It will be interesting to see how Mark Farina‘s first and much anticipated full-length set will fare in the face of the anti-dance backlash. In the UK, at least, post-house 4/4 genres are nearly all in crisis. The majors have closed their dance departments, magazines and clubs are closing monthly, and both vinyl and mix CD sales are tumbling. Guitar bands and R&B are the two beneficiaries. The reign of trance and the superstar DJ is over. NME/Guardian Rock Criticism is resurgent (and smugly triumphant) .We are almost back to the old rock and soul divide (actually it was never far beneath the surface). Black-based dance forms should be unaffected — they will head back to the Club Underground from whence they came. Trance, hardcore, and other “European” styles will, I think, mostly disappear, unlamented and largely destined for deserved obscurity.
The problem will be who gets caught up in the wake of this shift in taste. Fortunately, Farina is no Tong/Oakenfold “Popstar”, but a thoughtful producer/DJ with a pedigree that goes back to Chicago in the late eighties. His association with Om has given the world the mellow classics of the Mushroom Jazz series and his own name is, along with Miguel Migs, the one most likely to be dropped when Californian DJs are mentioned. His is an adult, sophisticated variant on dancefloor electronica, a million miles away from the crass excesses of the Superclubs and the “Faster, Harder, Louder” nonsense, whose rise-and-fall is now the subject of so much journalistic glee. As such he should be unaffected. I do worry though that his understated amalgam of house, downtempo, and hip-hop beats will be simply seen as passed its sell-by date.
There is one big problem with the album. That is the framing device of the aircraft in-flight entertainment/musical journey that runs throughout the project. While it produces a very cool website, on the record it means far too many airport/pilot/B-Movie spoken word samples. These sound hackneyed and more suited to the poorer Ibiza chill-out sets. About the music there are no such qualms though. The tempo is varied — alternately housey and trip-hoppy at the outset, more song based in the middle and then more urgent, but never too banging, towards the end. The various textures are those we would expect: fairly minimalistic 4/4 based grooves, with a taste for instrumental hip-hop evident and a prevailing chic moodiness. It does sound very West Coast but is more cerebral and abstract than the cod-psychedelia of much recent Om/Ubiquity material. Personally, I would have welcomed a little more soulfulness and more overt, rather than implied, jazz touches, but as an extended exercise in the Farina aesthetic, it coheres well. Farina manages to be soothing and floor-friendly at the same time and such a combination should not be discarded lightly.
Farina gets good support from stablemates Kaskade (“To Do”) and under-rated rappers People under the Stairs (“Travel”). The latter offer a killer hip-hop cut that should immediately be investigated even if you loathe dance. There is also a quirky pop-folk-rock song by Sean Hayes, who sounds uncannily like Michael Stipe. It forms a strange break in the CD but is a tender, melancholy peach of a tune, more suited to college radio than clubs. How much of the rest of the album is Farina, samples or live instrumentation is anyone’s guess but, whether it’s the twisted, Latin-jazz vibe of the “Layover 4” or the more Techno intensity of “Betcha Do”, the depth and flow of the music never falters.
If I had to pick one track it would probably be “Leaving SF”, which has an eerie repeated keyboard phrase and an early-Chicago-esque simplicity to it. “Dropped in the Water” has a similar singular purposefulness and would work well on the darker dance-floors. However it is the over-all ebb and flow that matters, as I have said many times with regard to DJ sets, particularly those of a deep nature. Here, Farina is a true master. Repetition and innovation, patterns and eccentricities — that unique combination of sameness and difference that is at the heart of house (and which is why it is seen as plain boring by non-believers) have rarely been better articulated than by Farina in full “flight”.
In the current climate even a DJ/Producer album of such efficiency is unlikely to win many converts. This is a shame (and I hope too pessimistic a prediction) as there is much freshness here, despite the established nature of its ingredients and format. Long time followers will lap it up, although some Om/Naked devotees might be surprised. Air Farina, though smooth and luxurious, is no C21 soul, nu-cool, café bar exercise but house music, first and foremost. And I, for one, am not complaining. It does have the requisite dosage of Om’s obligatory, hip eclecticism but this is a bonus. It is a big bonus certainly, but a bonus nonetheless. The core of the matter is simply this. Farina has put together as cogent an argument as you will hear this year that, while mainstream dance may be dying, deep house is still, in California at least, in robust health. Enjoy the trip.