Soundtrack in my head: Smith and Mudd, “Wem”
It’s rare when I listen to new music and realize I’m listening to something that represents a marked departure from everything I’d heard before. I may not always realize how unique something is on the first listen, but in subsequent listens I would realize that I’d stumbled upon something remarkable. I may have just done so with some dance music I discovered recently.
The first time it happened was when I was listening to Cocteau Twins‘ Treasure a few months after it came out in 1984. While the mainstream music critics wrote glowingly of a “guitar revival” movement that included U2 and R.E.M., the Cocteau Twins quietly created textures and sound-scapes never before considered possible with a guitar. The second time was when I first heard LTJ Bukem (born the same year I was) in the latter half of the 90’s and the way that he took drum n bass and turned it into a kind of ethereal jazz from outer space, with long spacey tones layered over complex and rapid staccato beats.
I might be exaggerating to put the record label Claremont 56 into that category–nevertheless, I am quite blown away by a compilation of theirs that I downloaded recently. The artists on this label produce, for the most part, DJ-friendly dance music, but with a heart and soul that has often been missing from electronic tracks.
I need to note that it took me a long time to warm to house music and other made-for-the dance-floor electronic music that developed in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I couldn’t understand the appeal of this “underground” dance club movement. All of it sounded repetitive with little variation–something mass-produced, generic with little thought put into it, yet surrounded by hype. It felt like the McDonald’s of underground music.
Only later did I grow to appreciate a lot of what was coming out of that dance music scene. Some of my appreciation was of artists that came out of that scene but matured and diversified themselves, Moby being a prime example. Other acts I liked were ones that had developed catchy little hooks, but even with many of them I felt uncomfortable playing them because of their repetitiveness.
Granted–many of these tracks were designed for beatmixing and while I do a bit of that, I feel that technique is way overused and an artificial way to keep dance floors full. One popular event in London explicitly avoids beatmixing. (London, also home to Claremont 56, is also where LTJ Bukem developed his unique beats and where the Scottish trio Cocteau Twins recorded Treasure. As usual, London’s light-years ahead of anything beyond the western shore of The Pond. And I’m not complaining.)
While searching online, I found an interesting compilation album called 5 Years of Claremont 56. I don’t know what drew me to it, but I realized I was listening to something different just with the 30 second samples of tracks I was listening to. After listening to the album in its entirety–23 tracks plus an hour-long continuous mix, I realized this was something I felt had been missing from dance music. They describe themselves as “an independent label dedicated to releasing beautiful music.”
I would describe much of Claremont 56’s sound as a combination of Zero 7 with early Beta Band. But other elements are brought into it, depending on the artist–folk, punk, early 70’s soul, jazz, disco, and many other elements. Furthermore, although dance-floor friendly and leaving behind the traditional pop song structure, the songs evolve rather than just repeat, and in a more natural way than the automated layered changes in progressive house. A lot of this is inherent in the live instrumentation that is reportedly used with the recordings. Two examples are below:
The label was started by longtime DJ Paul “Mudd” Murphy in London. You can see the text of an interview here. I wish this label continued success–I feel like they have a lot to offer the DJing and dance world.