Dance music has come a long way since the early 1970s, when nightclub deejays started playing up-tempo soul records for audiences of gay men and people of color, inaugurating the now-mythic genre of disco. After disco went mainstream, rock fans revolted and dance music returned underground, eventually spawning a variety of electronic genres. Over the past few years dance music has experienced a pop culture prominence not seen here since disco's heyday. Mainstream acts like Cher and Whitney Houston are revitalizing their careers with punchy dance-floor anthems and remixes. Raves, which began in Europe and offer a fresh take on the communal hedonism of disco, are now an entrenched part of American youth culture. And a diverse range of internationally acclaimed acts including Moby, Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx are expanding the parameters of dance music.
Perhaps one reason why "Remedy" (Astralwerks), the debut album by the U.K. duo Basement Jaxx, has drawn so much attention is that it works as dance music for people who may not like dance music. Skillful and slick, it seduces with a blend of influences drawn from other genres. Flamenco guitars power the album's propulsive opener, "Rendez-Vu." A rapid-fire dancehall rap fuels the beat frenzy of "Jump n' Shout." And ghostly Parliament-Funkadelic backing chants and gangsta-rap keyboards contribute to the funky bump of "Red Alert," the album's current single and possibly the most irresistible pop-dance-ditty since Deee-lite's "Groove Is in the Heart."
As with much dance music, the songs on "Remedy" gain meaning through repetition. At first listen, the lyrics from "Red Alert" seem fairly vapid: "Red alert/ It's a catastrophe/ But don't worry/ don't panic/ Ain't nothing goin' on but history . . . / And the music keeps on playing on and on." But repeated listening encourages new and multilayered meanings. Is the song about dance music's incursion onto the youth-culture landscape once ruled by rock? Or is it an existential musing on life?
The Brixton duo's "Always Be There" features Japanese pop star Monday Michiru, one of several guest vocalists on the album. With a double-time percussive kick beat backing Michiru's sweet croons of "Will you always be there?," Basement Jaxx nails the kind of urgent romanticism that dance music does better than almost any other pop genre: creating haunting mating-ritual music for strangers in the night.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)
Armand Van Helden
In Europe, New York-based deejay Armand Van Helden is a pop star. His own records and his remixes for other artists routinely make the pop charts, and he regularly deejays for capacity crowds. But until forming his own label, Armed Records, Van Helden didn't even have a stateside deal to release his hit European album "2 Future 4 U." Though Van Helden's remixes for such acts as Sneaker Pimps and Tori Amos roared with the sonic urgency of a police siren, "2 Future 4 U" is a rollicking and unexpected display of stylistic diversity. "U Don't Know Me" is a pop-house plea for understanding, featuring soulful vocals from Duane Harden. "Summertime" grooves at a slinky lounge-lizard pace. And the thrillingly odd "Alienz" alternately sputters and flows with startling sound effects, oddly timed beat drops and precipitous musical twists and turns.
A strong hip-hop influence surfaces on other tracks. The turntable scratching on "Rock da Spot" is so evocative that it serves as a lead vocal of sorts. "Necessary Evil" takes scratching to an absurdist extreme and literally sounds like it's being sawed in half. And Tekitha, the favored singer of hip-hop's Wu-Tang Clan, puts in an unprecedentedly strong performance on "Mother Earth," singing about environmental destruction.
But the album's best vocal comes on "Flowerz," which spotlights the falsetto of Roland Clark. "Flowerz" marks one of those musical moments when vocal performance transcends lyrics. Though Clark is simply singing about giving his lover flowers, it sounds as if he's mapping the emotional continuum from yearning to rapture with every melismatic swoop.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)
What an odd album Finnish native Jimi Tenor has created with "Organism" (Sire), a collection that reflects a singular vision that's intensely personal and utterly charming. Tenor studiously distorts sounds ranging from '80s funk to Kraftwerk-like electro to brassy soul balladry. But on "Year of Apocalypse," he artfully mixes classic house-music thump with jazzy low-fi keyboards, gospel choir cries and his own electronically processed vocals to create the most eerily alluring and strangely beautiful dance record of the year.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8163.)
Jephte Guillaume and the Tet Kale Orkestra
Here's ambition for you. Not only is Haitian-born Jephte Guillaume's debut "Voyage of Dreams" (Spiritual Life) a double album, but on it he uses lush orchestrations, Haitian percussion and house-music rhythms as the musical backing for a meditation on the African diaspora.
With lyrics entirely in French, Guillaume gives voice to the hope, uncertainty, and desperation associated with displacement. "The Prayer" is a dance-floor slow-burner fueled by relentless percussion, an ethereal flute and Haitian voodoo chants, which are a consistent spiritual and rhythmic presence on the album. The lyrics in "Pouki" translate to "Why, why, why. Weakness surrounds us, poverty invades us," sung over dark house rhythms. And the celebratory "Ibo Lele" righteously warns, "The elders don't mess around."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8164.)
Masters at Work
Over the past decade, the New York-based production duo of Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez and "Little" Louie Vega has earned a reputation for purveying dance-music traditions. Whether recording as part of the ad hoc supergroup Nuyorican Soul or producing records under the moniker Masters at Work, they make music that harks back to disco's rich musical roots.
"MAW, the Compilation Volume 2" (MAW Records) documents some of their more recent musical ventures. On "Pienso en Ti" ("I Think of You"), the duo explores disco's Latin influences by teaming with Argentine guitarist Luis Salinas for a breezily romantic house-music ride. "Wonderful Person" by Black Masses pulses with punchy backing vocals, tom-tom beats and a plucky disco bass line.
And, featuring one of the most soaring falsetto performances since Phillip Bailey sang lead for Earth, Wind & Fire, Kenny Bobien's "Rise Above the Storm" mines disco's spirited gospel-soul underpinnings to produce an inspirational dance anthem. Over a stripped polyrhythmic backbeat, Bobien belts such lines as "I know you can win" and "Get ready to fly," passionately continuing the tradition of '70s soul uplift that contemporary black pop has unwisely traded for shrill battles between gold-digging "pigeons" and no-account "scrubs."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8165.)