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June 28, 2002

++ Summer Sounds (Or, Digging Myself Out From Beneath The To-Be-Listened-To Pile)

Chaos. That's the state of my room these days, after whirlwind trips to MUTEK and Sónar and a handful of gigs in between. My floor is littered with pile upon pile of CDs, some listened to, most not. The records that were lined up in neat, genre-specific rows have intermingled like mutating strands of DNA; white-sleeved 12-inches pine for their jackets, which were shed as a space-saving measure in the record box. It doesn't help that my housemates had the carpets cleaned while I was gone. Generous of them to go to the effort of moving all the debris out of the way to make way for the steam cleaner, but the random way it was replaced sure doesn't do much for my already tenuous organizational system.

The upside of the mess is that it presents an opportunity to discover the gems amongst the detritus and offer a long-overdue report on some stellar recent and forthcoming releases.

++ Akufen, My Way (Force Inc.): Montreal's Marc Leclair has been running with the same gag for some time (chopping radio-dial swirl into crisp, percussive snippets that he swaps in for drum kicks) but on My Way he's managed to put the technique in the service of pop music, instead of the down-and-dithered techno in which he used to traffic. Reportedly written and produced during an extended stay at a remote cabin during the long, snowy Quebec winter, My Way is the portrait of the artist staring out at the world through icy glass, scraping his fingernails across the feathered crystals to carve his own signature across their fractal flow. Thrumming guitars billow like creeping snowdrifts and cool, chiming pianos rocket down like severed icicles. Then again, meteorological metaphors have always been a bit of a cheap shot, so put a torch to the above and let your presuppositions melt with it — along with all your expectations about what house music is supposed to sound like. Chalk it up to a gorgeous, melodic album so rich with texture it's practically erotic.

++ Hefner, Reworks (Inertia): Hefner — AKA Lee Jones — suffers from the same identity crisis that plagues many dance music producers, in that he's not nearly as well known as many of the artists he remixes. Despite the frequent props from tastemakers like Gilles Peterson, Hefner's own profile pales beneath the shadow of artists like Zero 7, Cinematic Orchestra, 4 Hero, and Lamb, all of whom appear in reworked form on this collection. (It doesn't help that the existence of the indie-rock band Hefner has led to no small amount of brand diffusion for both acts.) Hefner's totally underrated downtempo manifesto, Residue, was one of my favorites of 2001, but Reworks shows that if he must ride coattails, at least he does it with grace. Hefner's specialty is a particularly porous form of funk, with staccato bass and truncated breaks framing glossy patches of acoustic guitar and female vocals; here he ranges from the Nick Drake flourishes on his version of Zero 7's "Destiny" to the rough breakbeat style with which he toughens up Omar Faruk Tekbilek's rendition of the traditional "Shashkin."

++ Kotai, Kotai (WMF): I spent a good six months carping against the retro revivalists attempting to resuscitate post-punk, no wave and new wave into soulless, pastiche ready-mades, but in my vehemence I'd overlooked the genuine brilliance with which some artists were incorporating the early-'80s sheen and growl. The dominant trend in dance music seems to be a shift away from the track and toward the song, and the rise of distorted vocals and jittery arpeggios leads the charge. Kotai's debut for Berlin label WMF is a grueling yet exhilarating tear through monotone vocal phrases and understated acid lines that pummel quietly away. Every track — with the exception of the Sisters of Mercy-like "Guardian Angel," which was a mistake, no matter how tongue-in-cheek — sounds like a variation on a theme, but when the original's this compelling, who's complaining? The standout, without a doubt, is the grimly undulating "BA3 Breathing," in which Kotai sings, "Do you know where the wild roses grow/ Do you know where the dark horses go/ Do you know where your income tax blows," over and over, while a gravelly arpeggio tumbles beneath. There's a weird, sinister energy to it that most electro never captures, and it's not afraid to dally with the organic, as during the closing minutes when a jauntily whistled melody ushers the song out of the darkness. (For a sunnier version of the same phenomenon, just wait for Swayzak's Dirty Dancing, set for a September release on !K7.)

++ Murcof, Martes (Static): Tijuana's Fernando Corona is a member of the Colectivo Nortec under the alias of Terrestre, but his Murcof project remains much more subdued than the collective's punchy border techno. Instead of mining Norteño music for its exuberant texture and kick, Corona has produced an understated album of minimalist glitch pulses and samples culled from contemporary composers like Morton Feldman and Arvo Pärt. Three of the tracks here first appeared on vinyl courtesy of Sutekh's Context imprint; the full-length (available in Europe and the UK via Leaf) provides an affecting listening experience fraught with tensions, caught between the comforts of home and the disconcerting expanse of the desert. Chords in a minor key flit across the soundscape like beams of light traversing the floor of the Rothko Chapel.

++ Super_Collider, Raw Digits (Rise Robots Rise): Super_Collider — the duo of Jamie Lidell and Christian Vogel — formed a few years back to take a stab at grafting gritty R&B onto the leftfield techno for which they were known. Their debut, Head On, had its moments, but Raw Digits is something else entirely. First of all, what does that title mean? I can only imagine it refers to fingers bruised and bloodied from stabbing at keyboards and computers, because having seen the duo perform live in Barcelona, I know that they go at their gear with gusto. These guys know how to put on a show; true, Vogel remains behind his stacks of boxes, and the touring bassist and drummer busy themselves, for the most part, with locking down the groove. But Lidell, who very well may be certifiable, slinks around the stage like some kind of Vegas diva, alternately crooning and screaming into his microphone, a leer etched permanently into his face. At first he seemed to be wearing some sort of gorilla costume, but it turned out that his shiny black coat was billowing spools of discarded magnetic tape, or perhaps 16mm film. As he sang — and despite the layers of effects on his voice, it's evident that the man can sing — stagehands projected grainy films on the band, often holding the projectors in their hands and scraping them back and forth over the performers. The sound was mean, overdriven, and almost painfully soulful. Which is a pretty good approximation of the record, which takes fucked-up, syncopated rhythms in the vein of Pantytec and threads them through Lidell's fractured, freaky cries. Sometimes he plays the straight man, the student of the original blues, but more often he runs his lyrics through Vocoder, flange, delay, and a kaleidoscope of harmonic disruptors, until he sounds like he's battling himself in a hall of mirrors. Even if you could find your way out of the maze, you wouldn't want to.


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