336 · 5 July 01
I'm an inveterate cataloguer, an obsessive searcher for new manias, a music-technology geek and a long-serving Anglo-/Euro-phile, so these ought to be my dream years. It's rare for two months to go by without the invention of some weirdly-named new genre distinguished from the old ones by obscure parameters and byzantine rules. I've spent frightening amounts of my life examining the subtle distinctions between styles most casual listeners couldn't tell apart and wouldn't see why they'd want to, and I would be thrilled to care about the borders between Deep House, Hard Jungle, Speed Garage, Two-Step and whatever nine things they've come up with that I haven't heard about yet. I'm seldom as content as when I'm on a binge-listening immersion in some new thing that gives me an excuse to go buy dozens of records by bands I've never heard of, trying to map out their territory well enough that I feel like I know what sort of place it is. But far too many times, recently, I've delved into some new niche only to have the familiar disheartening realization "Oh, it's dance music." I'm not philosophically opposed to dancing, and I have, historically, liked some music that was marketed as dance music, but by "dance music", with this particular sighing "dance", I mean music that may be fantastic in clubs, heavily amplified and accompanied by flashing lights and inebriation, but isn't so good for just sitting at home and listening to. The most common causes of this schism in my experience of music are an increased reliance on repetition and a shifting of the center of attention away from the communicative aspects of the vocal performance, the absolute nadir of both of which for me was whatever remix of "It Takes Two" the guys who lived on the other side of my bedroom's fire-door my senior year in college played for hours at a time during their "parties". Applying the benefit of the doubt and assuming they weren't playing it to annoy me, I'm perfectly willing to believe that whatever state of altered perception they'd taken drugs to achieve, hearing that endless one-measure "ooh, ahh" loop accentuated its profundity or poignancy or something magnificently. Next door, in whatever state of perception my current level of sleep deprivation left me, it was unbearable. Put more generally, I want music to be an end in itself, not a utilitarian soundtrack for some other activity. Or maybe that's saying it the wrong way around: part of the definition of "music", to me, indeed part of the definition of "art", is that it is intended to be the subject of its audience's attention. Anything that doesn't, in my system, belongs to some other category, like "decoration" or "mechanism". The condescendingly blared choruses of "We Will Rock You" or "Who Let the Dogs Out" at what ought to be self-sufficient moments of sporting events, for example, are not music in the sense I mean. "We Will Rock You", at least, can also operate as a song in its own right if you let it play. But are there thousands of impressionable teenagers lying on the floors of their darkened bedrooms tonight, around the globe, listening to "Who Let the Dogs Out" on headphones with the same rapt dedication I spent on Moving Pictures? I guess there might be, but I really doubt it. Yes, obviously, darkened-teenage-bedroom rapture is not the only model for how music should be experienced, and it's not even my only model for how I experience music, but translated into neutral terms it's equivalent to sitting in front of a painting in a quiet museum, or reading a book in a comfortable chair with a good lamp beside it, or watching a movie from wherever you like to sit in a good theater. Music is fairly unusual in that it's possible to consume it without paying attention; there's no genre for movies you leave playing in your living room even though you aren't really watching them, or books that are meant to be read while you're pedaling a stationary bike, or ballets that are supposed to be going on in your kitchen while you're cooking. And so I'm repeatedly betrayed by innovative-sounding new genres that turn out to be useless to me, as if every time I heard about a new kind of painting it turned out to be almost exclusively exhibited in cigarette advertisements, or every interesting new shoe only came with golf spikes.
Which is why I'm especially thrilled when, usually long after the state of the art has moved on, someone gets around to applying old dance innovations to something that seems like listening music to me. It ought to happen more often, because it usually takes only two or three simple tweaks: trim the compositions back to song-like proportions, get a distinctive vocalist, and maybe ditch the hammering kick-drum pulse, if there is one. And so you get from what seems to me like muzak-equivalent drum-and-bass to Everything but the Girl's bewitching Walking Wounded, or from all the trip-hop I can't tell apart to Massive Attack's exquisite "Teardrop", or from house to all those covert pop songs M People wrote, or to David Gray or Ray of Light or Tori's "Raspberry Swirl", and I usually discover that there's something I respond to hiding in these dance styles after all.
That said, it's not entirely clear what dance music it is that my latest favorite example, Mandalay, are co-opting. Their drum loops are brittle enough to be drum-and-bass or two-step, but the arrangements aren't as spare as the former, nor the actual rhythms as twitchy as the latter. They verge on trip-hop at times, but mostly by way of singer Nicola Hitchcock's occasional passing vocal resemblance to Beth Gibbons of Portishead. I think in the end what I'm responding to is less the influence of any particular dance style than of a playful airiness in Saul Freeman's synth- and sampler-programming that I've come to suspect, paranoidly, I've been missing out on by not enjoying dance music.
