In the world of dance music, Walter Gibbons’ reputation is an all or none kind of thing: People either revere him as an immensely talented and creative pioneer of both live turntable-based mixing and studio remixing or they’ve never heard of him. I’m guessing most people fall into the latter group which is a shame because the people in the former group have it right. Walter Gibbons was a monster.
Gibbons became widely known in the very early days of the underground dance scene in New York when he became one of the regular DJs at Galaxy 21. He was exceptional at extending breaks and beat matching records and could handle the turntables with a precision that rivaled Grandmaster Flash. Galaxy 21 was an after-hours joint and Gibbons became the DJ the other DJs went to see when their gigs ended.
Ken Cayre, one of the owners of the foundational disco label Salsoul Records, heard Gibbons mix two recordings of Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” during one of Gibbons’ sets and asked him if he could do the same thing in the studio. Gibbins said no problem and Cayre asked him to make a remix for Salsoul. Cayre gave Gibbons three hours in the studio to do it. In those three hours Gibbons extended the album version of the song by almost three minutes and gave Salsoul a remix that outsold the original by two to one and was widely seen as opening record company eyes to the fact that remixes could provide a lucrative revenue stream.
As Gibbons’ life as a studio remixer grew, his career as a live DJ waned. His career in the studio would soon follow. A good deal of his professional downslide was due to Gibbons’ personality and his approach to music. Gibbons was a creative and original artist who focused on the quality of the music he was making to the exclusion of what anyone else wanted to hear. As a result, he was often way out in front of the curve making music that many in the dance audience weren’t ready to listen to. “Set it Off”, the first release from a label Gibbons partially owned, is a good example. It combined elements of early hip-hop and contemporary dance music in ways neither audience was prepared for. When first played in clubs it would clear the dance floor. However, DJs who heard the value of the track made it a regular part of their mix and audiences came to demand it once they became familiar with it.
Gibbons was an intensely focused man and when his interest in the Bible and Christianity turned to zealotry, he became very difficult to work with in the studio. He refused to work on songs that contained lyrics that he didn’t find uplifting or that celebrated what he saw as the degrading and promiscuous side of homosexuality. He was intolerant of other’s views and given to delivering sermons in the studio. Working with him became more trouble than it was worth. Gibbons spent the last weeks of his life living in a YMCA in New York. He died of complications from AIDS in 1994. He was 38.
The core of Gibbons’ musical talent lay in his exquisite understanding of and appreciation for rhythm and percussion. That talent is on display throughout the 14 tracks on Jungle Music‘s 2 discs. The first disc focuses on his early mixes for labels like Salsoul and includes remixes of tracks by Gladys Knight, the Salsoul Orchestra and Bettiye Lavette among others. Some of this material may sound like standard disco remix fare until you realize that when Gibbons built these tracks, there was no standard disco fare. He was making the mold that so many others would use.
The second disc focuses on his later remixes and it is easy to hear how unique Gibbons was and how far beyond most of his contemporaries he had moved. It’s no accident that two of the remixes on disc two were done for Arthur Russell, another recently rediscovered giant of the early underground music scene. Some of Gibbons’ remixes wouldn’t sound out of place today.
Gibbons has been criminally neglected in terms of making his music available for current audiences. Jungle Music stands as the exception. The collection includes two discs of high-quality remixes coupled with a booklet with an extensive essay about Gibbons written by Tim Lawrence the author of the superb Love Saves the Day. Jungle Music may be hard to find but if you like highly creative, rhythmic dance music or if you have an interest in the pioneers of underground dance music or DJ studio remixing, grab a copy while you can. There is some exceptionally good music here.
Gibbons’ 12″ mix of Strafe’s “Set It Off”
Like many other label/club/brands Ministry of Sound puts out a yearly compilation of dance music. Unlike other dance music conglomerates they put out different versions of the Annual in different countries. I’ve seen UK, US, Australian and German versions. I’m guessing they are attempting to pitch each collection at what they perceive to be the differing tastes of dance music fans in each country. With that thought in mind I picked up the German version because I thought Germany’s preeminence in the world of electronic dance music ought to result in a compilation aimed at a knowledgeable and discerning audience. In other words, I expected the German Annual to be the most interesting of the three. It is also three CDs while the others I saw are two.
