I rarely have explicit themes in mind for the Friday Five when I begin putting together each column, but they still have a way of gathering in the margins. This week is all about classically-minded house and techno—big surprise, given that underground dance music is deep in the throes of a retro fetish. But these selections aren’t old-school for the sake of being old-school, just prime exemplars of the old maxim about not fixing what ain’t broke.
Willie Burns, The Overlord EP (The Trilogy Tapes)
You could call the reigning aesthetic behind the Trilogy Tapes label “cut-and-paste apocalypse.” Founder Will Bankhead—a graphic designer for Mo Wax and Honest Jon’s—draws visual inspiration from the scrappily subversive DIY graphics of punk and industrial, and the records he signs to the label go hand in hand, sounding raw and a little bit wrong. Fittingly, Brooklyn’s Willie Burns sounds way less chipper here than he has on recent EPs for L.I.E.S. and Crème Organization, heaping echo and unease upon his retro-leaning, analog house jams. “The Overlord” flashes back on dark-side rave with grimy, chromatic stabs and pitched-down growls; the slow, stumbling “A Summer in Grass” is way more melancholic than bucolic. The rippling “African Love Story” sounds like Legowelt covering Konono No. 1, while “Duh Duh Dunk,” my favorite, levitates atop a bed of shakers and staccato stabs, balancing nervous rimshot patterns with a tearful piano melody, forlorn and loving it.
Andrés, Second Time Around (La Vida)
There’s nothing nearly as immediate as “New For You” on the second 12-inch from the Detrot producer Dez Andrés’ La Vida label, but I wouldn’t call these lesser tracks; they’re just slower to sneak up on you. “Skate This Way” is presumably titled in homage to Detroit’s vital roller-skating culture, and it glides and twirls with appropriate flair, the densely packed samples flashing like individual sequins. (The string sample sounds almost like it might be taken from Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower,” the same song that birthed Pepe Bradock’s “Burning.”) The title track, a reworking of a tune released in 2001 on Moodymann’s KDJ label, is quicker than “Skate This Way,” but otherwise much of a piece with it, gussied up in pitch-bent synth solo and actual birdsong; just over three minutes long, its short running time only adds to the bittersweet quality. “Hart Plaza,” featuring Amp Fiddler on Rhodes, reprises a second cut from that same KDJ EP. It’s deceptively simple, just a few chords circling a spindly house groove, but it soars above scads of sound-alike pretenders; just listen to the voicing of the chords and the bass line to understand why.
Skudge, “Vessel”/”Fingers” (Nonplus)
Sweden’s Skudge join Boddika’s Nonplus label for their latest single, and they’re as stone-faced as ever on “Fingers,” a stripped-back techno cut that sounds like a sullen riposte to Shed’s work under his EQD and Wax aliases. There’s plenty of movement, thanks to lightly skipping hi-hats and flickering, syncopated chords, but you could hardly call it carefree—more like scurrying for cover before the storm. The bare-bones machine groove of “Vessel” is similarly restrained, but the chords, reminiscent of Robert Hood and Underground Resistance, are something else entirely—supersaturated with color, almost opalescent, rising and falling in a way that seems at once like an open-ended question and a declarative statement. Listeners who suspect that techno is the ur-genre of electronic music may find their suspicions confirmed by its koan-like perfection.
Roaming, Believe in Reflecting (Smallville)
If Hamburg’s Smallville label were a family home, it’s the kind of place where you’d probably be asked to take your shoes off before coming inside. They’d surely be polite about it—Smallville’s take on classic house music is nothing if not polite, though I don’t mean that in a deprecatory way. But everything about their aesthetic positively screams (well, whispers) plush carpets and stocking feet; it’d be hard to find a cozier approach to club music. Their insistence upon sedate atmospheres can result in a certain uniformity across the label’s releases; I’m a big fan, but I’ll admit that I have trouble calling up many of their tracks from memory. So it makes sense that this EP sounds, first and foremost, quintessentially Smallville: Roaming is the partnership of label mainstays Christopher Rau and Moomin, and they’re remixed by label owners Smallpeople (Dionne, a.k.a. Just von Ahlefeld, and Julius Steinhoff). Moody chords and misted 808s are the order of the day; “Our Dream Of” features a snippet of muted trumpet to set it apart, and the Smallpeople remix of “Believe in Reflecting” digs into twinkling piano riffs and deceptively forceful drum work. The real stroke of genius comes is the original version of “Believe in Reflecting,” a typically lulled Larry Heard tribute over which Roaming layer, out of phase, an extended sample from A Charlie Brown Christmas. You couldn’t find a more fittingly feel-good complement for their wool-slippers aesthetic.
JD Twitch, “Is It All Over the Place?” (Let’s Get Lost)
Is there a word for that sentiment we feel when we marvel over rejection slips sent to artists who eventually proved the A&Rs wrong? Some term that combines “vindication” and “Schadenfreude“? Because that’s how I feel when reading the assessment that Warner Brothers’ David Berson made of Arthur Russell, back in 1979: “Who knows what this guy is up to—you figure it out.” For proof of how far off the mark Bernson was, we need only look at the way the late avant-disco producer’s work has become canonized in the years since his death; his best songs have become standards, referenced and sampled and covered in a variety of contexts. The latest tribute comes from Optimo’s JD Twitch, who remakes Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face?”—produced alongside Steve D’Aquisto and remixed by Larry Levan, it was one of Russell’s biggest club hits—as a darkly romantic proto-house number, complete with pianos, divas, and vocoder. Colin O’Hara came up with the concept for the video and Guy Veale directed; it was made on a shoestring budget. “We both called in a lot of favors, because we had no money,” O’Hara told me in an email. “I think we spent a total of £30 on balloons and some false eyelashes.” The single comes out on Japan’s Let’s Get Lost label at the end of October; like the song says, “Seek and you will find.”