Watch N° 1
It's obvious to regular readers of BBBD and first-time newbies that this blog is undergoing a massive overhaul and reinvisioning of itself. Today, we present you a new column, Watch, that tries to make sense of the music hype machine. (So now we've three core columns: Watch, Reverse, and Don't Start A Band ... more features will be rolled out in the coming weeks and months.)
Music buzzwords pop up with extraordinary regularity -- like daffodils in Summer -- to the benefit of no one in particular. It's of no use to call Sonic Youth an "experimental No Wave drone- and/or noise-rock ensemble" unless you're Jack Black in High Fidelity or an especially compulsive CD store clerk who doesn't trust computers' ability to search for and find inventory. If we push aside our stack of Pitchforkmedia record reviews, click out of our Of Montreal Flickr photo set tab, and disregard the constant blogger feedback (which, in all honesty, sounds more like bickering that any sort of constructive writing), we'll remember that music is there to be enjoyed and -- first and foremost -- listened to.
Not everyone realizes this, though, and perhaps the people most likely to succumb to overly complex genre classifications and musical stylistic breakdowns are the musicians themselves. Once an old style is deemed cool again (the grunge of the 1990s, the trip-hop of the same era, the shoegaze of the 1980s, the old school punk of the 1970s, the garage of the 1960s), a few bands lead the way and respectfully reintroduce us to or remind us of the greatness of our musical forefathers. Then an uncanny number of hangers-on, copy-cats, and wannabes looking to make a buck hop onto the bandwagon, and voilà, we've hit critical mass!
Italo-disco is this year's buzzword, and we couldn't be sicker of it. First, let's figure out exactly what the heck Italo-disco is and then second, let's pull some goodies from the massive heaps of crap we've not got ourselves boogieing to in that super-embarrasing and definitely not ironic-in-a-funny-way Saturday Night Fever manner.
When one hears or says "disco" one immediately thinks of the early-1970s right on up until about 1977. No other duration of time was hit so hard by the sleazy guitar riffs and husky bassline funk jams of disco originators like the Blackbyrds, George McCrae, and the Sunshine Band. Europeans had the bright idea of perpetuating the genre (yay posterity!) for some odd reason in the early-1980s, and, to gloss over way too much history, Italo-disco was born. (OK, maybe it was the late-1970s, but who cares? The term itself comes from a 1983 megamix called Italo Boot Mix, so depending on how technical one wants to get, Italo-disco wasn't even brought into this world until a few years into Reagan's first term.) The style is markedly different from straight-up disco, though, in that it is noticeably (1) spacier, (2) synth-heavy, and (3) infested with vocoder choruses. Talk about something that didn't age well! A handful of producers including Cerrone, Giorgio Moroder, and Didier Marouani sort of set the bar for Italo-disco tracks, and honestly, that's all the world needed.
Because of the style's aesthetically clean, dancey, and genuinely fun appeal (but not for its heinous associated fashion and way, way too gimmicky videography style!), though, the movement has stayed alive in some way, shape, or form for the past couple of decades. There's nothing uniquely wrong with that. But really, we don't need the tradition of [anything]-disco to mount any higher, and a respectful laying to peace of the genre would make everyone happy. If we can't all agree on that, at least let's nix the sucky second wavers while we can.
A few people are doing some justice to the Italian-only-in-name music ... so, yea of little faith, don't lose all hope quite yet! BBBD's absolute favorites of the past few years have been Professor Genius, Padded Cell, Studio, Chromatics, Glass Candy, and Justin Miller. On a good day, we might throw Arthur Russell into the mix as he both helped start and revive the scene when he was still with us.
If you've not heard Professor Genius' extraterrestrial Space-/Italo-disco mix for This Is Not An Exit, grab it now! Padded Cell is coming back in a major way, adding fresh elements of kraut-rock to the otherwise staleing disco resurgence. Studio has a new the-Cure-cum-dub-outfit compilation of remix tracks coming out entitled Yearbook 2, and that's bound to be an absolute pleasure. Justin Miller (and all of the D.F.A. posse, for that matter) has been blowing our socks off with his mixes. If you weren't one of those lucky devils who actually got to attend the D.F.A.-DJ'd Dance Part in early-March, at least download the four-hour mix that MoMA was kind enough to make available. Your brain will be melted. BBBD always would like to endorse DC Recordings' forthcoming Death Before Distemper compilation at this point.
Now ... on to the bad stuff; the side of the Italo-disco rebirth that we wish never happened. When people try to specifically make money off a idiotic trend, you know you're in a bad place, and that's exactly what Strut Records did with its shot-in-the-dark, shameful release, Disco Italia: Essential Italo Disco Classics. Do not buy the disc! Strut Records -- bafflingly -- came out with a thirteen-track compilation that supposedly elevates the decaying Italo-disco style, but winds up only making it look and sound really, really stupid and bland. Five Letters' "hit" (?), "Tha Kee Tha Tha" is an embarrassing love song that makes my libido all but disappear. Easy Going's "Do It Again" ought to appear in Austin Powers Pumps Up the 1980s! ... or maybe used as the backing track to a cute "My Baby Can Dance!" video on YouTube. And whoever Firefly was, he deserves to spontaneously combust. Not kidding.
But enough with the Strut Records release. There are limitless groups today trying to compose their own Italo-disco hits ... and failing miserably. Hacks. I Guess I'm Floating's Hot Pick for 2009 is, confoundingly, Century's "Apachwalk." Just because they're labelmates with Studio and from Europe -- which always gets an artist way more Cool Cred than being from the States -- doesn't mean they're any better than these fools. (On a side note, this author's father showed him the "Apache" video while at home for the holidays several years ago ... and frankly, it never deserved to even leave the meme he discovered it in.)
While this first attempt at figuring out the trends that we immerse ourselves in is by no means complete -- and no future column will claim holistic knowledge, either -- it ought to stir you up a little. Just be conscious of what you're being fed by the hype machine you've inadvertently subscribed to. Until next time ... a little Arthur Russell (dudes -- if you think Hercules & Love Affair or Antony & the Johnsons came up with that vocal style ... think again).
Arthur Russell - In the Light of the Miracle
Lola - Wax the Van
Loose Joints - Pop Your Funk