tremble clef

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Freemasons, "Love On My Mind (Radio Edit)" (2005)

I've been thinking about filter disco recently, even digging up this old compilation, which presents the genre in its most mainstream, cheesiest incarnation, to play. No doubt this is chiefly because parts of Madonna's new record -- "Get Together," especially, which is probably my favorite track -- so obviously draws on that sound.

Although dance music fans more fanatical than I might argue for there being minute differences between each, the label "filter disco" is sometimes used interchangeably with "filter house," "neo-disco," or "disco house" (or even "French house," but that seems unnecessarily restrictive to me, even though it does remind us of the nationality of the genre's more celebrated practitioners). But all the terms refer to those dance tracks, which had their heyday in the mid- to late-90s, built on samples of disco, funk, or pop hooks, usually from 70s records. Those samples are processed, put through filters, and then often layered, looped over and over. For many people, it's an arresting (or more literally, arrested) effect: because of the filters, the hook sounds a little muffled, as if someone forgot to equalize it in the studio, or like it's coming from another room, or recorded underwater. There's usually a common moment in every filtered record, when the muffled hook loops and loops and loops, as if the needle is stuck in the groove, and then, BAM! It bursts forth with a new clarity, or reaches a crescendo and the tune goes off into a new direction (frequently into the chorus). Done right -- for instance, on Chili Hi-Fly's "Is It Love?", one of the most soulfully joyous filter disco tracks I know -- it's a fantastically exhilarating moment, and often cause for some embarrassing arms-akimbo actions on a dance floor.

How frantic this moment is, for me, a distinguishing feature of the various strains of filter disco. Much French house, for example, is breezier, more relaxed. Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You," along with most Alan Braxe filter records or those of his compatriots (Cassius, Daft Punk, Etienne de Crecy), have less of that kind of climax; instead they often amble along unhurriedly, the loop acting as rhythm rather than build-up. Dance artists of a less Gallic disposition tend to ride the loop harder, more excitedly -- someone like The Tamperer (if we get past the fact that their records are actually not that filtered) practically apply, um, a hammer to your ears and heart. When I listen to their "Feel It," for example, which of course samples alludes to the same record that Madonna's "Sorry" does (The Jacksons' "Can You Feel It"), I almost feel like they are using hammers and tongs to unrelentingly strike at the chimes that I hadn't known were located right inside my head. As we move to this end of the filter disco spectrum, the tempo of the records also speeds up, until we arrive at something like Souvlaki's "Inferno," or various tracks by Stretch 'n' Vern, all of which zoom by at breakneck paces musically and lyrically.

In one version of the story, filter disco left as quickly as it came. You can see why: the very qualities that make filter effects heart-stopping also make them wearing. Every record was repeating the same trick of repetition. In another version of the story, filter disco never went away; it's not like Daft Punk had one moment in the sun, after all. Indeed, the French version of filter disco has had more staying power; their more excitable cousins, it seems, burnt out quicker, perhaps because there was nowhere to go after you've looped something at 280 bpm and put a screaming diva on top of it.

The past few years, filter disco, it seems, has made a bit of a return/reasserted its presence. I think, for example, of a couple of tracks that Umlauts introduced me to: Dimension-X's "Why'd I Have To Fall In Love With You?" and Iraklij's "Kaplia Absenta", both gentle, lulling filter disco records. One thing that's arguably different about these recent examples of the genre is that they are more melancholic, a development that I heartily approve of. Lyrically, this is evident, as it would be in songs lamenting wrong choices in love, or absent baseball kaps. (I made that last bit up.) But musically too. The filtered loops have always stuck me as having massive Sad Potential; as I implied above, it's essentially the sound of being stuck in a groove. On an older filter disco record, the (high) point of the track usually came when it broke free of the loop. On recent versions of the sound, I'm not sure that liberation ever comes, although they also don't sound like the relaxed rhythms of French house. A Gay Times review of Madonna's album said something about how the melancholic lyrics work (well) against the filter house beats, but I would have considered the two aspects never in conflict in the first place.

On Freemasons' "Love On My Mind," a filter house record that has come closest to being a cross-over hit, the fit is pretty seamless. (Freemasons includes Russell Small, formerly one half of Phats and Small, who were making filter disco records in the 90s. Leopard, spots, etc..) The song has the requisite sample, Jackie Moore's "This Time Baby," around which it spins a lyric of self-denial. "Oh, live without you/Oh, I can live without you," the singer asserts, opening the song with what is already clearly -- clear from the emotional catch in her voice -- a lie. "I've got love on my mind/Ain't no use in wasting time." Meanwhile, the filtered loop swirls and builds, but ultimately goes nowhere. Even when the track reaches its Stretch 'n' Vern moment -- a stuttering breakdown at the 2:40 mark as the music comes to a head -- it does so only to pave the way for the song, and the loops, to essentially restart. But there's nowhere to go, so after another minute, we can only bring the breakdown back, herking and jerking the song to an end, spent and defeated, which will have to be as good as any.


  • I'm always shocked, shocked, that writers often assume that disco is somehow merely celebratory, and allergic to melancholia. "Love Hangover"! "Don't Leave Me This Way!" "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)"!

    But I'm especially disappointed that a writer for the _Gay Times_ doesn't know this. Carl Bean's "I Was Born This Way" starts with an acknowledgment of homophobia ("I'm walking through life in nature's disguise / You laugh at me and you criticize"). And, well, don't get me started on Jimmy Somerville lyrics.

    Bad, bad, _Gay Times_ writer!! Put some headphones on and *listen*!

    By Anonymous esque, at 9:03 PM  

  • Right. What's more, sometimes even when people recognize the melancholia of disco, it's seen to reside solely in the lyrics (which therefore "contrast" with the music). But I think a lot of disco music itself can be very sad. I'm sure there is a much more musicological way of explaining or proving this, but I don't know my minor from my major chords.

    Of course, the sadness of the Freemasons' tune is a little diminished when you sing along to it in the same moronic way I do: "I've got love on my mind, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-aaiiiiii I!!!"

    By Blogger Brittle, at 11:37 PM  

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