Tuesday, May 21, 2013
JOHN TALABOT: fIN
The best dance music has always contained a very specific breed of melancholy, a feeling that stretches toward some kind of... I don't know. Transcendence? Wistful longing? I'm thinking of that story about dancer Isadora Duncan responding to a question about what her performance meant: "If I could tell you that, I wouldn't have danced it."
Whatever it is, you can hear it in the starry-eyed teen love songs your grandma swayed to at sock hops, you can hear it in the earnest desperation of Donna Summer's velvet croon, and you can hear it in the best records from Detroit Techno's heyday (check out "Icon” by Rhythim is Rhythim [sic], for example).
You can also hear what I’m talking about throughout fIN, the debut full-length from Spanish producer John Talabot. It’s my favorite album from 2012. I’ve listened to this thing a thousand times and it’s warm-bath music now.
Warm-bath music: Sometimes, after a terrible day at work or elsewhere, I feel defeated. I don’t want Daft Punk to cheer me up (because my misery is too stubborn) but I know better than to wallow in The Downward Spiral. There’s a sweet spot, somewhere. It’s feel-good music precisely because it’s just the right kind of melancholy. It trickles from your headphones with a hand on your shoulder: “We’re all in this together, kid.”
Talabot’s melancholy uplift floats along the techno-house continuum in humidity made from lightly distorted samples and synths. Voices, in particular, are sampled and treated and made woozy with heartsickness. “Depak Ine” opens the album with simmering drones and chopped up, pitch-shifted syllables. Somewhere along the way, Talabot folds in gauzy, harmonized “Ooohhhhs” and swooning lamentations. It sounds like driving away from something, and toward something else. At night. Having forgotten the exact directions. Excited? Scared? Yes.
Prior to this album, Talabot released music under another moniker (though he seems to have disowned that stuff now) as well as a handful of excellent 12’’ records as John Talabot (all easily, and legally, found in digital form now). Building on that music, fIN is a confident, fully-realized deal, a start-to-end listen.
He keeps it moody. When my spouse and I threw a Halloween party last year, "Oro Y Sangre" was the first song I thought of for the obligatory Halloween Mixtape 2012. (It’s not just the sfx-library screams that pop up, you should know. House music rarely employs such effectively dense harmonic structures. This track is a relentless and menacing glare.) Elsewhere, “El Oeste” is a lesson in ominous lurking: Arpeggios and pads, warped like a cassette left in the sun, are needled by sparse percussion until they give up in exhaustion. “Missing You” sounds like exactly what it sounds like: S/he left you, you’re left behind, you’ve got some space to stare into now.
I don’t want to give you the impression that this is the House equivalent of, say, Disintegration by the Cure (not that I would mind such a thing, come to think of it…) This is still dance music, and blissfully so. Talabot’s command of rhythm is deft. I can remember hearing “Estiu” while listening to the album for the first time. For ten seconds or so, I though the beat was hokey. Suddenly, an extra layer, subtle and syncopated, tied everything into something transcendent! Or at least grin-making.
fIN’s rave-readiness notwithstanding, the time I’ve spent with this music has been pretty inert. Usually, it’s been the soundtrack to a long, nocturnal drive or a moody, shoegazing walk. I’ll soak in it, sulking, until it gradually warms me up and (despite my best efforts to stay bitter) I get that heart-in-throat glee and a nice emotional reboot.
So I have no idea how this would work on a dancefloor. Thanks to my mysophobic teetotaling, I very rarely hear electronic dance music in its natural, intended environment. Hearing music is an experience that is not improved by booze-breathed bodies bumping into me. I went to see Richie Hawtin in Detroit a few Novembers ago, and I couldn’t stand the thronging pelvisgrind around me. “Don’t you people realize you’re in the presence of the Plastikman? Pipe down!” Dear lord, I am uncool.
No reveler should have to tolerate my cantankerousness, so I get my fix from Resident Advisor podcasts on calm, brain-rave-for-one walks. I wonder sometimes how producers of House music would feel about that. Most of them are DJs as well, and while that puts them tightly in the middle of the carousing, the art and curation of a producer/DJ are essentially solitary acts; intently focused, frequently without collaboration. I think the best of them know something about loneliness. (I don't have to tell you how crowds can be much lonelier than empty bedrooms, right?) I think they see, regularly, a kind of celebration that leaves people a little empty. I think they see people who have come to escape something. I think they know how stubborn a person’s bitterness can be. I think they know just what to do about it.
And maybe there’s your melancholy.