The music pundits and loudmouth overseers these days mourn the loss of a music "center," an overarching genre or style on which the nonpundit listening public can agree. It used to be rock, they say, and now it ain't. Thus the musical views of countless camps and aesthetics have no common foundation and have collapsed into a vacuum of post-whatever specialization more akin to a magazine stand than to a common language, and perhaps they're right. There are more sound choices, just as there are more cable stations and magazines. Too many? No way. The more the merrier.
Sifting through the debris is a task, though; e-mail lists of new arrivals cram the inbox weekly, each from a different store offering another take on music, another 50 new releases -- dustygroove.com offers fantastic worldbeat and funk; forcedexposure.com offers esoterica, free jazz, techno and experimental; othermusic.com offers sounds from the fringes of rock, jazz and electronic music; satellite-records.com does house and techno; bentcrayon.com does the same. All changing the face of the music experience.
It's enough to make one both giddy and dizzy. Where will it end? Let's hope that it won't. Below, a few of the more recent discoveries from around the world:
Mount Florida, "Storm" and "Stealth" EPs (Matador): When DJs meet for the first time, they circle each other, sniff around a bit, growl and smile simultaneously, do a funny handshake and then mumble, "What do you spin?" The response to this query is always concise and quick. They answer with one of the following barks: house, drum & bass, breakbeat, trance, techno or downtempo. An "incorrect" response yields an eye roll, a lunge at the gullet or a passive-aggressive "oh"; a winning response elicits another funny handshake, a "Cool, so do I," and maybe even a true-to-life conversation. It's a beautifully primitive ritual and often accomplishes much with a simple utterance. But the ritual falters when a DJ stumbles across music that defies these rigid boundaries, such as Scotland's Mount Florida, who has in the past six months released two beautifully adventuresome beat-based EPs in "Storm" and "Stealth."
The keys to straying outside of genre boundaries are wits and IQ, and MF has both in abundance. The evidence: On "Stealth," apparently the second of a three-EP series, they sample one of Erik Satie's most beautiful piano works, from his series of "Gnossiennes," and gently cover it over a luscious, rollicking beat; it changes the context of Satie, but not his inherent beauty. They follow it with a gorgeously textured tribute to the late British artist Muslimgauze and follow that with a cut called "Roc the Vonnegut," which is constructed around a Stooges sample (!) stolen from "1970" (interestingly, the first mix of the cut, on the "Storm" EP, is called "Roc the Bukowski"). In all, the two EPs are smart, genre-defying and, best of all, structured not solely for the dance floor but also for the headphone and the car stereo.
The Glands, The Glands (Capricorn Records): The Glands released the masterful Double Thriller a few years back, and the indie-rock kids, at least those few who heard it, rejoiced. Here was a band who appreciated a beautiful guitar melody and knew what to do with it, who knew where not to pound, where to harmonize and praise hallelujah, who knew when to break down and celebrate and when to reign in the amplification and introduce a pretty violin or piano riff. The Glands' second record is better than the first, bar none the best rock record of the year so far: It recalls Guided by Voices when Bob Pollard was still humble; Pink Floyd before Dark Side; Radiohead circa The Bends, plus America, minus the histrionics. There's even what could be a Basement Tapes outtake called "Favorite American," a humble, subterranean gift that draws from country, blues and rock effortlessly, spinning it into a uniquely Glandular sound. But what's best is that, like all bands who seem to appear out of a mist, the Glands take something basic and make it sound like they friggin' invented it, make the listener believe in a rebirth of a tired form. Listen to the thing once and rejoice. Listen to it the second time and already each melody is immediately familiar and ingrained. By the third time it's love.
Armand Van Helden, Killing Puritans (Armed Records): Armand Van Helden is the guy on whom the clueless call when they want to step into the world of remixology; he's remixed the Rolling Stones, Puff Daddy, Tori Amos, Fine Young Cannibals, Bananarama, Blondie and more, in addition to putting a masterful spin on Daft Punk's crossover cheese-house anthem "Da Funk" a few years back. He's the dude with the disco shoes, the carefully carved Fu Manchu facial hair and a lowest-common-denominator house aesthetic. On Killing Puritans, Mr. Van Helden wants some of the big-time crossover action, but all we get is generic disco sounds featuring rapper Common, breakbeat lite, a touch of bland electro porn featuring a Gary Numan "Cars" sample. When he kicks out a bit of hard house (track No. 7 -- all the song titles are in a dumb code), the result is pretty impressive, but all the mediocrity surrounding it muddies its luster. Van Helden is and always will be the master of cheese house; his brand is a bit more thick than many, but it still pales in comparison to relative newbies like Basement Jaxx who seem to rejoice in house's potential. Though AVH has the name and the resume, cheese is cheese, even if it is from Brooklyn. Especially if it's from NYC and it samples the Scorpions.
Various Artists, Attitude (Tigerbeat 6 Records): A tribute to NWA released on the (useless) boutique format of choice these days, the 3-inch CD, Attitude consists of paeans to the influential Compton gangstas NWA (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren). The "tribute" was put out on digital terrorist Kid 606's Tigerbeat 6 imprint and features contributions from one tiny corner of the electronic-music world, one that is commonly referred to as IDM (intelligent dance music), a tag that basically means artists who "transcend" a reliance on steady beat. Guh. The result is digital noise, stretched NWA samples, blast-furnace wind sprints and very very very little beauty. Even Compton has beauty, and anger can produce it -- NWA displayed that. But little is pretty within Attitude; it seems more a heartless exercise, and although the itsy-bitsy CD has moments of bliss -- most notably Matmos' little sample stunt, Hrvatski's quickie beat breakdown (the closest thing to beauty on the disc) and Kid 606's introductory, elastic cover of "Straight Outta Compton" -- most of these artists (also including V/VM, Christoph De Babalon, Pure, Lesser and Cex, among others) don't seem to understand or appreciate Straight Outta Compton. If it's "the thought that counts," well, then, great, this is fine. If you're really hoping for music that will make you happy and take you to that secret place, try the Mount Florida releases above.
Suba, São Paulo Confessions (Six Degrees Records): Though São Paulo Confessions has been out since the beginning of the year, it hasn't received the praise it deserves as a landmark collection of map-crunching, genre-bridging beat music, one that draws on Brazilian rhythms, a European sensibility and an electronica vibe; the result most resembles the Latin-jazz explosion that consumed NYC in the '50s, at least in spirit. Composed by an artist simply known as Suba (who died in a house fire in November of last year), the record is deep, thick and muddy. The dozen tracks roll smoothly (though not lite-ly), with a tempo that ranges from smooth Havana 3 a.m. to crazy wicked Alex Reece jungle speed. Most are somewhere in between and anchored in reality by the presence of almond-eyed female vocalists who understand that the sexiest voice is a mere notch above a whisper and that the nighttime is the right time. (Interestingly, Bebel Gilberto, whose recent Tanto Tempo was in part produced by Suba before his death, doesn't make an appearance within.) You can hear the sun's absence, the moon's presence, at the surface of São Paulo Confessions, and it lights each track just enough to reveal its crannies, its essence and its ultimate danger.