty moments, too, with sparkling flourishes of the Ibiza sound. Conrad Schnitzler is far from Spanish, yet the electronic O.G.‘s “Ballet Statique” has that sound’s languid, weightless quality Chicago wishes it invented. This is music, after all, that was meant to be city glitter, enjoyed by people giving little thought to what they’re hearing. Regardless, to call Is Fixed “mindless” would be neglecting the intelligence that goes into redefining the perfect mix.
Is Fixed is largely a mics-off affair for Shaw and Ford, focusing instead on the tangled thicket of electro-foliage. When vocals do pop up, in Bam Bam’s absurdist ransom note voicemail “Where’s Your Child”, they don’t help to clarify or resolve anything. A concept album it’s not, and Simian Mobile Disco choose surprise over any unified theme. The next vocalist’s very appearance comes as a shock: Bryan Ferry has the patent pumpers in the palm of his hand on “U Can Dance”. Even by Ferry standards he sounds like a man with a limitless knowledge of cocktails, women, and fashion, but the luxury to be bored with all of them. The ever-suave Roxy Music maestro still sounds cool at age 65—who else can get away with singing that familiar line, “Do you come here often?” The track escalates into cavernous noise, sounding like someone racing their Ferrari through a parking garage. “False Prophet”, meanwhile, is just plain disorienting, a necessary addition for skeptics who think club music has to be some degree of warm and squishy. “Nerve Salad” is the only Simian Mobile Disco original here, but the stamina and blank-faced production ensure it’s no red herring.
Compilations shouldn’t flow this well. This one is consistently engaging, and aside from Ferry, it’s also largely devoid of the star power other acts might be tempted to pull in. Some tracks do stagnate—Andre Walter’s “Malphas”, for one—but the songs are mostly flip-book Darwin drawings, mutating so often that no two 20-second stretches sound alike. Even “Malphas” has an unsettling siren designed to foreshadow the panic in “Where’s Your Child”. This music is fixed in title only.
A nearly-wordless assortment of dance remixes doesn’t exactly smack of accessibility, and ambient music has the perverse reputation of being notoriously esoteric. Simian Mobile Disco probably weren’t going for a greater reach to outsiders, but this seamless aural assault might ironically be a gateway for people who wanted to rock the rooftops but never thought they were on the list.