Armand van Helden: Nympho

[29 August 2005]

By Tim O'Neil

Armand van Helden is one of the most frustrating individuals in modern dance. How else to describe someone who enjoys such a gleeful disdain for conventional expectations? His entire career has been built on obfuscation and surprise. Invariably, not everyone gets the joke.

Who else could follow up an album like 2000’s near-perfect Killing Puritans with a jokey throw-away like 2001’s Ghandi Khan? Van Helden has never shied away from courting the displeasure of his fanbase. The new one will probably prove just as divisive as any of his earlier albums: Nympho is a rock album. Which is not to say that it isn’t also a house record—but anyone who heard last year’s New York: A Mix Odyssey (and if you didn’t, why the hell not?) will understand that van Helden wants to rock. But it’s probably necessary to warn you that he also regards the White Stripes as a house band, so his notions of generic boundaries are probably somewhat sketchy…

All of which matters not at all. Of course, there will be purists who want nothing more than another disc of straight New York garage anthems and “Professional Widow” redubs. Of course, there will be those who question the very idea of combining electric guitars with house beats. But those who lack the ability to comprehend just why Nympho kicks so much ass do not deserve our understanding, or even our pity. They’ll be standing outside the club in the pouring rain while the rest of us are having the time of our lives.

The two tracks which premiered on New York: A Mix Odyssey compose the hard-core of the album. If you’ve heard “Hear My Name” and “My My My” then you know what to expect: the same razor-sharp, pummeling garage beats that van Helden has always specialized in welded to the absolute finest in rock & roll pyrotechnics. So many producers have stumbled over the notion of combining rock with dance that it’s almost funny, but van Helden understands almost intuitively how the two genres can fit together. I’ll give you a hint: subtlety need not apply. Both rock and house are very loud. An effective hybrid doesn’t call for compromise; it requires nothing less than full on war.

Appropriately enough, the album starts with a scream. The title track (one of many to feature vocals by van Helden himself, under the singularly evocative pseudonym “Virgin Killer”) is, as you might expect, about sex. How shocking! Mr. Killer struts and scowls like Mick Jagger circa 1975 (only slightly a cartoon character), while the screaming guitars and jackhammer beats reinforce the notion that this album intends to take no prisoners. The beat doesn’t let up for over an hour. Did I mention there’s some cowbell? Lots of cowbell, actually.

“Come Play With Me” features Crème Blush waxing sexy over a slinky bassline. “Sugar” ups the ante on basically the same trick, featuring Jessy Moss vamping it up over a track that practically slithers out of the speakers. Spaulding Rockwell proved they could be rapturously defiant on “Hear My Name”, and they show up again on “Jenny”, a slightly less rambunctious number that still manages to appear both menacing and sensual in equal measures.

“Into Your Eyes” and “When the Lights Go Down”, meanwhile, replicate the feel of “My My My”, using a forgotten rock hook to create an invincible monster of a tune. Of course, if you have problems with the slightly repetitious nature of certain kinds of house music, you might not take to the format so easily. But while house is about repetition, it’s also about modulation and intensity. More than almost any other producer around, Van Helden is a master at taking what might seem like a limited format and turning it into something majestic and powerful. Sex can be repetitive, too, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

But Nympho won’t leave you lying alone in bed after having gathered its clothes and crept away at the first signs of dawn. I could probably complain about a few things—such as the fact that “Hear My Name” and “My My My” appear in truncated form; or that “The Tear Drop”, featuring the odd metaphysical narration of Tim Holton over a repeated bar-band lick, is an odd note on which to end the album—but I’d basically be picking nits. This is a fierce, frighteningly good album that could easily be the best dance album of the year. It’s one of those rare albums that sounds like nothing so much as a compilation of hit singles, a parade of irresistible hooks and merciless rhythms. If Nympho fails to conquer the universe, maybe we need a new universe.

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