Various Artists: Digital Disco

Harold Liu

Various Artists

Digital Disco

Label: Force Tracks
US Release Date: 2002-11-05
UK Release Date: 2002-11-11

Maybe I've been thinking about this record too much. When the relentlessly experimental house and techno label Force Tracks drops a compilation of, well, dance-pop (shhh) into your lap, all kinds of thoughts go racing through your head. What's the motive? Am I allowed to enjoy this? Or am I missing something? Unlike most other Force Tracks releases, for most of this record the bpm's have slowed down considerably, and melody dominates. It's like joining your high school chess club and discovering they don't really play chess; they play strip poker. And the ginger ale is spiked.

Matthew Herbert's remix of Akufen's "Deck the House" is a good place to start. Akufen's original is a wonder -- perhaps the quintessential "microhouse" track, it was a technologically advanced extension of Todd Edwards' wonderfully hyper cut and paste disco music. Here, Herbert -- a celebrated electronic producer in his own right -- takes a vocal sample, cuts it up, and builds it around a small looped snippet from the original, creating a consistent and terribly catchy hook in the process. The clever laptop editing is still there, but it's the hook that takes center stage. It's a neat trick that something so egg-headedly constructed also manages to have me pumping my fist and thinking, "Come on ride the train, choo choo ride it."

Not that this comes anywhere close to the sheer pop kicks found elsewhere on the record. MRI, a Frankfurt production duo heretofore recognized for its detached, minimalist house, contributes "Disco Discovery", a loping disco workout with electro flourishes that could almost be described as cuddly, while the grin on my face keeps getting bigger each time the unabashedly lush, Paradise Garage inspired groove of Astrobal's "Magic Lady" unfolds in front of me. Data 80's (Swedish producer Hakan Lidbo) two vocoder-drenched tracks contain actual verses and choruses (!) reminiscent of Daft Punk's recent pop missives, and the by now ubiquitous Metro Area makes an appearance with "Miura", with all its brooding, bubbling dance-floor tension fully intact. But perhaps the most surprising contribution is Sylk 130's cover of Nu-Shooz' "I Can't Wait". Not only does the Philly funk/soul collective sound completely earnest in their rendition, there is also absolutely nothing "digital" about the track -- its smooth bounce is accomplished with nothing but live instruments and performers (remember them?). It's charming, refreshing, and perhaps just a tad jarring in this context.

The record does have its relatively less accessible tracks, which while not as immediate, are still just one car commercial away from entering our collective cultural consciousness (That's not a slight. I can still remember being glued to my seat when I saw "She Sells Sanctuary" in a Nissan commercial. First thought, "Thank you Nissan, for reminding me of how much I love this song." Second thought, "Was the licensing for Lenny Kravitz' "Fly Away" too expensive?"). My pick is Decomposed Subsonic's "Discopatterntester", a study in clicks that wears its tech-house badge proudly, but not at the expense of a series of joyous, celebratory laptop squeals and squiggles that permeate throughout. I see frames of nighttime urban street scenes, the city lights sharply reflecting off the highly polished exterior of a red Hyundai Elantra. And while Swayzak's "Husky Bitch" did not make much of an impression on me at first, I find myself returning to it, fascinated by its odd marriage of rumbling bass tones and echoing tone treatments. Which is pretty much the case with the whole record. As tempting as it is to dismiss it as disposable, there are countless elements underneath the pop sheen that keep drawing me back, ready to listen again.

So as the slyly crafted electro-pop of Savant DJ's "Moviestar" rounds out the track sequence and nearly fills my ears to bursting with vocoder cheese and disco glitter, I start thinking again. I'm sure there's a brilliant intellectual theory underpinning all of this, but I'm content to dance while I scratch my chin. Or was that the whole point to begin with?





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