From Basement Jaxx and the French filter-disco sound to the rediscovery of vocals by everyone from Herbert to Luomo to Photek, the last few years have seen a remarkable renaissance of interest in house music on the part of hipsters. And the primary drive behind this, I think, was a craving for pleasantness, for music that doesn't want to hurt the listener but makes you feel.... nice. With techno locked in grinding hairshirt minimalism and drum'n'bass becoming ever more oriented around distorted bass-riffs (to the point of sounding like headbanging heavy metal or old Killing Joke records), house's sensuousness beckoned hipsters like a quenching oasis.
But the glitterball dazzle of filter disco, the warm, organic musicality of Body 'N Soul and Nuphonic, these represent only one side of house music. In truth, house can be as mechanistic, punishing, and dehumanized as the hardest-core techno, the darkest drum 'n'bass. Right from the start, there's been a schism, or more accurately, a vital tension, within house culture: "songs" versus "tracks"; diva passion and gospel-descended uplift versus treadmill beats, trippy FX, and slimy blurts of inorganic synthesiser.
Called "tracky" or "trackhead" by cognoscenti, this side of house began with the mid-Eighties jack tracks (palsied vamps, stutter-afflicted vocal-riffs, mind-evacuating "jack your body" chants), then mutated into acid house in 1987. Acid contained its own micro-genre of vocal-based tracks, a world away from the melisma-drenched fabulousness of Ultra Nate and Robert Owens. On the flipside of Phuture's "Acid Tracks," the very first house tune to deploy the fractal wibbles of the Roland 303 bass-synthesizer, the astonishing "Your Only Friend" personified cocaine as a robot-voiced tyrant: "I'll make you lie for me, I'll make you die for me/In the end, I'll be your only friend." Then there was Sleezy D's ""I've Lost Control," a Sabbath-inspired Marshall Jefferson track featuring an "Iron Man" vocal and padded-cell-as-dub-chamber screams. Other classics of this micro-genre include Adonis's "No Way Back", Bam Bam's "Where's Your Child?" and Pierre's Pfantasy Club's "Dream Girl", all themed around disorientation, mindwreck, abduction, and sexual paranoia.
Green Velvet's Curtis Jones singlehandedly brought the creepy monologue back to house in the mid-Nineties. This Berkeley drop-out founded two Chicago labels: Cajual, for effervescent disco cut-ups (including his own Cajmere releases), and Relief, for cranium-denting beats and drug-noise delirium. Jones first made an impact with 1995's "Flash". Over a battery of rivet-gun snares, Jones played a slurred-voiced guide escorting a tour group of worried parents armed with cameras through "Club Bad" and revealing all the decadent things their teenage kids get up to. Like sucking on balloons of nitrous oxide---"laughing gas, but this is no laughing matter". Slyly playing on the wired paranoia of ravers ("ohmigod, what if mom and dad really do arrive and see me all out of my head?!?!"), the chorus "cameras ready, prepare to flash" transforms the club's occult murk into a Panopticon space of exposed and documented delinquency.
"Flash" was apparently intended as an anti-drug song, Jones talking about some of the fucked-up freaky shit he saw going on in clubs where he was doing PAs. But the song is cunningly pitched so that it works just as well as an anthem for drug-fiends. (For a long while, until I listened to the lyrics closely, I thought the "prepare to flash" chorus was a drug exhortation, referencing the "flash" or total-body rush some amphetamine users experience, or "flash" as in an LSD flashback). "La La Land", a standout track on the new Green Velvet album Whatever, is similarly ambiguous. Reviving all those classic early rave metaphors that involve imagery of madness, brain damage, derangement, the pursuit of oblivion through concussive bliss, "La La Land" is sung by a hardcore hedonist who's always "looking for the after-party to begin." The chorus is brilliantly catchy--"something about those little pills/unreal/the thrills/they yield/until/they kill/a mill/ion brain cells" (the rhymes work better if you adopt a black American accent, with the 'd' in 'yield' left unpronounced). But if that chorus sounds like a "Just Say No" warning, the lines "la la land is the place I need to be/the place that sets me free" contradict them. Is this profoundly ambivalent, or just a cowardly refusal to adopt a consistent standpoint? Does Jones accept that drug-abusers are seeking things the real world can't offer, escaping an intolerable world into a chemical utopia? Or does he simply not want to alienate his primary market, drugged up ravers, by unreservedly condemning their self-destructive pleasures?
