Monday, January 23, 2012

Is that a Tardis in your pocket (or do you prefer complacent house music)?

I’d intended this post as some final words on 2011. But then two things happened. First of all, I listened to LWE’s Smallville ‘talking shopcast’ mix. Then, in lieu of an abortive graveyard shift on RRR (another story), I trawled through my early catalogue Dial records. Doing these two things stirred up some very powerful mixed feelings. So the final 2011 post – dealing with positive tropes and things that are really worth chasing if you haven't/didn't – will have to wait until next week. For now, here's me clearing the decks with some things I'd kept on not saying, but that kept on repeating on me...

Time is precious, time hurts. Time gives you erosion, loss, destruction and death. But for precisely that reason, you also get hanami, kittens, sunrise, and spring. On balance, I'd say it's worth it (well, consider the alternative). In 2011, Lawrence released a CD mix for Cocoon called Timeless. Conceptually, timeless ‘rhymes’ with priceless; something taken out of circulation as above and beyond, over and outside the normal ebb and flow of things (especially things touched and alienated by the grubby processes of production, distribution, exchange, consumption, wasting, neglect, disposal &c). That which is timeless, like that which is priceless, is not for sale, cannot be exchanged, will not perish. Even Mastercard concedes that such things are outside its grubbying purview. Timelessness is no mean feat; timeless makes a play for eternity. (To complete this thought, please master the moment by clicking through to the following encrypted page in order to purchase your own copy of Timeless...)

Lawrence’s mix was as you’d expect, if, like me, you're a long-time listener: it was well-programmed and well mixed. It's very 'nice'. It's also truly, 'deeply' repetitive in that, in listening to it, I not only had the feeling that I’d ‘heard it all before’, I even feel like I’d heard Lawrence play it all before. Would this play for forever have been okay if it were ‘just another podcast mix’? I’m not sure. But as a published work there was an affronting pretence to Timeless, both content and title. It was as if all the changes I know and feel about house music and the world over the past decade had never happened. It’s said that ‘still waters run deep’. But they also tend toward stagnation. I’m not sure if audacity has a true antonym, but Lawrence’s mix suggests it is: Timeless. Either that, or ‘timeless’ is just a very conceited way of saying: complacent. I gave it three careful listens to check if I wasn’t missing anything, then, out of respect for house music, my memories, and Lawrence’s back catalogue, I deleted and ‘forgot’ about Timeless. Forgot about it in a way that was not even poignant, merely... nothing... In fact, I ‘forgot’ about it until this morning (which also tells you something very important that Papa Freud tried to remind us, repeatedly, about ‘forgetting’).

The Talking Shopcast mix with Smallville goes even further down this road. It's so lovely, so tasteful. But it could have been mixed 12 years ago and not sounded any different. In fact, if it *were* mixed 12 years ago, it would be very likely to sound exactly like it does. I've been thinking about this for some time, and I've decided that it really matters. Making a mix from 2000 in 2012... it matters. Well, it may not matter to you. But it matters to me.

Like Timeless, for me there is something unbearably complacent at work in the decision to make this mix in 2012, and I find it affronting in a way that actually makes me feel very angry. It’s an attempted violation of my time somehow...(but time we share, however abstractly, by living through these times together) It's a kind of complacency makes me want to set fire to my records (in a pathetic version of Mizoguchi setting fire to ginkakuji). As if to prove some pyrrhic point about evanescence, memory, or forgetting. This weird over-reverence that makes you want to desecrate things you love and care about... (gobbing and safety pins notwithstanding, is this how punks felt?)

In my initial notes for this post, I wrote the following as prospective subheadings:

  • a) confusing 'house' for 'home' (this house is *not* home, shut up): in most OECD countries the state will ‘house’ you, but if they want to enter, be in, or make a ‘home’ with you, this is the stuff of terror and nightmares
  • b) from 'comfort food' to 'comfort house': what do we want when we want to be comforted by food? And what happens to house music when it just becomes a matter of comfort?
  • c) all the comforts of home: the interview with Smallville stresses ‘cosy’, ‘deep’, ‘nice’. Okay, they're adults, these are clear artistic decisions, but: goodbye, fellas. I can't follow you that way. There is far too much reverence here, but it is sort of self-reverential, like a person hugging themselves. If I want to respect your past (in perpetuity), I think I need to do us both a favour and ignore your immediate future projects...
  • d) cosy, timeless, complacent: the etymology of complacence is pleasing: mum tries to please with her cooking, and we return love by eating it. But you must 'clean your plate'. (if she's a traditional ‘homely’ mother, mine never made me finish my potatoes). Anything less is an affront to her ‘unconditional love’. This could make you feel angsty and aimlessly suffocated (like a teenager) but also wearied and resigned (like an old spouse), co-dependent but comfortable with their 'chosen' discomfort. ‘Don’t worry, mother, I’ll never leave you. Things will always be the same... feed me...’ Only: time is out of joint. There is a little of the placenta in this place and its complacency... And there is something awfully unheimlich about this home: actually, house and homes like this are uncannily like the home invasion nightmare scene from an American Werewolf in London (PS you need to leave home in order to have a chance with Jenny Agutter... NB: this also means risking becoming a werewolf).
Then I wrote this down in my notes:
If everything is broken, how come nothing appears to be falling apart?
For me, the worst thing about the previous decade has been our inability to bury it: the GWOT has just turned in to ‘overseas contingency operations’, while the GFC has just rolled into what is not longer a crisis, but just chronic. The 10 year fucker is undead, monstrous, and keeps on rising, repetitively, to attack us - with a crate full of deep house records. For me, in spite/precisely because of their careful, crafted, reverent sounds, this was what I couldn't stand about Lawrence and the Smallville peepz decided to do with their 2011. At times it tempted me to go hide in my bongo closet, wait for sunrise, and hum the Talking Heads' Heaven to myself over and over. But no, that wouldn't be the right response to the times. The times is real. And the times is weird. Thank God John Maus gave me the strength to sing along to it in a way that meant something.


  1. Right on, here's what I said about Timeless:

    And no radio balls-up next month!

  2. I don't understand 3/4 of this article but anyway, I found Timeless boring, too. It didn't make me move and I doubt I would revisit it.

  3. "It’s an attempted violation of my time somehow..."

    wow. i mean, nobody is forcing you to listen to anything in the first place.

  4. Do we revere Beethoven because he was revolutionary, or because his music is deeply and profoundly moving? If someone wrote one of his masterpieces today, no doubt the composer would be accused of "complacency" too. But I very much hope we would be able to recognize the genius and the worth in that work.

    Perhaps Mozart is a better example--he was not quite the revolutionary Beethoven was. He perfected the classical style and covered ground broken by Haydn and others before him. Yet we love Mozart best of all. Some of his work may have been complacent, but there was undoubtedly a fineness in his craft that was unmatched.

    It is true that the art world has a special place in its heart for revolutionaries. Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky--these names are remembered to a degree because of the shocking nature of their work. But we must not forget that, besides inciting a riot, the Rite of Spring is a gorgeous, evocative and moving piece. Being a revolutionary is not sufficient for greatness. Schoenberg was perhaps the greatest musical revolutionary of all the "classical" composers. Yet his pieces (and generally serialist/atonal music) are not often performed because they often failed to connect with audiences in a meaningful way.

    I know we live in fundamentally different times, and I am not saying that Lawrence perfected deep house in the way Mozart perfected classicism. I too desire to hear new sounds, and recognize that my appreciation of past masters is heightened when I realize the magnitude of their break with what came before, the radical nature of their imagination. In fact it was just such a realization that made me fall in love with house and then later techno. But we rage against complacency at our own risk--a work of art should be judged primarily on its merit*.

    *let it be noted that I have long ago given up trying to find what it is in music that is meritorious or not--I have my own taste, and along its lines I am not afraid to call some music trash, but it is ultimately just that: taste

  5. I had a similar reaction to Timeless. But I have felt that way about Dial/Lawrence/Smallville for years. I acknowledge this to be a question of preference and taste though.

    I also had a similar reaction to the ssgs Jonsson/Alter mix. Very nice analogue house mix. Very 2000 in 2012.

    Finn Johansen - electro mix in 2012? Although I loved it, there isn't much happening in 2012 that is of 2012.

  6. @ "Unknown": ha ha, nice swipe. You almost had the balls to put a name to it too!

  7. @ Sotek: just to clarify - you're dead right, no one is forcing anything - the people behind Smallville and Dial have produced a lot of records that I care very, err, deeply about. It's personal for me. The music meant so much, and now the people that made it are doing something I find totally alienating.

    @ Alex: Well, Beethoven was pretty revolutionary, is my (very limited) understanding. More or less made -ie composed - the jumps from classical to romantic, no? Actually, I defy someone to write Beethoven today (and/or a symphony that good, in his style)... I think they would be regarded as... a genius? But it's also so improbable. I mean, I really respect a lot of contemporary writers, but I doubt they would/could write Shakespeare. Nor could Shakespeare write DeLillo's Underworld. Or The Wire. Different times.

    Actually, I really don't like Mozart, because... err.. I find it, well, a bit twee, and maybe even complacent? Too 'Peter perfect', not enough madness.

