Coming back from vacation means catching up on promos, collecting all the mail-order packages that arrived in my absence, and, why not, dropping whatever remaining cash I have in record shops around town. Serves me right for leaving town precisely when the summer release schedule is hitting its peak — not to mention Joy Orbison finally dropping “Ellipsis,” one of the most eagerly awaited tunes of the past year. So, with no further ado, here are five of the records that jumped out of the pack.
Joy Orbison “Ellipsis” (Hinge Finger)
Orbison’s 2009 single “Hyph Mngo” came out of nowhere and turned the bass-music scene upside down. Rumors of his new single “Ellipsis,” on the other hand, have been swirling for a year and a half, making it one of the most anticipated tracks in the underground. (It first surfaced January 20, 2011, on YouTube, ripped from a Boddika mix on Benji B’s BBC Radio 1 show.)
So, yes, “Ellipsis” is a big track, but not in the way that “Hyph Mngo” was a big track. In terms of drama — breast-beating, face-pulling, arms-thrown-wide-to-the-heavens drama — “Hyph Mngo” surely rated 11 on a scale of one to 10; “Ellipsis,” on the other hand, goes for a more laid-back vibe. It’s got a quick, garage-influenced skip to its step, but the muted chords and faded colors lend a more contemplative air. If “Hyph Mngo” seemed to describe, in glowing detail, the feeling of coming up on ecstasy, the ravey pianos at the climax of “Ellipsis” feel like a wistful memory of coming up for the first time.
The song is thick with nostalgia. In fact. It’s overlaid with a looped sample taken from an interview with the jungle producers Source Direct: “We just used to, like, do our own thing; we just used to like” — and there there’s an edit, before he continues — “and all that sort of thing.” I’ve been trying to figure out just why I find the sample so affecting. Part of it, surely, is its face-value meaning: He’s talking about independence, free-spiritedness, ideas bound to trigger deeply seated responses in most of us. And then there’s the part that’s left unsaid. We just used to, like, do our own thing — and then, what? What changed? What got lost? The chords’ ethereal, melancholy air surely lends to this secondary, more subliminal reaction. Beyond all that, I’m charmed by the speaker’s brooding tone and seeming inarticulateness — the hemming and hawing, the “like”s, the weird non sequitur at the end. In the context of the original interview — see around 1:28 in this clip — it turns out that the phrase is hardly as weighty as all that; he’s just talking about throwing parties and youthful hijinks. But realizing that doesn’t detract from the sense of gravitas that Orbison manages to conjure out of some smoky chords and a cleverly placed loop point.
I could go on: There’s the whole question of the track’s title, which I read as a kind of metonym for all the things that get left unsaid. There’s the song’s lopsided, elliptical motion — surely a pun of my own making, but, once it occurred to me, I couldn’t shake the idea. (I even hear the song’s hi-hat figures trailing away in streams of triple-dots, like some Morse Code message streaming off into infinity.) We shouldn’t forget Shed’s Head High remix on the B-side, beefed up with rolling triplets that sound like nothing so much as heavy metal blast beats. And, finally, I love the fact that now that the record is finally out, more than a year since it first surfaced — several lifetimes, in Internet-music years — “Ellipsis” hasn’t lost one iota of its urgency. For a tune so misty-eyed about things back in the day, it sure does make living in the present feel pretty awesome.
Markus Enochson Machinists 01 (Machinists)
“It’s a techno label, for want of a better word,” says Ewan Pearson of Machinists, the new label he has launched along with Moodmusic’s Sasse Lindblad. “But I guess I mean in the sense that it’s contemporary, tougher dance-floor stuff with an emphasis on analogue nerdery. Strictly no old-school revivalism!” The label is also, he says, “deeper and weirder than anyone will expect from something I’m connected with.” That’s certainly true of the label’s inaugural release, a three-track EP (the digital release, out in a few weeks, contains a digital bonus) from Sweden’s Markus Enochson. While Pearson’s rep as a DJ, producer, and remixer is predicated upon his expansive touch — uniting pop, disco, house, and techno in idiosyncratic but totally intuitive ways — Enochson’s EP is happy to narrow its gaze on a single point in the dark corner of the dance floor. True to the label’s name, the music is deeply machine-like in feel, grinding and shuffling at a slow, steady clip, and suffused with smoky atmosphere. Hypnosis is big on the agenda, with long, slow builds, tweaky blips and almost subliminal repetition; in “Boy,” the titular word is looped until it loses all meaning — a tiny kernel of nonsense that casts everything around it in a newly surreal light.