Up until now, Green Velvet's emphasis has been on black humour, like "Answering Machine" with its a litany of bad news deposited on some luckless fellow's incoming message cassette: a landlord's eviction notice, his fiancee announcing that the baby is not his, a "psychic" fortune teller advising him to "stay in your house today, tomorrrow, and FOREVER". Or "Abduction", a simultaneously hilarious and disturbing ditty about being molested by alien beings midway through washing the dishes: Jones delivers lines like "they touched a part of me that I didn't know existed" in the faded, faltering voice of a survivor's confessional, with a feel for conversational cadence that's method acting in excelsis. Then there's the tripped-out whimsy of songs like "Water Molecule" (off the 1999 debut album Constant Chaos), where a zonked-out Jones imagines being reincarnated as H2O. The appeal? Water's access-all-areas privileges: "I would be a part of all different types of people, 'cos I would travel around in my vapor state, and I would turn into my liquid state and enter their glass and they would swallow me and I'd be part of their bodies".
The new album, though, is surprisingly serious, even militant. "When?" is straightforward anti-racist protest, a "don't judge me" plea to purge from your mind the prejudices and ethnic stereotypes caused by media brainwashing. The only hint of comedy here is his anti-humanist quip "we're all inferior". Propelled by a harsh, scouring riff, "When?" is a bit like if Mad Mike let his anger come out through a vocal tirade rather than just song-titles and slogans etched into the vinyl. Elsewhere, the spirit is pure punk rock: the staccato, accusatory "Stop Lyin'", the "don't mess with my mind" aggression of "Dank", the searing instrumental "Minimum Rage" with its title punning on the bottom-level income earned by American 16 year olds at fast-food restaurants and similar dead end jobs. "GAT (The Great American Tragedy)" is an anthem for teenage freaks who start dressing weird and acting out, only to get the condescending "you're just going through a phase" treatment from parents and elders. Jones delivers the chorus-howl "THIS IS NOT A FUCKING PHASE!!" with the percussive phrasing of arly Eighties US hardcore punk bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Negative Approach. This is slamdancing techno, moshpit rave.
None of this would work so well if the backing tracks weren't so compulsive, deranging, and, well, tracky. Green Velvet's sound reactivates a forgotten branch of house's family tree: not the symphonic sashay of Philly and Salsoul, but post-Moroder artpunk--the panting, guttural vocals and kinky pulsations of DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early Eighties dancefloors), the soiled electronics of Throbbing Gristle, The Normal, and Suicide. Whatever's sound has a retro-Eighties feel, at times closer to industrial and EBM than even the most tracky of modern house. Songs like "Stop Lyin'" are clockwork mechanisms pulsating in strict time, all square-sounding, stiff beats and 16th note sequenced bassline patterns that chatter and pummel. "Gendefekt" is a rigid grid of quantized drums and eerily spiralling synth-noises that make you think of the DNA helix; Kraftwerk's Computer World lost in a ketamine void. Propelled by slinky bass-riffs that writhe and squirm through your ears like frantic mind-worms in a hurry to get to the chewy center of your brain, "Sleepwalking"--the new album's absolute killer tune--is like Cabaret Voltaire on amyl nitrate.
Jones has described what he does as "folk music for the rave scene". Like that other pioneer of story-telling techno The Horrorist a/k/a Oliver Chesler, he's adept at finding narratives that fit the abstract emotions and weird energies generated by electronic music but that don't detract from its posthuman intensity. Jones also stands out in a faceless scene as one of the few live performers in electronica whose physical presence really adds something to the records. His live show is not to be missed, involving costume changes, voice-warping FX, auto-destruction theatrics (he's wont to fake-smash an Eighties shoulder-strap synth as if it were an electric guitar), and loads of charisma. The guy's a star.