    I agree with you on the merit issue, but of late I've included a sense of context in that merit. I feel that this is part of the artistic judgment - how much reverence, how much respect for the archive? - and I generally think that, no matter what, we are living in a certain time and decide to respond to it (or not) in a certain way.

    I am interested in music that is more sensitive to these changes. At the same time, I didn't enjoy the James Ferraro record (which is hyper attentive to this, peg it in the Schoenberg box).

    @ Luke: I totally see where you're coming from with Jonsson/Alter, but I actually see their album more as a 'culmination' work, something that does draw from styles that have been tried before, but not been done this well. Ie: they nailed it. But I'd be pissed off if the next album tried all the same things...

    And I don't think Finn's mix is complacent at all! It is fresh. Even though I've heard some of these records many times before. But c'mon, can you find many other comparable mixes nailing this sound around of late?

    If Lawrence - esp. given he was Lawrence - did an electro-bass/ho gaze project, that could be really fresh.

    So it's not like house/techno DJs need to invent the wheel each time they spin. You don't have to push *much* to push things a little. My sense with the mixes discussed in the post is that they aren't pushing *at all*.

  8. PC, there mightn't be too many mixes like Finn's floating about, but they have been done many, many times before - listen to old dave clarke electro mixes, mixes from godfather.

    so finn's mix is the same old same old in as much as lawrence's mix is the same old same old. there just happens to be more deep house mixes floating about at the moment, so the context within which 'timeless' and the LWE podcast appear is one that is deep house-friendly.

    if you were to post finn's mix in say 2003 or 2004, it would be exactly the same thing, a wealth of underground mixes - and at the time, many of them commercially available as mix cds - doing the rounds.

    so it all has to do with context and the cyclical nature of music, be it electronic or not.

    I listened to both mixes and enjoyed them both thoroughly, but i accept them both at face value and didn't really expect much else from them bar classic underground electro or deep house.


  9. @ Frequencies: maybe I just need psychotherapy to deal with being jilted by Lawrence then ;), all those years ago?

  10. PC I don't understand the point you're trying to make regarding psychotherapy.

  11. Is it meant to be ironic that you ended this post with a John Maus track? If made the article seem somewhat hypecrytical by ending with someone who seems to draw from nothing but 80s synth music. And he hasn't "culminated" in a sound like the Jonsson/Alter album, just stolen.

  12. Chuckled a little when I saw the new RA mix taglined as “timeless house and disco”. Didn't have a chance to listen to it and decide whether it's plagued by the same problem you're describing though.

  13. @TheTom - Nonsense, there is nothing in the 80s that sounds like Maus; such a sadly superficial appreciation of his work.

    I do think the point that rises by comparing the Finn Johannsen mix to Timeless is an interesting and valuable one. There is obviously a difference between the two: in their creation, purpose, attitude and whatever.(I don't think we need to be too pedantic either). To solely point to such things as track lists, genre/form, style, seems to me to be a deficient appreciation.(TheTom's enjoyment of Maus seems demonstrate this).

    Timeless really isn't an example of what an active/vital DJ does or strives to do. Perhaps it's a little unfair to consider it as such.

  14. @never really began

    What is an active/virtual DJ?

  15. @ Frequencies: I just mean that I was a big, big, big Lawrence/Dial fanboy, and it seems - to me - that he/they have abandoned what was truly interesting and searching - 'pushing' - about their sound, in favour of, well, Timelessness. And this has been pretty traumatic for me; hence the need to talk it out for several years. But it's okay, I was joking, I'm really okay, honestly.

    @ the Tom: no irony.

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  17. maybe not this track, but john maus sounds a lot like OMD to me...

    in any case, i wrote suspiciously about the concept of "timelessness" in an LWE review a couple years ago. a question of reeanimation vs reification, in hal foster's words.

    something else has been irking me of late. i see contemporary producers universally describing their music as 'honest' in almost every interview i read. there's little to suggest honesty means something beyond stylistic preference and loyalty. i wish someone would follow up on this point in an interview.

    my hunch is we treat past music as inspiration and not as precedent; we therefore can't formulate any new theses or propose antitheses to the old set of solutions.

  18. Funny... indeed, Timeless was not anything new, but IMO Lawrence is one of the few deep house dj's that does dare to push the envelope both in his productions and DJ sets. I've seen him open his set on a big festival last year with John Maus 'Cop Killer'...hope you appreciate the irony.

  19. @PC: I hope I didn't come across as if I think context has no place in our appreciation of art--quite to the contrary. You'd be wrong to ignore the circumstances of a piece's creation.

