Some music lovers are of the opinion that “albums”, as artistic statements and commercial products, have lost quite a bit of ground in the Internet Age. “It’s all about singles these days,” is the sentiment, along with, “And disposable singles at that!” Don’t count the album out just yet, though. There are listeners who still seek a full musical experience, who don’t want to cherry pick portions of the whole for the sake of a skip-free playlist. Not only that, there are artists who still envision full-scale, front-to-back sonic journeys. Some online retailers won’t even let you download individual songs from the package. No, you gotta buy the whole thing.
Of course, album cohesiveness is another matter entirely, more of a consumer expectation than a truism. Perhaps DJ mixes can sell us on this illusion, offering a touch of that take-it-all-or-leave-it perspective. After all, they almost demand our full attention, usually because they contain frequent changes in style and tone, often mixed in succession but sometimes mashed up and overlapping. DJs tend to be choosy about the songs they select for these mixes as well as the sequences in which the songs are presented. There’s a context to the mix, and it might get muddled if the songs are taken out of order. It’s fascinating how layered and multifaceted this all is, considering that a given DJ may choose 10 or more tracks for a set, and each track might be performed by a different producer, artist, or band, and each of these tracks may contain contributions from any number of vocalists, musicians, and collaborators. With such variety, the trick is to blend these bits into a coherent presentation.
Knowing this, we find Berlin, Germany’s Ellen Allien. For our purposes, it is sufficient to know that Ellen Allien is a superb DJ, which is no small compliment given the male-dominated nature of the DJ field, but since we’re also concerned with context, we should keep a few other tidbits in mind. For one thing, she’s the founder of BPitch Control, a record label that celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2009. For another, Allien has launched a fashion line complete with winter and summer collections. Allien’s topnotch producer status, along with her solo work and DJ-in-residence spot in Berlin’s Watergate dance club, makes her an intriguing figure. Watergate, like London’s Fabric nightclub, distributes its DJ mixes to the masses. It’s good advertisement.
Watergate 05, Ellen Allien’s mix for the Watergate club, seeks to conjure an experience, of moods and of musical styles. Central to the experience is Allien’s song selection, and she’s done a fine job of stitching a wealth of electronic and techno fabric together without leaving too much sticking out at the seams.
DJ Yellow’s “Lost” opens the mix, serving as a worthy introduction to the set, in its tone-setting and contemplative way. It also serves as a bridge to carry Allien’s fans from the pensive minimalism of her last proper solo record, 2008’s Sool. Sool was experimental in parts, with a touch of an industrial edge, brimming with ideas but never running over into excess. Allien exhibits a similar level of discipline here, content to let the calm of “Lost” ride like a breeze through John Tejada’s “The End of it All” in an impeccably seamless transition. Vocals enter the proceedings with Lump’s “Music Lover” and Luciano’s “Celestial” while the rhythms begin to glide upward, adding a touch more tension with each successive track. The gentle skating cadence of “Music Lover” relents to the busier percussive elements of “Celestial”.
While the sequencing, in true “album” fashion, is well considered, the rising tension in this sequence means that the playlist doesn’t get red hot until later in the game. Oh, it’s all very good and exceedingly well selected, but everything starts to come together around track nine, “Action 2”. The vivacious cut from Juno 6 is the point where the mix begins to feel urgent, and where Allien has masterfully translated the language of the dance floor into something fluent for the CDs and the audio files. Matias Aguayo’s “Bo Jack”, Alexi Delano’s “Molar One”, and the Apparat remix of Röyksopp’s “This Must Be It” keep the momentum, with the latter being a serious highlight, and Allien’s own remix (and clever rearrangement) of Uffie’s “Pop the Glock” shines like a disco ball.
However, it just might be that, when the set comes to a close, Watergate 05 sells itself. Despite the slightly sluggish first half, and even with the more inspired back end, the mix earns its keep with its final track, “Fine Mouche”. There are other versions of Brigitte Fontain and Khan’s tune she could’ve chosen, but none of those would have been as unexpected or as remarkably fresh as this one, the original “Tango Piano” version. So whimsical, so gorgeously off-kilter with its dramatic piano, “Fine Mouche” takes all the rules Allien created for herself in her careful song selection, and it shreds those rules with aplomb. The entire mix, then, is the sonic equivalent of a suspenseful film that sets up its premise and slowly unfolds its wares until the breathtaking resolution. The question becomes whether you, the listener, can credit the set for its carefully planned set up, or whether you demand more from the mix leading up to its masterstroke.