[18 June 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
It may seem reductive, but you know the difference between when a friend makes a mix-CD for you and when a friend gives you a playlist full of a bunch of songs. It’s not just the format: it’s the intention.
You know doubt know (or perhaps are someone yourself) who can make a bunch of songs a friend would like at the drop of a hat, but to make an honest-to-goodness mix-comp for someone—be it in cassette tape, burned CD, or private playlist format—well, you know that takes time and considerating. It’s not about what’s “hip” or “now” obviously; it’s about reconstructing the entirety of pop music as you understand it and putting it together in one very specific order and sequence. Your DNA is mixed into it just as much as anything else, and a compilation can very well be a statement as much as it is a great collection of songs, and those that go even further can turn it into something altogether transcendent.
The fellas in Horse Meat Disco know this all too well. While artists can release cover albums that serve as nothing more than contract-fulfilling, masturbatory fantasies (Todd Rundgren’s Johnson immediately springs to mind), others can synthesize desperate influences into something that may be more representative of the artist’s spirit than that of their original songs (Mike Doughty’s excellent The Flip is Another Honey could very well rank up with nearly any of his best solo discs). When labels put together genre compilations, they can go for immediate nostalgia (see: Rhino’s cloying Whatever: The 90s Pop & Culture Box) or they can actually put in some effort and create something of real value, like Rhino’s criminally undervalued 2005 set One Kiss Can Lead to Another, a four-CD box set of rare, almost-lost girl-group and brill-building pop records. That compilation, by focusing on the obscurities and rarities instead of the Chordettes’ signature songs, not only held great historical value, but proved intensely entertaining, showcasing just how weird the industry was (or, some would argue, always was), with Carole King-penned numbers sitting next to early Cher one-offs and a failed dance craze called the “Peanut Duck” in equal measure.
Thus, when that first Horse Meat Disco compilation arrived in 2009, it was unlike anything people had heard before: a bunch of crate-digging, disco-loving South Londoners wound up mining all the obscure mirrorball confections they could and assembling them in a way that could fill most modern club floors, focusing on sequencing and mixes over any attempt at “modernizing” the tracks (hell, one of the many steps Todd Terje took on his way to fame was working heavily on the early HMD comps). The compilations always came as two-CD sets (one of the songs by themselves, the other a floor-ready megamix the guys labored over), and the number of platform-shoe bangers they uncovered was nothing short of incredible, finding pop songwriting so beautiful and energizing that you don’t actually have to be a fan of disco to enjoy these cuts, some of the deep funk grooves and somewhat modern-sounding elements being enough to rope in dance fans of every caliber.
Yet while that initial compilation was as close to flawless as a retro-dance compilation can get (and is worth owning for Plaza’s “(Got My) Dancing Shoes” if nothing else), the second and third compilations, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively, showed that while the guys’ enthusiasm for the genre was unparalleled, that distinction between “reconstructing the whole of pop music for someone” and “just a compilation of songs” was becoming more apparent. Make no doubt: there were still standout cuts on II and III, but the freshness was fading, and the sequencing of the discs didn’t play the songs to their best strengths, what with similar-sounding tunes often blurring together to create longer stretches of disco at its most generic. The guys weren’t as bold with their pics, and although their cult following grew, it’s been nearly three years between III and this year’s long-awaited IV.
So what a revelation Horse Meat Disco IV is. Featuring the same flow and energy that made the first Horse Meat Disco so darn good, IV wastes no time getting to the good stuff, opening with the schlocky synth sounds of Opal’s “Ain’t No Way”, sporting an eight-minute mix and a rhythm guitar workout that Niles Rodgers would be proud of, “Ain’t No Way” has enough sass to leave an immediate impression, but not before things shift dramatically into K.S.B.‘s “Misaluba”, which actually sounds more like early ‘80s dance pop than it does full on disco. Previous HMD compilations have stretched out as far as 1984, and even though “Misaulba” doesn’t qualify as “straight disco”, it features all the dance-floor hallmarks that make jams like this work, from the catchy vocal chants to the toy piano sounding more epic than it has any right to be, and when put together, it all makes perfect sense.
While a few cuts fall a bit more on the generic/forgettable side (The Sunburst Band’s “Taste the Groove” being the most obvious offender, which even the HMD guys seem to know, having dropped it from the unmixed CD’s tracklist), the sheer mixture of styles and flavors on display recalls HMD at their very best. The extremely minimal experimentation of Clevage’s “Barah” features just the right amount of empty space that your body can’t help but shake it in order to fill it. Meanwhile Phree Plust One’s “La Spirale” could easily have worked its way onto the Avalanches’ Since I Left You without anyone batting an eye.
At times the grooves are more introverted (see: “Go To Work”), at times they sound very inspired by the vocal cadences of the Jackson 5 (Renaldo Domino’s “I Love Your Beat”), but by and large, these individual pieces add up to a much greater whole. With an ace song selection and the best track sequencing and mixing since their debut, Horse Meat Disco IV, flaws and all, proves that disco’s own found sounds can reveal pop gems and instant-classics that are in some ways better than the more famous acts to emerge from the era (no offense, Andrea True Connection). Who knows what kind of soul-searching the HMD guys did during their extended album hiatus, but whatever they did, it worked, as Horse Meat Disco IV isn’t “just” a great disco compilation, no: it’s disco at its very finest.