What Painful Enlightenment, the second LP from long-time house DJ and footwork experimentalist Jana Rush has in common with her debut, 2017’s Pariah, is the tendency to seemingly craft tracks where tempos circle each other, occasionally colliding. She is deft at dropping a slower melody – a jazzy piano tinkle, for example – in a caldron with twitchy BPMs, making the listener unsettled, wobbly. The results are disorienting and slippery, at once calming and migraine-inducing.
Rush started DJ-ing age ten, released a split EP with DJ Deeon in 1996 at age 18, and began navigating what was until recently an overwhelmingly male scene. Her early work is now classic Chicago techno: goofy, repeated synth belches over 4/4 thump, insistent on body movement. But the 21-year gap between it and Pariah happened out of apparent financial necessity and found Rush working as everything from firefighter to chemical engineer. That release also demonstrated how much dance music in Chicago had mutated. Footwork’s more erratic and malleable forms allowed her to experiment. Yet, referring to Rush as a footwork producer or Painful Enlightenment as a straight-up footwork album is not quite fair.
There’s something more personal about her work in general and this release in particular. That’s likely to do with how she used Painful Enlightenment to address her issues with depression. Nowhere on the album is this more evident than on the nine-minute “Suicidal Ideation”. A repeated yelp occurs over the sounds of metal being crunched or sewer creatures coming to life. The beat is a stuttered jitter seemingly designed to induce discomfort. It takes a while to settle in, but when it does, with help from a piano line and a deep, bassoon-like see-sawing of notes, it becomes its own sound world, expecting nothing less than immersion from listeners. There is a minute or two of calm, but then it comes roaring back. It manages to be inviting and tormenting in equal measure, and while it’s unlikely to be cued up by footwork masters on the railroad tracks of Chicago’s Southside any time soon, it points to avenues the genre might take.
Rush has one ear rooted in jazz too. “Moanin'” features a furious snatch of gruff baritone sax- sounding like Hamiet Bluiett in a tussle with Getachew Mekurya over a flurry of rhythms. The title track is Rush’s version of tavern-jazz cool, as slinky guitar chords waft over, under, and deep inside of bass bombs, clicks, and smacks. Elsewhere, “Drivin’ Me Insane”, which features disturbingly stretched, processed vocals from Nancy Fortune, sounds like a distress siren that won’t stop.
No matter how upsetting a listen this can sometimes be, it also feels playful at every turn. The track “3” begins nearly fun, with manic computer drum hits and steady pulse, before it too dives into deeper territory mid-track. Rush has stated in interviews that she has felt like an outsider to Chicago’s footwork scene and that she wants mood to be a guiding influence. She may have created this album at least in part to address mental health issues, but she’s also managed to step gingerly on footwork’s outer edges, suggesting the genre without quite hardening into it.