The discs are mixed but little real thought or effort has gone into sequencing. It’s basically just one beat-matched song after another without a break between tracks. If you know someone who thinks big-name DJ mix CDs are just some guy playing a bunch of songs, play your favorite DJ mix CD for them and then any of the three discs in the German Annual. The contribution of a good DJ should be obvious pretty quickly.
If this is Ministry of Sound’s idea of the kind of music their most sophisticated audience is tuned in to, I think I’d best avoid the compilations from other countries. The German version of the Annual is basically three discs of bangin’ club music with a fairly strong emphasis on vocal content. Much of it is cliche-ridden and fairly unimaginative. One the one hand, with three discs there’s a lot of music here. On the other hand, it gets old fast and you’ve still got the rest of disc 1 plus all of discs 2 and 3 to go.
It’s interesting to watch what happens with popular musicians as they age. Some disappear after their time of stardom and then reappear and do dinosaur tours when their demographic hits the nostalgia stage (any number of hair metal bands). Some stay in the spotlight ridiculously pretending they’re still 20 years old (Mick Jagger). Some come out of retirement and humiliate themselves with embarrassing Super Bowl shows that are all about the money-grab (The Who). And some, like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and many jazz musicians, continue to make vibrant music that grows increasingly rich and deep with age. Neil Finn and Crowded House fall into this last group.
At one time it didn’t look like it would turn out this way. Crowded House officially ended their career with an extraordinary live concert at Sydney’s Opera House in 1996 which is captured on the terrific live album Farewell to the World which was also separately released as a DVD. Nine years later Paul Hester, the band’s drummer, took his own life after years of battling depression. In 2007 a new album, Time on Earth, was released under the Crowded House name. The newly formulated group combined original members Neil Finn (guitars, piano, vocals), Mark Hart (guitars, keyboards, vocals), and Nick Seymour (bass, vocals) with Matt Sherrod (drums, vocals). Most of the tracks on Time on Earth were originally intended for a Neil Finn solo CD and the album was drenched in Finn and the surviving band members coming to grips with the loss of Hester. It could easily have been the final goodbye.
But it wasn’t. Intriguer is a full blown Crowded House album made by a complete band making their own music and it’s very, very good. Crowded House were always known for Finn’s exceptional song-writing skills. The good news is that he hasn’t lost any of it. The better news is that his personal maturity has produced lyrical maturity rather than desperate grasping for youth. Finn’s songs are matched every step of the way by the band’s musicianship and elegant vocal work. As a quartet, Crowded House play and sing together like the consummate professionals they are. No grand standing, no ego trips, just well-crafted songs beautifully played and sang.
Intriguer comes with a DVD that contains a video for “Saturday Sun”, 8 tracks recorded more or less live (it looks like different takes were expertly combined) at the band’s studio in New Zealand, and two tracks recorded live at the Auckland Townhall which contains an amazing pipe organ. The version of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at the Townhall is not to be missed.
When I saw that Crowded House had a new release scheduled for July I was both excited and worried. Excited because I really like the band; worried because so many bands come back with shitty albums hoping to suck cash out of the accounts of fans who want to pretend they’re still as cool as they think they were back in the day. When I first heard Intriguer it sounded good but first impressions of CDs can, and often do, change. They changed for Intriguer – after many listens I like it more than I did at the start. It’s a grower. If you’re new to Crowded House, Intriguer is as good a place to start as any. Long time fans of the band are going to thoroughly enjoy this album. The band they loved is back and just as good, if not better, than ever. Crowded House isn’t trying to recapture the past, they’re playing music that lives and breathes right here, right now.
Picking a couple of songs from Intriguer is impossible. Here are two, it could have easily been any one of a half-dozed others.
“Twice if You’re Lucky”
The next time somebody says “Young people nowadays are just a bunch of self-entitled do-nothings that think they don’t have to work at anything while everything should be given to them” point them toward A-Trak. Born in 1982, the kid won an international DJ competition at 15. He’s the only person to have won 5 DJ World Championships. While still a teenager he developed a notation system for scratching. At age 22 he joined Kanye West as West’s live performance DJ. He has done production work for Lupe Fiasco among others. In the spring of this year he released two DJ mix CDs, both different and both good.
