In the absence of any overarching narrative or distinctive dominant “scene” in the modern electronic music landscape, the primary focus for many artists appears to be the gradual synthesis of disparate subgenres. No area of popular music is more rigidly — and maddeningly — delineated than electronic music, with dozens upon dozens of minute microgenres having sprung up out of the rich and loamy digital soil. It was inevitable that the same scene that spent two decades building unassailable walls between microscopically different niches would eventually tear down those same walls in the name of cross-pollination.
If anything in electronic music can be said to have been a “breakout” success during the last year and a half, it would probably be the minimal techno-house genre exemplified by the output of Germany’s Kompakt label. Besides being the subject of SPIN magazine’s first significant electronic music feature in many years, they’ve received quite a bit of attention from the underground music press as well. But in the meantime the current vanguard has slipped into the public domain, and the inevitable hybridization has begun.
With Details, Richard Davis is picking up where he left off with Swayzak’s superb Loops From the Bergerie, released last year. That album represented a significant step forward for the group by welding the cool melancholy of the recent Scandinavian invasion to a club-friendly house structure (although that doesn’t really explain “Speakeasy”, the oddball Loops track that made it onto that ubiquitous Motorola commercial last year). Davis was one of the featured voices on Loops and he applies the same aesthetic here, only moreso. This is a minimal house record recorded with a deep house sensibility, and fastened to a sincerely gorgeous pop framework.
This album is as clear and crisp as a cool afternoon in September. The real masterstroke is Anna Stark’s cello: although it only appears on three tracks, it sets the tone for the entire album. Somber and sober while simultaneously warm and vivid, the cello bridges the conceptual gap between the arch modernism of minimal techno and the plaintive qualities of Davis’ very human voice.
“Honest” leads off the album, and it’s a perfect example of Davis’ subtle and emotive songwriting. The track begins with a quiet synthesizer note fading in and out of the air, accompanied by a mordant three-note piano melody. Then the beat begins, along with Davis’ voice. The simple piano melody carries through the entire track, underscoring Davis’ singing and serving as a counterpoint to the computerized burbles and burps which eventually fill the track’s mid-range. The cello enters on “The Truth”, playing a discordant and affecting motif over the deep house framework. The juxtaposition between “cold” technological sound and “warm” analog creates a fascinating dynamic throughout the album.
Davis’ tracks are often deceptively complex, with multiple layers of sound coexisting in a perfectly crystalline structure that belies the fervid activity beneath the surface. Usually, disparate elements are introduced into the mix one-by-one, going almost unnoticed until you realize that the numerous small elements — synth washes, keyboard arpeggios, small rhythmical elements — add up to create a significant, if intricate sound. Take “This Time”, for example, which utilizes the repetition of a single tinny guitar riff as a rhythmical device in counterpoint to a more conventional bassline. The melody is actually carried by a very simple two-note synthesizer pattern in the background, but all the other bits contribute to a surpassingly effective composition.
“Others” features Stark’s cello a languid in duet with Michael Lapuks’ dobro. “Hear This” is a fierce stomping house number that could probably make it as a single. The album finishes with the uncharacteristically heavy “Bring Me Closer”, the beat of which bears a slight resemblance to one of Deep Dish’s more robust rhythms. It builds to a terrific crescendo of cello and synthesizer, eventually ending with a sweeping fade-out.
Details is an eminently gorgeous album that achieves a great deal through suspiciously subtle means. Richard Davis has crafted an affecting and ingenious rebuttal to those who would question the efficacy of house music as a medium for emotive songwriting.