Machine Soul: An Odyssey Into Electronic Dance Music (Rhino 79788)
A few years ago, the music press declared that "electronica" -- the designated catch-phrase for all the different kinds of electronic dance music filling floors on the club scene -- would be the pop world's Next Big Thing.
It wasn't, of course. Although a few acts -- the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Fat Boy Slim -- have moved up to the level of MTVisibility, most electronic dance acts remain completely underground. So unless you follow the club scene fairly closely, odds are that names like Derek Mays, Armand Van Helden, Satoshi Tomie and Grooverider mean nothing to you.
But as techno star Moby points out in the liner notes to "Machine Soul: An Odyssey Into Electronic Dance Music," if we take "electronic music" to mean recordings made largely with synthesizers, samplers and drum machines, then electronica really has taken over. Because most of today's pop and R&B hits, from 'N Sync's "Bye Bye Bye" to Destiny's Child's "Say My Name," are recorded using the same technology as contemporary club hits.
But "Machine Soul" isn't about showing how synthesizers and other electronic instruments took over the pop charts. Instead, it aims to explain how the ways in which pop musicians have embraced this technology have changed over the years.
Most of the 28 songs collected on "Machine Soul" are just that -- recordings that find something funky in the robotic regularity of drum machines and sequencers. Some selections, such as Kraftwerk's "The Robots" or Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," seem almost to fetishize the coldness of electronic instrumentation, an aesthetic that seems to suggest that fallible humanity is most affecting when contrasted against the mechanized perfection.
Worshiping the machine is but one approach, though. Others represented here run the gamut from the self-conscious modernism of "Warm Leatherette" by the Normal and Cabaret Voltaire's "Yashar," to the aural free-association of such sample-driven epics as "Pump Up the Volume" by M/A/R/R/S and the KLF's "What Time Is Love?" Moreover, dance styles ranging from Detroit techno to English ambient, and from hip-hop to trance are represented here.
"Machine Soul" includes many landmark tracks, including Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" (the first big sequencer-driven dance hit); "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force (the record that made the Roland TR-808 drum machine a hip-hop essential); and L.A. Style's "James Brown Is Dead" (which epitomized the relentless abandon of early rave culture). But it also makes some odd choices, and leaves a few fairly gaping holes.
Drum 'n' bass and the whole breakbeat culture is ignored, '80s electropop is under-represented (no Human League??), and house takes a backseat to techno. And while it's nice that the set doesn't always stick with the most obvious hits, it may have been more instructive to include Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" or "Numbers" instead of "The Robots."
Still, given the limited space its double-disc format affords, "Machine Soul" does a decent job of representing the possibilities implicit in electronic dance music. Even better, there's not a single selection in these 28 that counts as a dud. And how many compilations can make that claim?
Aquarium (MCA 012 157 305)
Most acts, after making a big splash on their first album with a novelty hit, would use their sophomore effort to prove how serious they are at heart. Not Aqua. Far from being embarrassed by the silliness that was "Barbie Girl," the group proudly proclaims itself "Cartoon Heroes" on the first track of its new album, "Aquarium." Although the sound is slightly lusher this time around, the group's formula remains the same -- cartoonish vocals, an insistent Europop pulse and moderately goofy lyrics. Unfortunately, apart from "Freaky Friday," which finds our heroine lamenting "Everything is wrong/My life is a country song," little on the album is as amusing as "Barbie Girl." Could it be that Aqua's inspiration has already dried up?
Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
Time to Discover (RCA 07863 67861)
Given the ongoing interest in all things '70s, it's no surprise to find that Southern rock has gone and reinvented itself. But who would have thought the South would rise again in Detroit, of all places? But that's the hometown of Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, a band that serves up classic blue-eyed soul and boogie licks with a totally modern sensibility. That's why the songs on "Time to Discover" rarely revert to cliche; from the Lynyrd Skynyrd-meets-Sly Stone groove of "Ride" to the bluesy shuffle of the title tune, Bradley's sound is entirely his own, no matter how familiar its influences may seem. And he can sing, too, as the soulful, impassioned "Baby" makes plain. Definitely a band to watch.
Luaka Bop: Zero Accidents on the Job (Luaka Bop 72438 48922)
Because it has a low profile and a famous owner, it's easy to look at Luaka Bop as a vanity project, a quirky little label designed to indulge former Talking Head David Byrne's interest in musical exotica. But that's hardly a fair assessment, as the label's 10th anniversary collection, "Luaka Bop: Zero Accidents on the Job," makes plain. Not only does the double-disc set boast a few genuine hits, like Cornershop's catchy "Brimful of Ashra" and Geggy Tah's quirky "Whoever You Are," but it's full of songs that should have been smashes. Whether it's the Latino funk of Los Amigos Invisible's "Sexy," the irrepressible tropicalia groove of Jorge Ben's "Ponta de Lanca Africano," or as wonderfully weird as "Jing Jing" by Shoukichi Kina with Ry Cooder, this set is full of gems waiting to be discovered.