One of those mixes, Fabriclive 45, was so hot it took over my computer while I was trying to write a review. Infinity+1 isn’t as hot as Fabriclive 45 but it’s still good. Both mixes illustrate A-Trak’s familiarity with the worlds of hip-hop and club-oriented dance music. Of the two, Infinity+1 is the more hip-hop influenced while Fabriclive 45 is more of a straight-up club mix. The generally more sedate tempos of hip-hop may be the reason why Infinity+1 comes across as the less driving of the two mixes. Infinity+1 is also the more consistent mix as it lacks the buzz-kill track that brings Fabriclive 45 to its knees part way through the set.
The only point of connection between the two mixes is A-Traks inclusion of his own “Say Whoa” on both sets. ZZ opens with A-Trak’s version while Infinity+1 includes a remix by DJ Spinna. It takes a good degree of confidence to take the chance that somebody might show you up with a remix of one of your own tracks. Especially somebody who can bring it like DJ Spinna. No worries. Both versions work on their own terms.
The closely timed releases of Infinity+1 and Fabriclive 45 highlight how well A-Trak operates with both hip-hop and house music. Very few DJs could have pulled this off as well as A-Trak has. The two sets also illustrate how adept he is at drawing smooth connections between the two types of music. A-Trak also shows a remarkable subtlety of touch in bridging to dance music from a predominantly hip-hop base on Infinity+1 while doing precisely the opposite on Fabriclive 45.
Both Fabriclive 45 and Infinity+1 are more than worth a listen. If you tend more toward dance music, start with Fabriclive 45; more toward hip-hop, start with Infinity+1. In either case each mix can open the ears of listeners who enjoy one kind of music to the pleasures of a different kind of music and that is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself.
A-Trak’s remix of MSTRCRFT (Feat. N.O.R.E.)’s “Bounce”
Suppose you were married and one of you was a documentary filmmaker while the other was really into electronic dance music. You decided to combine your interests and make a documentary about the music. You then lined up an impressive list of people who agreed to participate in the film including DJs and producers Modeselektor and the Wighnomy Brothers, DJ, producer and founder and owner of the BPitch record label Ellen Allien, producer, co-founder and owner of the highly respected Kompakt record label Wolfgang Voigt, and Robert Henke aka Monolake, co-founder of Ableton, and co-designer of the original Ableton Live.
With these people on board, think of the documentary you could make about electronic dance music! You could focus on the music itself, or the technology used to make the music, or the business of making, playing and selling the music. Amy Grill, the film maker who made Speaking in Code, didn’t do any of these things. You first get an idea that Speaking in Code might turn out to be a great opportunity wasted very early in the film when Grill’s voice over tells you that she decided not to focus on the music but on the people. Okay, so you make a documentary that focuses on what life in the electronic dance world is like for the people who produce and play the music. Grill didn’t really make that film either. Instead she made a documentary that is largely about . . . Amy Grill and her then-husband David Day.
Speaking in Code is almost literally a pointless film. There’s no unifying idea that structures the documentary. It’s as if they had the idea to make a documentary about electronic dance music and that’s as far as they got. They spent a lot of money (Speaking in Code has many, many segments of Day (the husband) whining about the state of their finances), shot a lot of aimless film, and ended up with, well, a lot of aimless film. With no coherent ideas about the music, the production of the music or the business of the music to give their footage some structure they decided to make it about “the people” and the people they decided to make it about was themselves.
All of the people mentioned in the first paragraph above do appear in Speaking in Code but very little of interest is done with them. For example, in addition to interviews with Wolfgang Voigt it looks like the film makers were given fairly good access to the people and the business of at Kompakt Records. What we get in the film is someone leading Day through the Kompakt record store saying “This is the section devoted to X type of music and that is the section devoted to Y type of music” while Day looking awestruck says things like “Wow! This is the greatest record store in the world!” That’s about as deep as the insight and analysis of the subject matter gets.
As far as what life in the electronic dance music world is like we get the camera following someone around who is saying things like “This is the room where I made this track” and “This is the new urinal we have in the bathroom” (I’m not making this up). We get a lot of “we’re all one big happy family” accompanied by film of the big happy family eating together. And so on. It’s almost as if for all that they’ve immersed themselves in the world of dance music, the film makers really don’t know, or don’t want to know, very much about it. It’s all “here we are with this famous DJ”, and “here we are in this famous DJs toilet” and “here we are in this really cool record store”, and “here I am on the plane flying to Europe to go clubbing (again . . and again . . . and . . .).
