If you're a struggling young DJ and you're looking for someone to be jealous of, you may as well start with James Lavelle. All this guy did was found one of the most influential underground hip-hop labels of all time, Mo' Wax; help launch the careers of guys like DJ Shadow and Money Mark; record a seminal album under the name U.N.K.L.E. with the likes of Shadow, Thom Yorke, and Badly Drawn Boy; then suddenly turn up in clubs and on the highly popular Global Underground series playing a nasty mix of techno, progressive house and nu skool breaks. And he's barely 30. The bastard.
Lavelle the globetrotting DJ hasn't completely eclipsed Lavelle the trip-hop-tronic mastermind, though you're forgiven for failing to notice that U.N.K.L.E. released a sophomore album, Never Never Land, late last year. Minus the presence of DJ Shadow, that album arrived with little fanfare and made few lasting impressions. Lavelle's second contribution to Global Underground, however, is a monster. GU #026: Romania picks up where the high-energy hodgepodge of his GU #023: Barcelona set left off, but this time the beats are harder, the vibe trippier, the mixing smoother and more assured. Lavelle the globetrotting DJ has clearly arrived, and he's at the forefront of a growing and long overdue movement among club jocks to construct sets that bid the genre purists a hearty "fuck you".
Lavelle establishes right from the get-go that his is no ordinary Night at the Roxbury, dispensing with dance music's conventional electronics and four-on-the-floor beats in favor of a big, noisy, balls-out remix of Queens of the Stone Age's "No One Knows", produced by Lavelle himself and new U.N.K.L.E. cohort Richard File. All thrashing rock guitars, thundering bass, and tightly coiled breakbeats, it's the latest sign, on the heels of the Crystal Method's "Born Too Slow" and innumerable white label remixes of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army", that clubland is ready for a healthy dose of rock 'n' roll again. Boy, are we ever. How refreshing to hear guitars on the dance floor.
The other crossover tracks Lavelle trots out here are mostly from his U.N.K.L.E. catalog, and tend to expose why Never Never Land was such a dud. "In a State" and "Reign", beneath their buzzy electro synths and lurching breakbeats, are really just overcooked pop-rock ditties with big, melodramatic hooks and not much to back them up. The U.N.K.L.E. tracks work better in this context when they've been dirtied up in club-friendly remixes; Silencer's electro-breaks punch-up of "Eye for an Eye", with its spooky, filtered vocal breakdown, is especially good, and the dreamy, menacing "Invasion" also fares well at the hands of Medway and Eva. But not even Sasha, one of the greats at this game, can save "In a State"; his uninspired remix makes for a tepid finale to disc two.
But never mind all that -- in between all the U.N.K.L.E. originals and rerubs, Lavelle drops some killer breaks, spooky techno, and roof-raising progressive anthems, many cleverly remixed and Pro Tooled to gleefully glitchy extremes by Lavelle himself. The biggest star of this electronic circus is not really U.N.K.L.E., but Mark Pember, a.k.a. Meat Katie, who finds his way into Lavelle's mix on five original tracks and collaborations, all excellent. Other highlights come courtesy of False Prophet's floor-packing remix of PFN's "Flow", Medway's funky rework of Fred Numf vs. Five Point 0's "Hong Kong Junkie", and especially Ewan Pearson's ultra-trippy "Rave Hell Dub" of the Chemical Brothers/Flaming Lips collaboration "Golden Path" -- a remix that manages to find the life in what should have been a great track to begin with, but sorely needed this kind of creative tweaking to realize its full potential.
All of the above-mentioned tunes are exhilarating club tracks, full of creative production and hooky grooves, but the most telling moments in Lavelle's set come when he really takes his listeners off the deep end and then manages to pull them back again. Opening disc two with the creepy, minimal techno and paranoid-schizophrenic ruminations of Richie Hawtin's "Ask Yourself" is a masterstroke, especially when Lavelle uses it to set the table for perhaps the most irresistible dance track in his entire set, Scumdolly's progressive yet super-funky "Making Ends Meet". Then there's the sequence where he leads us down a dark techno rabbit hole, luring us in with the fat progressive beats of Meat Katie & Elite Force's "Slagg" before getting really evil and techy on Ultima's "Don't Funk" and then really minimal and weird on Pepe Braddock's "4", which has a breakdown that dares you to stay on the dance floor. Even when his experiments aren't as successful, like the crazy stutter-cuts on Meat Katie's "K Hole" and the way he slows the tempo down to a crawl midway through Sasha's re-edit of Alex Dolby's "Psiko Garden", they're still thrilling, just because it's been so long since anyone juggled experimental electronica and club-friendly beats this brazenly.
So far 2004 is off to a rip-roaring start for dance music; after a couple of years dominated by dreary, druggy, tribal and progressive doom 'n' gloom, the genre-bending acts like Layo & Bushwacka!, Plump DJs, Chicken Lips, Phil K, Tiga and, yes, Basement Jaxx (I'll include them here even though I cling to my minority opinion that they're vastly overrated) seem to be asserting themselves, to such a degree that even big-name acts like Sasha and Timo Maas are starting to take notice and mix things up in their sets a bit more. Credit James Lavelle with being one of the forces to jump-start what now appears to be -- hopefully, maybe, lord willing -- a dance music Renaissance that will see newer, weirder, and more exciting combinations of sounds dropping soon at a club near you.