[30 June 2004]
Armand Van Helden is cooler than you. He owns more records than you do, he hangs out with cooler people, and has wild sex with freakier b****es than you will ever dream of meeting. He’s also one of the best DJs alive, and the fact that he’s also one of the most contrary figures in the insular world of electronic music only makes this fact all the more frustrating for those of us who live in his shadow.
He’s a throwback, an angry old man in a scene rigorously obsessed with the new. One minute, he’s capable of spectacularly good music, such as 2000’s Killing Puritans, and the next thing you know he drops a spectacularly indulgent lemon like 2001’s Ghandi Khan. He presents himself as the hardest of the hard, representing the tru-school of New York garage, and yet his solo material bounces all across the map, from smooth house to funky breakbeat. Strangely enough, he was also perhaps the last DJ in the world who hadn’t yet recorded a mix CD.
But this puppy was definitely worth the wait.
It’s billed as a “Mix Odyssey”, and for once the title is perfectly appropriate. Whereas most mix CDs, even good ones, are content to limit themselves to extremely narrow generic parameters, this disc wears its eclecticism as a badge of honor. Armand Van Helden remembers a time when clubbing consisted of more than merely a series of rigidly defined and mutually exclusive “scenes”, all the way back to the very dawn of electronic music as we know it today, when the dying embers of early disco met and cross-pollinated with early hip-hop, punk, new wave, funk and soul to create house music and all the derivative branches of the house family tree. Appropriately, the very first track is Blondie’s “Call Me”, a typically propulsive post-disco number from one of the very finest genre-bending punk groups of them all. Even after a quarter century has passed (and don’t think for a second that I don’t feel old writing that), they cast a powerful, intoxicating spell. Few rock groups have ever been so funky, and few funk groups have ever rocked so hard.
From Blondie we skip ahead a full 24 years to a brand-new track by Van Helden himself—the first of three throughout—entitled “Hear My Name”. Surprisingly, he’s a fan of the current garage rock revival, and there’s a big heaping dollop of that loose, greasy New York-vibe on this track. There’s a female vocal courtesy of up-and-coming garage group Spalding Rockwell, and I predict based on this six-minute track that they have a big career ahead of them. It’s a classic in the making.
There’s a track off Felix da Housecat’s upcoming LP, and surprisingly this is one of the weaker tracks on the compilation. “Cyberwhore” sounds very similar to “Silver Screen Shower Scene”, one of the breakout moments off Felix’s previous 2002 release, Kittenz and Thee Glitz [The US Release contains Felix da Housecat’s “Watching Cars Go By” - ED]. One of the best tracks on the album is a track by Heavy Rock called “(I Just Wanna Be A) Drummer.” It’s similar to Dubtribe’s rave classic “Mother Earth”, only instead of an eco-friendly rave sermon, there’s a deadpan recitation of all the people in this world who want to be DJs. Unsurprisingly, just about everyone wants to be a DJ these days, but I’ll bet you that most of these folks have absolutely no concept of just how hard a job it really is. Trust me on this one: I’m married to a DJ, and it’s a painstakingly difficult, oft-times unrewarding avocation. You’d be better off as a drummer.
As with the Blondie, there are a few more old school numbers scattered throughout, including Yazoo’s classic “Don’t Go”, the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep”, and even that hoariest of all hoary retro classics, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”. It’s a testament to Van Helden’s expertise that these flashbacks don’t grate on your ears. Even a track like “Tainted Love”, which we’ve all heard more times than we’d care to recall, sounds positively gleaming when taken outside of the stifling museum context of VH1 retro-lite and placed in the middle of a living, breathing mix. Music is alive, and Van Helden definitely earns his wings for restoring these ailing musical senior citizens’ will to live.
The oldest track on the disc, a 1977 song by Ram Jam called “Black Betty”, posits a strange alternate history wherein disco and southern rock met in a back alley and had strangely misshapen but seriously funky children. Next to the Norman Cook mix of Jess and Crabbe’s “The Big Boo Ya”, it sounds positively cutting edge. It may be trite to point out that everything new is old again, but sometimes all it takes is the rediscovery of a long-lost missing link to reinvigorate what we think of the present. House music is almost thirty years old, and it has an amazing and rich history. History doesn’t mean we need to become hidebound or sterile, it dictates a constant, ever-pressing need to recreate and reinvigorate. The fact that a nearly 30-year-old proto-house track is perhaps the funkiest and freshest cut on the CD is a reminder of just how rich and rewarding our musical heritage truly is.
But at the end of the day, you’re only as fresh as your last record. The last record on this disc is Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart”. Now, I thought he was crazy. Looking at the track listing, I just couldn’t imagine how something as totally, irredeemably played as “Owner of a Lonely Heart” could ever be cool again. But, dammit, somehow it works. When taken in the context of the mix, in the context of a history-spanning, genre-flipping mixtape like this one, it’s beautiful. Sure, it’s a cheesy, overdone, uncharacteristically pop track from a group best known for their psychedelic album covers—but at the end of the day it’s just another song. This is why being a DJ is such damned hard work. Any old fool can play records in a club. It’s not even that hard to figure out how to mix them tolerably well. But can you say something with those records you mix? Can you use those slabs of wax to communicate, just like a guitarist or a saxophone player would use their instruments? That’s the $64,000 question. That’s why Armand Van Helden can get away with playing Yes: because he loves music, nothing more and nothing less. It’s an infectious, inebriating, and illuminating love, the kind of love that lasts a lifetime.