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In the Mix

You Got Your Rock In My Dance Music--Like, Again

IS THAT A WHITE BELT?: Mstrkrft goes heavy on beats, light on vowels.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 10/11/2006

MSTRKRFT plays Sonar's Taxlo Oct. 13 with TTC and Edu K.

Judging by the heated debates among club rats for the last few years, there are two kinds of electronic dance music fans. The first feels no shame for its love of rock, people who think beer is at least as important to a healthy nightlife diet as Ecstasy or brocaine. The second sees rock as an airborne virus that indie kids bring into clubs, infecting the purity of, say, deep house or hard techno. There are trucker hats and there are track suits, and never the twain shall meet. But scratch dance music anywhere in its history and you're likely to find rock's coarse hairs poking through the polyester, whether it was the early disco DJs spinning Santana or techno pioneers like Joey Beltram expressing his love for Led Zeppelin.

And it's not just Rapture-style dance-rock--the sounds are getting much more esoteric. Looking like take-it-sleazy refugees from '70s Laurel Canyon, acts like Rub 'n' Tug and the Quiet Village Project spin records that couldn't be further from what most Friday night Ottobar habitués think of as "rock music." But in addition to the classic acid house, disco, and funk that Rub 'n' Tug throws into its DJ sets, the New York duo loves the moldy, ass-end of the '70s--soft rock, prog rock, and other white folks' music once loved by flaxen-haired Karen Carpenter-alikes and burnouts who looked like my dad and smelled like his old Army jacket. Quiet Village Project has done a re-edit of an Alan Parsons Project song, for chrissakes.

Rub 'n' Tug mixes like Campfire (Eskimo) are what would happen if the U.N. staged a rescue mission for all of the yellowing, frayed-but-funky records scattered to Salvation Armies from Akron to Anaheim when Uncle Dave went to college or when Grandma finally got her Irish up and cleaned out the attic. These groups long for an era when the masses happily zonked out to 20-minute Steve Miller Band jams and hipsters nodded off to hypnotic German imports. Rub 'n' Tug's real skill is as curators--not as disco mixers in the classic sense. (Campfire is riddled with technical errors, surface noise, and other "mistakes" the duo probably left in to be more rockin'.) They manage to unearth no-school hip-hop, play two copies of the same Bread record and estrange it utterly, and locate the rare grooving output in the careers of beanbag jockeys who decided to board the disco train once or twice to whatever moderate success they might find.

The connection between dance acts like Rub 'n' Tug and the herbal cosmonauts of the new beard America--aside from the facial hair and the general Princess Moonflower/yacht rock fashion sense that's so unfortunately taken hold mid-decade--is not just weed and a case of tall boys. Think of the duo as the laid-back Pacific Coast Highway (despite residing in the canyons of NYC) kin to Delia and Gavin's downtown art-hag renovation of minimalist composer Terry Riley and Tangerine Dream's morphine rock. Unfortunately, maybe due to licensing restraints, Rub 'n' Tug's new Fabric 30 (Fabric) merely ends up a nice mix of 21st-century disco by acts like the Emperor Machine.

That's the one you'll be able to find at local record stores. Better is the limited edition Better With a Spoonful of Leather (love that title). Rub 'n' Tug slow down, drape up, and drip out the cheesy synth intros, slurred saxophone blue notes, and instrumental breakdowns to a few dozen synth-pop, rock, and disco tunes until they blur queasily into one another--like if someone decided to emphasize the "house" in "Swishahouse." Without even the benefit of track titles, you'd need an advanced degree in the early '80s to know what was being played. All tease, the mix oozes for an hour or so, as little happening as in your average episode of Laguna Beach, and compelling for similar reasons. Quiet Village Project's best mix is actually Fragments of Fear--"mixed with blood" and not dance music at all, but a blend of prog rock and horror movie soundtracks like Goblin's Suspiria and John Carpenter's Halloween.

But Rub 'n' Tug and Quiet Village's mixes and edits are more like the most rarified and exalted chill-out music you've ever heard than main-room bangers for a 1 a.m. crowd. (Think the Pink Floydian trip of the KLF's Chill Out with some disco bump in its rump.) So where do rock fans that want to break in their dancing shoes turn to? In France, there's Ed Banger, whose name is the key to where the label's artists are coming from. When Daft Punk abandoned the brutal bass lines and riffs of tracks like "Da Funk" for the soft-pop disco of its 2001 masterpiece Discovery, it left a vacuum, one filled by clubbers who attempted to make timid keyboards snarl and roar. Justice, in particular, has polarized DJs and dancers. My friend and dance purist DJ Ronan Fitzgerald griped that the new rock-disco is "‘Let's all jump up and down and shout and dance! Hooray!' organized fun." In other words it hits you in the soles of your bouncing feet rather than your swiveling hips, turns you into one of a pogoing mass. But whether that's good or bad is your call. Me, I think all movement is good movement in an unhealthy world.

In North America, Ed Banger's closest contemporary could be MSTRKRFT, which includes one-half of Canadian rock duo Death From Above 1979. DFA 1979 always had a little dance under its dirty nails--and not just from the tussle the duo got into with the DFA's James Murphy over the name. Even leaving aside its penchant for getting fellow white guys like Erol Alkan to remix its snare-and-bass heavy disco-metal, tunes like "Romantic Rights" are pretty good body-moving records in their own right. (On the "jumping up and down" scale, it rates at least an eight.) MSTRKRFT's own recent debut, The Looks (Last Gang), actually errs too far in the opposite direction, and while convincingly slotted in the dance section of the record store with its drum machines and keyboards, you might miss the swaggering, distorted midrange oomph that drove DFA 1979's best songs. In other words for rock kids, it doesn't rock enough.

Better are MSTRKRFT's slate of remixes. You'd think the duo had sent out business cards and highlight reels to every midlevel rock band going--the Gossip, the Kills, Wolfmother, Metric, etc. At their best, these remixes give bands a much needed poke in the hinder or replace goony vocoder vocals--something the MSTRKRFT album is sadly chock full of--with husky/breathy/cutesy indie-chick vocals. (At worst, it's a rock song with a house beat and as creative as that description implies.) The recent FabricLive 29 mixed by Cut Copy is a good baseline--if you don't get off on this mix of nürockdance and classics by Roxy Music and (most surprisingly) Ciccone Youth, then this stuff probably isn't for you. For those of us who grew up in an era when house and techno was made by fat black and Puerto Rican gay guys in oversized basketball jerseys, our new indie-dance overlords in their skinny straight-leg girls jeans may be a little scary. But while it may not be groovy, it'll move you, if you let it--even if it's just jumping up and down or flopped on your couch.

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