    In general, however, I find the constant push for innovation in the electronic music community to be rather dubious. Certainly, no forward motion at all leads to stagnation which is painful to witness. But the constant search for "hot" up-to-the-minute sounds strikes me as pure trend-seeking, which I despise--if it's good, it's good, and that has nothing (or rather, not a whole lot) to do with whether or not club-goers are raving about it. Even worse, innovation has become commodified--beatport's constant exultations of "cutting edge" are often just marketing. Admittedly, part of the reason I got into this scene is because I saw it as the most forward thinking genre out there. But surely the community exaggerates the "avant-gardeness" of many realeases.

    My post was mostly a result of this innate suspicion of the push for innovation. Perhaps this arises out of a deeper fear of impermanence. When people look back at this music 50 years from now, what (who?) will they remember? Does dance music have "geniuses" the way classical music does? This concern is likely heightened for me personally since I come from a background in (as you might have guessed) classical music.

    Obviously I don't think mnml ssgs is a blog that tries to be fashionable. As you said, you don't need to push much--for me, this can simply take the form of a producer stamping his own voice on a style. The more distinctive that voice the better! I'm not sure that is quite the same thing as "pushing forward" or "innovation." I guess we're (i'm) getting into rather pointless semantics here.

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  21. I've never bitten my tongue in a comment section so much as this place

  22. Did you know the Dial Boys are deeply into Black Metal?

  23. @ always: have a close listen to Maus. Start with that track I embedded. He… doesn't really sound like OMD to me, on close listen...

    @ Wouter: that is hilarious… oh the irony…

    @ Alex: well, we are pushing because, I guess, we are modernists at heart, and have this notion of progress and continual transformation through technology. I mean, that's what's at the heart of techno. The tension is house/techno, because the former is much more on an emotional spectrum, whether historically through its roots in soul and gospel, or just because of its injunction to celebrate, get down, be deep, jack your body, or whatever (I mean, obviously Larry Heard is a long way from screamin' diva handbag). I like the tension. And I don't think everyone should be Innovating the whole time, that would also be tiresome.

    I guess, as you rightly point out, it's a relation to impermanence. Time. This is the crux of my post. I think we should note it and live with it, in relation to it. Give up the pretence of timelessness.

    @netlabel: I would love, love, love to hear Lawrence do a black metal mix. Maybe ssgs should ask him? Though it's not surprising when you listen to the early catalogue…

  24. PC, your opening photo calls to mind
    Jenny Watson
    Howard Arkley

    plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
    or vica versa

  25. It sounds as if you have never ever before encountered an artist who has, at some point, created music you don't like. I'm like that with all bands/DJs/musicians, but I don't think that after one or two failed attempts they have definitely lost it forever and will never listen to them again.

  26. this reminds me of my reaction to A Guy Called Gerald's Proto Acid album. I want to like it because it's so well produced and there is, despite all the confusion and desire for new styles, something comforting about those kinds of rhythms - but I can't help noticing it's boring. I feel like it's the product of live performances to audiences who are unquestioningly down with the program. I think this happens with any kind of music over time, if you become aware of it while it's risky and while it's still pushing things. More people get into it, the music feels complacent, it's harder to figure out what was worthwhile about it. Reminds me of a metaphor for life in a book about evolution, it's staying on the edge of a wave between chaos and stillness, but that wave is always moving as life evolves and interacts with itself.

  27. @Skillet - Very nice thoughts. And surely that's what a good DJ or producer is able to do: drag old ideas out of complacent surroundings, revitalize them or perhaps even reveal something hitherto unheard.

    The path of complacency is a sad ritual, one as old and as inevitable as the other, which seeks to consume and chew some life out of the prey of complacency. Who can blame these folk for wanting to make something timeless, it's a pretty ugly process.

  28. the thing is electro comes wrapped in the tone of futurist machine music, while house has never been modern

  29. Not sure how i feel about the "Timeless" cd either... There are definitely some nice gems there like the Chez/Ron/Stacy and the Schatrax tunes, which both date well before 2000s, so he's got some nice references to past... I don't think this cd really represents him as a dj, but more of him making a cd to educate and show his influences maybe. I mean can you really make a 74 min cd nowadays and say this is how i am as a dj... Hear Lawrence do a 2+ hr set and you'll see his real interpretation of deep house...

    Btw, with all this talk of Dial/Smallville/Cocoon, what about some love for Laid!

  30. @ wormsie: they will never lose it 'forever' if they're not timeless…

    @ skillet: you were right to notice aGCG is boring… *ahem*… but what you say about evolution is far more poetic than I could…

    @ noel: 'house has never been modern' - please say more!

    @ fluxes: sadly, recent Lawrence interview on LWE points in the same direction: comfort:


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