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.
DJ-Kicks is a series of mixes by DJs, music producers and musicians that, at least at the beginning, were designed to be listened to at home. Juan Maclean’s mix is the 32nd in the series which kicked off in 1995.
Maclean’s DJ-Kicks is a pretty straightforward uptempo party mix of house music that has occasional disco influences. The set has generally received very positive reviews but it’s just not doing it for me. The mix starts promisingly with Still Going’s ‘Spaghetti Circus” which does a good job of ramping up the dance intensity. However, Maclean seems to have been enamored of tracks that feature short vocal phrases that are repeated monotonously throughout the track when he put this mix together. He uses this techique on track after track and the mix sinks under the weight.
I get the idea that vocal snippets are being used as rhythmic elements and rhythmic elements tend to repeat. But endlessly repeating rhythm patterns are the bane of this kind of music and shoving the repetition in the listener’s face by putting it in the vocal (which will automatically attract more attention than, say, a repeating kick) just makes the tedium all the more apparent. When used judiciously, a vocal rhythm part can be very effective. When it’s used on track after track it’s an invitation to find something else to listen to. As an example, on Sonny Foderra’s “Everybody Get on the Decks” the phrase captured in the title, or a minor variant of it, is repeated 126 times over 4 mins and 44 secs. Add to this the 40 times the phrase is repeated at the end of the previous track as Maclean mixes the transition between the two tracks and you end up with a circumstance where it’s hard not to yank the CD out of the player. Of the 12 tracks that precede “Everybody Get on the Decks”, 10 feature endlessly repeated vocals as rhythm elements. It’s too much. Get another idea.
Maclean’s DJ-Kicks is the kind of CD I might drop in the box during a party when you want to keep the crowd moving but are reasonably sure no one is paying any attention to the music. If anyone was listening, even halfheartedly, I’d give them something more interesting to listen to.
“Spaghetti Circus” by Still Going