[4 October 2007]
How depressing is the realization that 1997 lies ten years in our collective pasts! I remember 1997, and I remember it well. Of course, I remember many years before 1997, and obviously the many years after, but in many ways 1997 was a special year, and many of the records released that year represented a special vintage. Specifically, 1997 was the year that electronic music “broke” in the United States. For those who don’t remember, the American music industry decided in the late 1990s that their “next big thing”, the sure-fire replacement for the fading commercial fortunes of grunge, would be electronic music or, excuse me, “electronica”, (gag). This didn’t work as well as the recording industry probably hoped. There were a few acts who hit it big, or at least moderately so. But in actuality the “next big thing” turned out to be the resurgent bubblegum pop that crested the economic wave of the final Clinton years. Pop gangsta rap remained popular as well throughout this epoch and into the present.
But even if electronic music failed to save the music industry, there was still a large amount of good music produced at the time, and some of it even sold fairly well. The Prodigy broke new ground with Fat of the Land, an effectively rancid bit of Sex Pistols-esque punk masquerading as dance music. The album was an unqualified success, as was Madonna’s William Orbit-enabled Ray of Light Both were released on Madonna’s Maverick boutique label, although the Prodigy’s Liam Howlett turned down the opportunity to work on Ray of Light.
The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole proved a critic’s favorite, setting the scene for the duo’s subsequent transformation into the consistently popular commercial staple they would soon become. There were hordes of others, following on the footsteps of these initial breakthroughs: Roni Size & Reprazent, Massive Attack, Orbital, the Orb, Moby, Atari Teenage Riot, Aphex Twin. Almost all of these artists already had established careers previous to the onset of “electronica” and indeed, American attempts to repackage this distinctly European phenomenon carried the vague but unmistakable whiff of pandering.
Sure enough, after a few successes, the “movement” fizzled, (in America, at least). Outside of a handful of strong local movements centered on large cities, the States has never embraced electronic music on a wholesale level. Far from being a successful transplant, these alien strains withered on the vine. This is, of course, overlooking the fact that a large majority of electronic music, from house music to techno, originated in the States to begin with.
There is one glaring exception to these general rules, however, and you may have already guessed what that is: the Crystal Method’s Vegas. Here we had an American duo, Las Vegas residents Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, with a sound that could just as easily originated in England as the US, producing club-based electronic music that actually sold fairly well. They didn’t have the Prodigy’s attitude, or the Chemical Brothers’ intelligence, or Moby’s charm, or Fatboy Slim’s insouciance.
The Crystal Method
Taken in hindsight, the Crystal Method were the least of all these acts. They never again produced anything as good as Vegas. In fact, their subsequent releases have caromed between the respectably mediocre Legion of Boom and the simply bad Tweekend. If you were to ask me which 1997 electronic music album deserved the bells & whistles reissue treatment, well, Vegas wouldn’t be high on that list.
But here we are, nonetheless. And despite my relentless qualification, Vegas is still a pretty good album. Listening to it for the first time in many years, I am surprised to find that it actually holds up pretty well. It is not a great album, as these things are measured, but it does have a handful of great tracks, and the filler is weighted conveniently towards the end of the album. “Busy Child” and “Keep Hope Alive” are still two of the best singles to come out of the period. Both of them have made countless appearances in commercials and film soundtracks, so you probably recognize them even if you have no idea what they actually are. There’s a rhythmic thrust reminiscent of the best UK “big beat”, (horrible genre name, that), and a good sense of acid house’s understated melodic potential. Excellent use of samples too, most of their tracks are built on choice vocal samples, which add just enough necessary color, (Rakim on “Busy Child”, a friend’s answering machine message on “Trip Like I Do”).
“Cherry Twist” and “High Roller” remain solidly impressive tracks, bass-heavy sketches whose monolithic impact still manages to impress. “Comin’ Back”, with vocals by Trixie Reiss, is a nice bit of Garbage-lite techno-pop. The reissue adds a demo of the track from 1993 that seems, in hindsight, remarkably prescient: all minimal drum machines and stark synths.
The obligatory second disc of bonus material is actually pretty good, focusing as it does on new remixes provided for the occasion of the reissue. It would have been nice, however, to see some of the original remixes included. Where’s the excellent Uberzone remix of “Busy Child” or any of the alternate mixes from their original City of Angel 12’s? The Sta remix of “Busy Child” is exceptional, placing the chassis of the original track into a pleasantly funky “new rave” context.
The Mstrkrft remix of “Keep Hope Alive” is also superb, magnifying the acid 303 line from the original into a monstrous reverb-drenched synth riff. UK breaks stalwarts Koma & Bones provide a suitably hard rework of “Comin’ Back”, albeit one that manages to misappropriate a great deal of the original’s slinky charisma. Even Paul Oakenfold puts in a good appearance, with a splendid retro techno rework of “Busy Child”. As unusual as it sounds, Oakenfold does manage to pull off occasional surprises with his remix work.
But while the package is certainly impressive, it still seems somewhat superfluous. Let’s be frank: the “Deluxe Edition” rubric long ago lost any associations it may have once held with notions of exclusivity or esteemed quality. No, Vegas is a perfectly fine album that just happened to be a bit more popular than perhaps it deserved. It remains, then and now, a pleasant enough diversion, but Jordan and Kirkland’s singular inability to follow up on this modest success places them firmly in the pantheon of one-album-wonders.
That’s probably enough as they don’t look to be suffering. They’re still recording, still performing. Like a number of their peers in the electronic music world, they long ago lost the backing of a major label. But Vegas, re-released now through the grace of the world-spanning Universal Music Group, is perhaps the most emblematic artifact from that strange time when electronic music almost conquered the United States, with the backing and blessings of a music industry that had no idea what it was really trying to sell. This is history, for better or for worse.