Members Only The Muzic Box Vol. 1 EP (Members Only)
Chicago’s Jamal Moss (a.k.a. Hieroglyphic Being, the Sun God, IAMTHATIAM, et al.) makes some of the strangest club music out there, but this new 12-inch from his Members Only project is far out even by his standards. Following his 15-volume Historical Archives, a series of esoteric house and disco edits, The Muzic Box pays tribute to the Chicago club of the same name and the deconstructed disco of its legendary resident DJ, Ron Hardy, with three outlandish reel-to-reel fantasias. “Slamming the Box,” sounding like a gamelan orchestra encrusted with barnacles, is an unbroken churn of triplet snares, jittery bell tones, and the mantra-like chant, “Pump, pump, pump it up”; its rhythms dangerously out of phase, it continues this rock-tumbler spin for 16-and-a-half minutes before ending, unceremoniously, in mid-beat. By all rights, it ought to be the ultimate “fuck you” in lo-fi nonchalance. but to me, it sounds unmistakably joyful.
Not so the B-side’s “Jack the Floor,” an 80-beats-per-minute dirge (given its half-time feel, it parses more like 40 beats per minute) that sounds like a cross between Dead Can Dance and Afrika Bambaataa’s Death Mix, with a little Crispy Ambulance thrown in for good measure. I know everyone’s doing dark music these days, but I doubt you’ll hear a gloomier, more fucked-up track this year. “Whistle On & On” takes the lysergic vibes to nail-biting extremes with a dysfunctional robo-disco bass line, erratically rising and falling in tempo, and a nagging loop of a rave whistle. A woman’s spoken “Hey! Welcome” makes it feel even more psychotic, like some Groundhog’s Day incident where the club’s entrance has been replaced with a revolving door that leaves you spinning forever on the threshold.
(I can’t find audio on SoundCloud or YouTube, but you can hear samples at all the usual retail outlets.)
Nor’Easter & DJ Qu Tri-State EP (The Corner)
You know what there’s not enough of? Records that bring together hip-hop tracks and house or techno on the same piece of vinyl. I don’t mean David Guetta or Flo Rida style “urban”/dance crossover; I mean a single with a house jam on one side and a boom-bap burner on the other. You used to get that more often, when DJs tended to range more widely in style and tempo. New York’s Anthony Parasole brings back the tradition with the first release on his new label, the Corner. For most listeners, DJ Qu’s “Times Like This” will be the centerpiece here; originally featured on Levon Vincent’s Fabric 63 mix, the swirling, percussive cut offers further proof of the Underground Quality chief’s hypnotic powers. But Qu’s track is buried on the A2: The first thing you hear when you drop the needle on the record are the dusty breaks and pianos of Nor’Easter’s “Cuttin Heads,” a Spartan hip-hop track in the tradition of DJ Premier. (The first time I heard it, it sent me down a YouTube wormhole of Jeru the Damaja videos.) “Tri-State,” the lone B-side cut, stakes out a position somewhere between the two extremes, with a pitched-up hip-hop break bumping along beneath sad, cinematic techno chords.
Amir Alexander Gutter Flex EP (Argot)
Last up, the debut release from Argot, a new label run by Little White Earbuds editor Steve Mizek. Mizek launched his first imprint, Stolen Kisses, last year with a pair of records from Chicago’s Hakim Murphy and London’s BNJMN; Argot, termed “the adoptive parent label” of Stolen Kisses, is to focus explicitly on domestic artists. Amir Alexander has been releasing records since at least 2008, and the four tracks on his Gutter Flex EP suggest an artist deeply schooled in classic American house and techno; they’re muscular, machine-centric, and devoid of digital frills, but imbued with melodic and harmonic sensibilities that set them apart from more rudimentary jack tracks. Each cut has its own character — muddled, sensual, brooding — but a mercurial, slightly elusive vibe predominates, flashing like the play of sunlight through fast-moving clouds.