[4 December 2003]
The first couple of times I listened to the latest compilation bearing the Ministry of Sound imprimatur, I was reminded of Kenneth Branagh’s bizarre decisions about which American actors to include in his Shakespeare movies: Keanu Reeves, Jack Lemmon, the unbearably awful Robert Sean Leonard. It was like he intentionally set out to find actors whose ability to do the Bard justice would pale in comparison alongside their English counterparts. Even the good talents were bizarrely miscast or allowed to overact to embarrassing extremes, like when Michael Keaton turned up at one point playing a sheriff apparently modeled on the title creature from Leprechaun.
Well, I guess Branagh and MoS are both in on the same evil British plot to make us Americans look as idiotic and tasteless as possible, because American Anthems represents a new low in the British mega-label’s increasingly pandering output. While there are a few good peak-hour remixes of quality material buried in here, most of it is the kind of stuff your local sports bar probably breaks out for their weekly “techno night”. Which isn’t surprising considering the two DJs chosen to assemble this double-disc set were DJ Skribble, the “offical MTV Spring Break DJ”, and David Waxman, who’s got more taste and talent than Skribble but who, as Ultra Records’ official selector of pretty much every damn compilation they’ve ever put out, has never said no to a paycheck and probably accepted this project cheerfully even if it meant dumbing down his style a little.
Oh, and by the way, both of these DJs are based out of New York, which hardly makes this the “perfect guide to the sound of dance music in the U.S.” that the press release trumpets it to be. But I guess calling it New York Anthems wasn’t grandiose enough.
It’s a close call, but Skribble’s set is ultimately the more disposable of the two, a crass display of corny pop vocals laid over by-the-book club beats dressed up in various shades of house, electro and trance. Predictably, the only tracks that don’t wear thin after the first listen are the big hits you’ve probably heard before anyway, including Triple X’s rave-up remix of Panjabi MC’s “Beware of the Boys” (and someone will have to explain to me how a bhangra/hip-hop mashup from Britain qualifies as an “American Anthem”, but let’s save that discussion for another time) and Skribble’s most left-field selection, the electro-tech stormer “Satisfaction” by Benny Benassi, which creepily features what sounds like scientist Stephen Hawking’s synthesized voice demanding “push me . . . ‘til I can get my satisfaction”. Pretty much everything else is a soundtrack for hootchie skirts and lame pick-up lines, with soul slingers and disco divas belting out lines like, “Got somebody, she is a beauty / Very special, really and truly” (from Skribble’s opener, an Al B Rich remix of Wayne Wonder’s bouncy bit of R&B fluff, “No Letting Go”) and “Don’t wanna be the one / To tell you how I feel / When these feelings I have / Really are for real”.
Actually, that last lyric comes from the best track in Skribble’s set, a Jason Nevins joint called “I’m in Heaven” that brilliantly samples Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” to create one of those swirling, uplifting house anthems that’s like aural Ecstasy. If more of Skribble’s choices were this good, I could forgive the lousy lyrics—it’s not like anyone comes to dance music looking for Dylanesque flights of fancy, anyway—but more often he’s content to give us today’s watered-down rehashes of yesterday’s latest crazes. There’s derivative disco house (Room 5’s “Make Luv”), derivative progressive house (Mantra’s “Away”), derivative Eurotrance (Jessy’s “Look @ Me Now”). You get the idea. Every one of these tracks is less than two years old but employs formulas that were played out long before that.
Waxman’s set starts off with much greater promise, albeit with a track that’s an even odder choice for an American Anthems collection than Panjabi MC’s “Beware the Boys”—The Streets’ “Weak Becomes Heroes”, an extremely English choon remixed by the Norwegian duo Röyksopp. Odd or not, however, it’s a fantastic track, taking Mike Skinner’s beautifully wistful rap-monologue about the magic of rave’s early days and recasting it perfectly in a soaring pop soundscape propelled by a classic house backbeat. From here Waxman stays on fairly firm footing for his next several tracks, serving up a solid house anthem in Lee-Cabrera’s “Shake It”, some throwback UK acid house vibes on the Scumfrog’s brilliant “Music Revolution”, and a witty mix of high camp diva vocals and bump ‘n’ grind electro-house on Andrea Doria’s loopy “Bucci Bag”.
Then things to start to unravel. Cedric Gervais’ “Let’s Keep it Real” is yet another in what has become an alarmingly crowded field of house tracks featuring inspirational/motivational lyrics about things like learning to relax, opening up our hearts, or in this case, exhorting us to “learn to feel/Let go of the pain/So we can start to heal”. This pseudo-New Age dreck is becoming so widespread someone probably needs to make up a new genre name for it: Tony Robbins house, maybe, or inspiratronica, or twelve-step. Whatever it is, please god make it stop.
The rest of Waxmans’ set is merely so-so, but he ends, unfortunately, with perhaps the cheesiest track of the whole enchilada, a hyper-trance/nu-NRG remake of the Eurhythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again” that is as painful to listen to as it was to hear Keanu Reeves intoning Elizabethan couplets in Much Ado About Nothing. Not that Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox are on the same level as Shakespeare, but they are a couple of English artists deserving of far better treatment than they receive at the hands of their American peers in this shameless slice of e-tard fodder.
I suppose it’s easy to dismiss my negative reaction to American Anthems as the stodgy fulminations of a pretentious music critic, but I have to point out that I’m not against good pop-oriented dance music by any stretch—in fact, I wish to god there was more of it, so I wouldn’t have to sift through the mountain of “progressive” DJ mixes and artist albums coming out these days in search of the few tracks that actually feature a memorable hook or discernible melody line. But good electronic dance pop does exist—and has, in fact, been produced in pretty large quantities by some talented American producers and remixers, including Deep Dish, Moby, Masters at Work, Miguel Migs, Felix da Housecat and others too numerous to mention. You just wouldn’t know it listening to the disposable sounds of Ministry of Sound’s latest assembly-line product.