Then again, even if I come at this music from the direction of things I already know I like, it's not that hard figure out what I'm hearing in it. This is the album I wanted Dido's No Angel to be. "Not Seventeen"'s music combines spindly, David Gray-ish percussion with symphonic trills on the order of Kate Bush's "Moments of Pleasure", and over it Nicola spins a gossamer vocal with Liz Fraser-ish intonation, except instead of an invented nonsense language she sings a fragmentary, impressionistic lament about the unacceptability of desperately missing someone as an adult emotion. When Nicola's accent comes out, in the verses of "Like Her", she reminds me of Sarah Nixey from Black Box Recorder, although the song otherwise reminds me more of one of the quieter Afraid of Sunlight-era Marillion tracks with a clomping modern drum part bolted onto it. "Beautiful" would be a fitting companion for Marillion's song of the same name from that same album, Mandalay opting to leave most of the lead vocal intimate and understated, and channel the atmosphere into tendrils of fake flute and short, reverent choral interjections. The becalmed, fluttery verses of "Deep Love" remind me vividly of Happy Rhodes, but the swooping choruses are closer to Astrid Williamson or Black Box Recorder again. Eerie strings and a watery electric piano push "It's Enough Now" towards Portishead, but "This Life" rides on shiny, blurting horns and the same kind of reticent, insinuating composure as Madonna's "What It Feels Like for a Girl". "Flowers Bloom" is the jitteriest song here, but the juxtaposition of the nervous, tinny beat with Nicola's compressed vocal and the touching mantra-like chorus suggests a bridge from short-attention-span two-step back to Kate Bush's The Dreaming that hadn't occurred to me before. "Enough Love" is whispery and abstract, and the muffled verses of "Don't Invent Me" are kind of what I don't like about the Massive Attack songs I don't like, but the choruses of the latter soar unapologetically, and then give way to a bravely unprocessed Jon Hassel trumpet solo. Music-box arpeggios patter under the Kathryn Williams/Sarah Nixey-ish cross of "Insensible". Radio static and a measured, circling guitar pace the soothing late-night lullaby "Believe". The semi-macabre cover of Phoebe Snow's "I Don't Want the Night to End" seems like more of a digital-delay exercise than a real song.
My clear favorite, though, and the obvious standout on objective grounds as well, I think, due to the buzzing guitar samples not in evidence elsewhere, is the charging "Kissing the Day". A twittering synth-loop (something like the keyboard fill from "Baba O'Riley" compressed to double-speed and then reversed), a deadpan kick/snare drum-machine groove, a cartoonishly rubbery bass groove, a glassy mock-organ and the dense, flown-in guitars all snap in and out of the arrangement crisply, in a way that would probably never occur to human musicians but is the most obvious thing in the world if you're sequencing, and combined with Nicola's breathy vocal produce a mechano-sinister effect as striking as anything I've heard since Chainsuck's "Emily Says", but with a trace of elfin cheer held sneakily in reserve. Were this a real debut album, I'd be as excited about Mandalay's prospects as the memory of all the people whose debut albums I got excited about only to be disappointed later ever lets me get anymore.
But it isn't. Solace is Mandalay's first US release, but selling their music to Americans appears to have occurred to V2, their label, only belatedly, by which point the band already had two albums out in the UK. Solace borrows the cover art of the 2000 UK release Instinct, the second one, but includes six tracks each from that and the real 1998 debut, Empathy, plus the Snow cover which wasn't on either. It is my natural inclination, as an album purist, to object, and sure enough, as soon as I go back and listen to imports of the two original UK releases, I start missing the things that Solace selectively isn't. "This Life", "Flowers Bloom", "Insensible", "Enough Love", "Kissing the Day" and "Beautiful" are all from Empathy, which also has the comparatively straightforward pop song "Another"; the long, spooky, Emily Bezar-esque collage "All My Sins" (with a sample from Talk Talk's "I Don't Believe in You", a squalling synth solo and some ghostly backing vocals); a well-intentioned experiment called "Opposites", which I think really needed a percussion track that sounds less like a cash-register; the perhaps-too-Black-Box-Recorder-like "This Time Last Year"; and the string-quartet-aided "About You", which provides a valuable change-of-pace by not kicking in a drum loop. I can see the logic of the individual decisions, track-by-track, but the overall effect worries me. Empathy is a debut by a band still working out what they want to become, which is exactly what a band ought to be still doing on their first album. Solace, as an ersatz debut, is much too consistent and focused, and I leap to the cynical conclusion that it's V2's doing, that they've made up their mind how they want to sell Mandalay, and if that's true, the band may have a very short and/or unrewarding major-label life ahead of them.
Instinct, the second album, has "Not Seventeen", "Don't Invent Me", "Like Her", "Deep Love", "I've Enough Now" and "Believe", but this selection guts the whole center of the record. "No Reality" bookends an unhurried, drifting meditation with spectral voice-overs à la Kate Bush's The Ninth Wave. "You Forget" is sparer than anything on Solace, gauzy and almost entirely acoustic. The anxious "Simple Things", with a surging synth-bass and raspy white-noise, is Instinct's answer to Empathy's "Kissing the Day", and might indicate the beginnings of a less friendly, more gothic inclination. "Too Much Room" is clear and sweet, another interesting demonstration of versatility that Solace seems suspiciously eager to conceal. The only omission I wouldn't bother trying to think of conspiracy theories for is "What If I", which essentially lacks a chorus.
