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BT: 10 Years in the Life

Matt Cibula


10 Years in the Life

Label: Essential
US Release Date: 2002-09-10
UK Release Date: Available as import

I'm going to try to write about this two-disc compilation without being mean or snarky about it. Believe me, there's plenty to be mean and snarky about; Brian Transeau seems to believe that everyone in the world has heard of him and is as impressed with his work as he himself is, and sets himself up for mean comments from snarky mofos like me. But in the interest of peace, love, and understanding (three things that I am told are at a premium in this wicked world), I shall try to stick to what I know best: the 157 minutes of music on 10 Years in the Life, as well as the fascinating (and unintentionally hilarious) liner notes and the glamour-shot photos that try to make Transeau look like Brad Pitt and just end up showing how much he looks like Kato Kaelin.

Oh, dear, now I've done it. How embarrassing.

What is it about BT that makes critics hate him so much? It can't possibly be the fact that he's collaborated with Britney Spears and *NSYNC -- in the new critical parlance, ultra-pop is cooler than any other genre, and I actually really liked the production work he did on "Pop". And it shouldn't be the fact that Transeau has worked primarily in electronic dance music, because if you're still snobby about techno not being a legitimate form of music, then stop reading PopMatters and get back to your job writing for Rolling Stone, dammit. Isn't there a new Mick Jagger solo album to give five stars to or something?

So it's not that I'm against what Transeau does. In fact, let me say up front that this album is proof that he's one of the talented musicians in techno history. The first track on Disc 01 is 1993's "The Moment of Truth", which is also described in the notes by BT as "the first track I ever did", is a marvel: a slab of unreconstructed deep house music with a healthy smattering of disco fake-strings done in one weekend, it displays heart and soul and a level of technical mastery far beyond his years and "experience" level. It's corny and insular, but it works, because Transeau pays obsessive attention to detail.

This comes through on all the early solo tracks here: "Relativity", which he put together "in my parent's TV room on my MPC-60", is an adorable tribute to Art of Noise-style vocal percussion, and there is no freakin' way any person could just come up with this on his own as the second single he did . . . yet that's exactly what happened. "Loving You More", an Orbital sort of thing from 1996, takes Vincent Covello's smooth voice and applies every sort of sound you can think of as proof of the thesis that Covello is, in fact, loving someone more than he ever has before -- everything pops, every synth shudder and cymbal hit is clear and perfectly-framed. And I was getting all worked up about the New Order rip-off that is "Lullaby for Gaia" until I heard Jan Johnston's vocals (how unstoppable would that band have been with a girl singer?) and BT's admission in the notes that this is his "hat-tip to New Order". It's spot-on Manchester robot-pop, it works perfectly as a track, and it's all done by one guy . . . on his second single ever. Damn.

Transeau is credited with a couple of things in dance music. One is the "shutter edit", which I have no idea what it is and don't really care. Maybe it's the kind of editing that allowed him to make "Blue Skies". This track is truly stunning, especially if you know the backstory: Tori Amos wants to work with BT, so she takes his song "Divinity" and makes a 15-minute tape just improvising her nutter ravings over the top of it and sends it back to him. He takes her vocals, chops them up and reassembles them using more than 5,000 vocal edits, and puts another (also very New Order-y, if you ask me) track underneath them to create this song. If the notes are to be believed, Amos never actually sang the words "blue" and "sky" together in her tape, but BT layers them together so perfectly that it sounds like she did. Really, this is the apex of his work forever, and it's one of the signal achievements in editing of all time.

But there is a darkside here too. Transeau is credited in Craig DeGraff's essay as the man who "practically invented the 'breakdown' in modern dance music". This is not necessarily a great thing -- the breakdown is the most overused and boring part of trance music, and Paul Oakenfold's name keeps popping up all over BT's work -- but we don't have to hear a lot of them, because the first disc is almost all short singles edits. The second disc, which consists mostly of BT's mixes of other artists, has more of this sort of thing. But he doesn't get any gold stars from me for that.

This second disc, which is sequenced to flow together with no breaks, is smooth as a baby's ass, and displays all of Transeau's trademark OCD, but seems a little lazy on some tracks. Sure, his electrogrind take on Kaistar's "The Promethean Groove" is kinda hott, but he follows that with the most boring Goa trance house track I've heard in a while, the "Brat Edit" of "Anomaly: Calling Your Name" by Libra Presents Taylor. The damned thing is ALL BREAKDOWN. Where's the beef? Maybe it's just that I've never heard the original of a lot of these tracks, so I can't compare and contrast just what he did as a remixer, but this is supposed to be a comp, not a history lesson, and it never rises above pleasant.

So what's wrong with pleasant? You won't find a surprising moment or a "holy shit did he just do what I think he did?" passage on any of these mixes, which is a shame . . . and proves to be BT's achilles' heel. Not to be overly rockist about it, but someone with Transeau's natural musical ability and studio wizardry should try to maybe push a little teeny tiny smidgen of a bit of an envelope, and he's just not interested. There's very little to separate any of these tracks from each other -- how can you go through "10 Years in the Life" without forming any kind of musical personality?

Now it comes time in the review where a lesser reviewer would engage in a little armchair psychology, and speculate that Transeau's devotion to the new-age-lite stylee of Deepak Chopra and his fondness for long hikes in the wilderness reveal him to be just, well, a big overly-pleased-with-himself-and-the-universe softy. Of course, I would never sink that low; but it is pretty spooky how many of these tracks seem to have been inspired by walks or long talks with friends. It's as if Transeau is too happy, too normal, too bourgeois to even think about creating anything approaching great art. Maybe this is why he has no special imprint on his own after all this time . . . or at least that's what I'd think were I to indulge in such ickiness. Which of course I never would.

But that's probably also responsible for the best tracks here, which are all BT collaborations with other artists: not remixes, not solo one-man-band soundscapes, but true partnerships. Remember M. Doughty, from Soul Coughing? (He calls himself Mark now, or something.) Well, their track, "Never Gonna Come Back Down", which appeared on BT's album Movement in Still Life, is pretty ace; Doughty's pretty-fly-for-a-white-guy beatnikisms go well with Transeau's pretty-London-for-a-white-guy-from-suburban-Maryland backing. And when Richard Butler (Psych Furs guy, gaunt, gloomy, remember him?) almost redeems himself for the Furs' later career missteps with a soulful vocal take on "Shineaway," which was on the soundtrack for that hugely popular and I'm being sarcastic here movie The Jackal. Ditto Kirsty Hawkshaw's singing on "Dreaming," which provides some sexiness for BT to bounce off of, and double-ditto for the Jan Johnston and DJ Rap tracks. Transeau is naturally a center-dweller, and he's at his best when he has someone to help him find the edge.

But the overall percentage of edgy stuff here is pretty low. So file this under "nice enough in its own way" and go listen to some Underworld or some Squarepusher.

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