When a fire starts to burn, right? And it starts to spread, right? Then it's time for another edition of Counterbalance. This week it's electronic time with a critically acclaimed UK hit from 2013.
Mendelsohn: I’ve often complained that electronic music receives the short-shrift when it comes to the Great List. Oddly enough, that isn’t necessarily true. Electronic music has a strong presence on the list — if you manage to make it into the depths, far removed from the top 200 (or 500 for that matter). In reality, there is typically one electronic album that hits in the top ten each year and as a result, there is a decent amount of electronic music scattered throughout the list. Last year was a good year for electronic music to gain critical mass. There were four electronic albums in the top 25 from the Acclaimed Music website — Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (5), Disclosure’s Settle (10), the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual (12), and Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest (19). The only new name on that list was Disclosure so that’s the record I picked, hoping that it wasn’t going to be an hour of static bursts and the digital renderings of robot copulation.
What I found was a rather enjoyable, mostly well-thought out, sometimes boring hour of deep house cuts, the likes of which I hadn’t heard since the early 2000s. What surprised me though, was how well the critics regarded this album. I’ve seen this record referred to as “intelligent” more than once (and that’s more than enough for me). There isn’t anything new on this record, although in my defense, I’ve been out of the loop for a couple of years, but maybe in comparison to whatever has been going on in the world of electronic music, Settle just might well be Ivy League dance material.
I know electronic music isn’t really your thing, Klinger (and that’s why we’re listening to this). So level with me — what’s your take on this record? Is it time to get the glow sticks or do you want to call the cops and shut this rave down?
Klinger: Oh, if only it were that simple of a neat and tidy dichotomy, Mendelsohn. I guess by now I've reached the point with electronic dance music where I recognize its right to exist, but I have no idea why someone would want to listen to it. Should I be dancing when I listen to it? Because this isn't the sort of music I dance to? Should I be lying down? It's OK for driving, but mostly that's because its incessant repetition puts me in kind of a trance and kind of merges itself with the monotony of the road. Is that what they're going for? I'm pretty sure I understand everything that's going on here — you explained a lot of this to me when we covered that DJ Shadow guy — but more often than not I find myself saying, "OK I get the idea" about three minutes into each song.
Still, though, I keep thinking I'm going about this all wrong, and if I tried some other way of approaching this it would click into place. I mean, I'll be chugging along, listening to whoever that guy is talking during "When a Fire Starts to Burn", and I'm kind of getting into it. (Wait, let me Google that. OK, it's motivational speaker Eric Thomas — here's his website!) But then there's that nagging voice inside me that keeps saying, "This little clip from his talk is all you’re going to hear." He doesn't finish his thought. There's no punchline. It's just the two Lawrence brothers, Guy and Howard, having fun with the cadence of this sentence fragment. Is that enough? Not really. But maybe I’m doing it wrong.
Mendelsohn: Probably not. I think the whole “he doesn’t finish his thought” is a good way to describe this record. I’ve thought the same thing several times when listening to this record. Take “F For You” — it is a great song, well-constructed touch of blue-eyed soul with a catchy hook and all — there is more than enough space to elaborate, instead, the Lawrence brothers take the lazy way out and loop it. Most of the record follows the same M.O.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing. Quite frankly, I love this album, but more as a guilty pleasure than a true masterwork in the genre. I guess that is where you come in. I was hoping you could provide some outsider perspective on this album. My emotions are immediately clouded by the four-on-the-floor beat that refuses to get off the 130 BPM wavelength. I just love house music, Klinger. I can’t really explain it. Granted, it has to be good house music, not the washed-out over produced crap that spills off the Top 40 platter and down the drain every week. I suppose Disclosure’s Settle qualifies as good house music. Hell, I’ve been listening to it on and off for a couple of months and as repetitive as it is, I’m still having a good time. I just don’t understand the critical mass behind this record (although I do have one theory: blame Britain). Settle is just straight house music — it isn’t the smooth, organic disco funk of Random Access Memories, the clipped acid trip of the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, or the headphone beat soundscape navel gazing of Tomorrow’s Harvest, yet Disclosure is still right in the middle, acclaimed enough to round out the top ten.
Klinger: Jeez, this is a lot to take in. Maybe that's the whole problem for me with all this electronica. (Is that even still a word? Spell check seems OK with it.) Maybe I never found the right way into it because it's all about the starting point. A good while back I waxed rhapsodic about Kraftwerk, but that seems to be light years away from Disclosure. I found myself drawn to the more organic sounds of Air, but there's not very much of that to be found here. And I'm pretty sure I haven't heard anyone use the phrase "house music" in 15 years, but I also stopped listening to people a long time ago.
Anyway, it's like I was saying last week about jazz — aficionados of the jazz music aren't necessarily the best guides for the uninitiated because they not only want you to love it, but they also want you to love it on its own terms. That's why I recommend something like Charles Mingus; he comes pretty close to meeting you where you are. You seem to be saying that Disclosure is pretty much right down the middle, and I can hear that. The sounds that I hear when something like "White Noise" are pretty much exactly what I think of when someone says EDM (again, am I using that term right?). It's getting dangerously close to high-energy background music, but I understand why there would be a call for it. The question is, then, does that make Settle an effective point of entry for someone trying to assess the state of current electronic dance music — and maybe even try to figure out how to enjoy it?
Mendelsohn: I got to tell you, Klinger, we've been doing this a long time and I just realized I feel the same way about electronica that you feel about jazz. It didn't even dawn on me until you said something (I've got some great jazz-infused electronic music that might allow us to finally enjoy the best of both genres).
I think Settle is a great album if you want to understand the current state of house music — one of the many sub-genres that makes up the whole of electronica. House music was huge 15 years ago, having usurped the big beat of the 1990s. Like all trends, house was then replaced by something else and then dubstep happened, at which point I quietly showed myself out.
If you want an entry into electronica, I would suggest something like LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk, or even the Gorillaz. Each group creates their own distinct brand of electronic music but they bring it to the listener, much the same way Mingus brings jazz. But once you've moved in, unpacked your bags, and have become comfortable with the surroundings, break out Settle and throw a party — a house party.
Klinger: Hmm, I am on record as being quite pro-LCD Soundsystem, but that’s in large part due to James Murphy’s use of lyrics more so than his beats per minute and whatnot (and his age, which is nearly as advanced as mine). So maybe I will have a go at this house party idea of yours. But don't be surprised if I end up calling the cops on myself.