Dropping an album's worth of songs only becomes ironic when V2 decides to package Solace as a double album. The "bonus" second disc has, instead of the missing songs from Empathy and Instinct, three remixes of "Beautiful", two of "Not Seventeen", three of "This Life", two of "Deep Love" and one of "Flowers Bloom", which is one each by Canny, Attica Blues, Cevin Fisher, Andy Bradfield, Charlie May, Wagon Christ, Alex Reece, Nitin Sawhney, Futureshock, Boymerang and Victor Calderone. I already know and dislike a few of these remixers, remixes of borderline dance tracks are almost guaranteed to emphasize their dance nature, and making a longer album out of more repetitions of fewer songs can't help, so this set was never likely to get played more than once in my house.
To my great surprise, the remix disc ends up being central to my experience, and the touch that gives Solace a compelling aesthetic (i.e., extra-commercial) rationale after all. One of the other things I've observed jealously in dance music is its protean ability to accommodate alternate versions. My standard listening-music rules place often-prohibitive constraints on remixing; I usually feel that songs have unique natures, which remixes thus have to be true to, or risk my instant disapproval. The identities of dance songs are almost always more elusive and adaptable, the initial inspiration less critical than all the ways in which it can be reinterpreted. I tend to regard seven versions of a pop song as one true pop song and six attempts to turn it into something it isn't (even in the odd cases where I decide that the "true" version is one of the remixes), whereas I have very little trouble seeing seven versions of a dance song as seven equal-stature perspectives on a single idea. I expect to react to these Mandalay remixes as if they are perversions of pop songs, but in fact in nearly every case they seem like perfectly decent variations to me, as if the songs are collective property, and the remixers have as much right to them as Nicola and Saul. Of the three adaptations of "Beautiful", Canny's is boomy and propulsive, laced with sci-fi noises and a bounding, resonant synth-bass pulse; Bradfield's is short and smeared, even closer to William Orbit's treatment of Ray of Light; Calderone's eleven-minute distention finally adds the predictable quarter-note thump, hi-hat tick and bog-standard video-game-fight-theme orchestra stabs, but through very careful resource management finds ways to retain enough of Nicola's vocal presence at all times to keep the track from getting swallowed by its techno clichés. Attica Blues' "Not Seventeen" is more of a remix in the literal, old-fashioned sense than the reinterpretation the term has come to imply, mainly playing up the drums, but also making better use of the backing vocals in a few places; Futureshock's, however, is anonymous and dreadful, with exactly the sort of monotonous house-issue looping I most dreaded. Cevin Fisher's new rhythm loop and keyboard groove for "This Life" are just as stereotypical, but he redeems them, for me, with some breaks in the middle where the pounding stops long enough for me to catch my breath; Wagon Christ's version amuses itself by chopping Nicola up and sewing her back together as a lumpy doll that looks like Björk, Janet Jackson or Sarah McLachlan, depending on how you squeeze its skull; the Boymerang remix retains only a vague impression of its source material, but drapes the few pieces it keeps over a cold, clacking throb seemingly meant for a mixer between Daleks and dolphins. Charlie May's eight-minute "Deep Love" is another sad one without the wit to come up with an original rhythm, but metallic accessory percussion, a gurgling bass and some Rupert Hine-ish synth textures are partial compensation, and I give him credit for having the self-awareness to ditch the vocal almost completely instead of pretending to care about it when he doesn't; and although I didn't like what Nitin Sawhney did with Madonna at all, his "Deep Love" is remarkable, like being trapped in a catacomb under a flooded monastery. And you'd never know from Alex Reece's drastic ground-up jungle rebuilding of "Flowers Bloom" that it was the most dance-like song of these subjects to begin with.
The complicated question that remains, though, at least for me, is whether this remixability, this apparent willingness to relinquish control of their own songs, is a) Mandalay's doing or V2's, and b) true of the original albums or fabricated by subsetting Solace. My guess is that it is intentional, that these productions are deliberately modular so that they can be taken apart and recombined, but that Solace was also assembled with that impression as a goal, and it's not necessarily indicative of Mandalay's direction otherwise. Of course, it could be deliberately unrepresentative. Maybe this is the single album they wish they'd made, instead of two that were only half right. Until the next one we won't know whether Solace constitutes a misleading revisionist history, or a chance to begin again. They might not know until the next album. They might not know until the remixes from the next album, when they start to hear what the genre has made out of what they gave it. I may not know, until I hear the next remixes, whether I've internalized a new idea about how music can be a means for more music, or I've merely fallen for another exception. And, if dance music and I have staggered into each other, in our fitful progress toward wherever, whether we're converging, or crossing paths, or just thought for a second, in the strange and hopeful light of the fireworks, that we were, each other or perhaps ourselves, somebody else.