The film includes a segment of Robert Henke opening what appears to be a version of Henke’s Monodeck, a sophisticated midi-controller for live performance that looks like it might have been a prototype of Akai’s APC40 controller for Ableton Live. Henke is clearly excited about the arrival of the Monodeck yet Grill doesn’t ask him what it is, what it does or why he’s excited about it. She basically ignores it. A bonus feature extended interview with Wolfgang Voigt has him happy and interested to talk about electronic dance music in general, how it has developed over time, and how he sees Kompakt fitting into the larger electronic music picture. From this short segment you can see that you could have made an interesting documentary built around Voigt and Kompakt alone. Grill didn’t even include it in the film. One of the things Voigt talks about is the limitation on roles for women in the electronic dance music business. Grill conducts several interviews with one of those women, Ellen Allien, but doesn’t ask her anything about this.
Instead of anything that might be of interest to people who are interested in electronic dance music we get more and more focus on Grill and Day as the film goes on. More interview time is given to Day than to anyone else in the film – or maybe it just seems that way because his role in Speaking in Code is more about relationship drama than about music. Even when other people are allowed to speak, Grill’s documentary voice over tends to be about what it all means for her and for her deteriorating relationship with her husband. Okay, if the film is going to be fundamentally about Grill and Day’s relationship, is there something especially interesting about the end of their marriage as documented in Speaking in Code? Not really. From what we see in the film it looks like they went through what very commonly happens when people get involved in a serious relationship when they are fairly young and fairly inexperienced in making a life with another, grow apart, find themselves unable or unwilling to make the adjustments and commitments necessary to come back together and deepen the relationship to a new level, and split up. While these events are of profound importance for the two people involved, they are also a common and unexceptional learning experience that many people have undergone for themselves. Perhaps a suitable subject for a scripted film but this is supposed to be a documentary about electronic dance music.
Speaking in Code comes across as the kind of film you get when a Facebook-addicted, it’s-all-about-me kind of person makes a documentary. If you get a voyeuristic thrill out of watching the sad decline and dissolution of a marriage, Speaking in Code might get you off. If you’re interested in electronic dance music, be forewarned. If Speaking in Code had been made with an idea about some aspect of electronic dance music that could have given the film structure and coherence, it could have been a very interesting documentary. But it wasn’t, and it isn’t.
James Holden insists that his recent entry in the DJ-Kicks series is dance music. That it may be, but it doesn’t sound like a typical DJ mix designed for club play. In fact, it doesn’t sound very much like anything else in the common genres of dance music. Holden appears to be thinking well outside the club on his DJ-Kicks. He’s on the path of realizing some of the immense potential of rhythmically-oriented electronic music but I wouldn’t be surprised if hard-core dance fans don’t care for the album.
Holden’s DJ-Kicks is propulsively rhythmic although he’s working with a pulse more than with a beat. The rhythms are straightforward but it’s not the simple 4/4 that drives most House music. He also makes frequent use of atonality, discord and occasional noise elements in his mix. However, Holden does this in an exquisitely musical way. This is not at all easy to do and Holden pulls it off both consistently and well.
Of all the DJ mixes I’ve reviewed here in the past several months (along with the ones we’ve listened to at home that haven’t gotten reviewed) I can’t think of one that holds together as a single coherent body of music as well as Holden’s DJ-Kicks. Its rolling rhythms give it a beating heart, its steady underlying pulse gives it breath, and its atonality and discord give it emotion felt but not fully understood. It’s like some great beast whose life you share for a time.
Needless to say, I like this album very much. However, my enjoyment may be affected by the other kinds of music I listen to. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to, learning about, and developing an enjoyment of adventuresome forms of jazz – the kind of music that caused Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch to piss themselves in outrage and panic back in the day. Some of this music can be highly atonal, discordant and arrhythmic. Taken in that context, the discord and atonality of Holden’s DJ-Kicks sound tame. Listeners who are less familiar with this type of music may find it less enjoyable.
Holden’s DJ-Kicks is not a typical club-oriented dance mix and if that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t the album you want. If you’re looking for something different in the world of rhythmic electronic music, DJ-Kicks might be just the thing. Holden’s deeply musical use of atonality and discord greatly enrich his mix as well as providing a excellent means of entry into a different musical world for listeners who are looking to expand their horizons.
A segment from James Holden’s DJ-Kicks. The fade at the end does not appear in the original.