Unlike previous releases in Defected’s In the House series, which featured an array of producers to compile the hits from a single scene in the international house community, Tensnake in the House gives one man the free rein to mix as he likes: Marco Niemerski, also known as Tensnake. Defected is internationally known for its club events and its commitment to the house tradition. The label prides itself on remaining true to the music’s soulful side without getting mired in nostalgia. The mantle of Defected’s house-obsessed mission is thus a heavy one to bear for a single producer, but Tensnake is the perfect candidate to carry party music — and house music in particular — a solid two discs into the future.
Niemerski has been getting plenty of critical attention for his colorful, energetic remixes and his throwback pastiche. He’s a veritable rising star of dance music in the 2010s, and on Tensnake in the House, he proves why. His mix gathers tracks that cover a broad span of time and an array of styles, from Phase II’s 1988 “Reachin” to a Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas remix of the Chemical Brothers’ 2010 hit “Swoon”. Tensnake’s own jubilant, ringing “Coma Cat” sidles up to tracks from established artists like Mount Kimbie, Michael Mayer and Prins Thomas, as well as the occasional oldie-but-goodie like Shirley Lites’ “Heat You Up (Melt You Down)” or Carol Williams’ “Can’t Get Away (From Your Love)”. The result, potentially jarring, plays instead like a hedonistic affirmation that the dance floor is timeless and that good times are universal.
The mix itself is ostensibly a sample set for those deprived clubgoers who haven’t seen Tensnake DJ live. As always, it’s tough to make the translation from the meager physicality of a double-CD, despite the flashy packaging and the cosmic-blue foldout poster, to a real live club, but Niemerski does his all to get listeners in the mood and keep them there. He programs plenty of highs and lows, plenty of shifts and reconfigurations into the album’s two hours. It’s a long way from the moody hybrid opener on disc two, “Carbonated / My Reflection”, to the strobe-ready “Don’t Shut Me Out” just two tracks later. With carefully modulated transitions and intuitive song choices, Tensnake smooths the petty bumps into more immersive ups and downs.
When he hits his stride, the result is mesmerizing. The last 20 minutes or so of the second disc is a brilliant, downhill rush to the finish. Niemerski takes “Coma Cat” as his starting point and thumps, chimes and buzzes his way through the gloomy, breathless “Grand Central Part 1” remix and the eerie, insistent “Things Pass” into a coup de grâce tandem of Armando’s “Don’t Take It” and Phase II’s “Reachin”. In the first, an indignant diva remonstrates men who love women and leave them, what she calls “the classical example of slam, bam, thank you ma’am”, as an insectile synthesizer squelches out an austere, obligatory riff. From her somber, unabashedly retro message of women’s empowerment we run smack into the platitudinal, feel-good “Reachin”, which at once fills us with the sweetest feeling of nostalgia for the past and the most idealistic message of hope for the future.
Unfortunately, Tensnake struggles to maintain such an impeccable groove throughout. The best mix albums work with, not against, their individualized audience to create an almost narrative continuity impossible for the compulsive climaxes and breakdowns of the live set; Tensnake falls just short of this self-conscious auteurism. In his conformity to Defected’s brand of eclecticism, the producer sometimes leaves his listeners in the lurch with stalled transitions and awkward plateaus. “Can’t Get Away (From Your Love)”, for example, feels like a superfluous, if deftly placed, detour between the lush dub mix of Tensnake’s “Need Your Lovin” and Prins Thomas’ sultry mix of Al Usher’s “Lullaby for Robert”. Tensnake in the House is a great dance album, and it hits all the old pressure points without fail, but ultimately it feels a little hollow. You might almost say that the setlist is too diverse, too broad-minded, too well-listened.
Of course, that isn’t really the point. Tensnake in the House is nothing more and nothing less than a batch of picks from one of dance music’s hottest house producers today. If Tensnake doesn’t quite transcend the inherent limitations of his own timeliness, I for one won’t begrudge him a fist pump or two.