CODEBASE WITH KRIS MOON
Baltic Room, 206-624-4444, $7
9 p.m. Wed., October 30.
ONE OF THE CURSES (or blessings, if you're a delusional "glass is half full" type) of being a music critic is the constant deluge of promotional CDs that flood one's home or office. While this if often the source of grousing amongst grizzled hacks such as yours truly, it can prove rewarding for a reviewer's friends. Because passing along surplus promos to impoverished pals is a great way to clean house under the guise of being thoughtful and generous.
And so it came to pass that during one recent purge, I sent a package to a friend abroad who was hankering for some fresh dance music. Among the titles included were two offerings from London-based duo Swayzak: the mix CD Groovetechnology v1.3 and the brand new Dirty Dancing (both on Studio K7). Soon after, I received a thank-you from the recipient, who, noting the distinct differences between the two titles—the former is a double-disc set of minimalist tech-house selections seasoned with dub effects, while the latter is much more song-oriented, with a discernable '80s synth-pop influence—asked how exactly to categorize Swayzak.
Damn good question. Since their 1997 debut EP, Bueno, Swayzak partners James Taylor (no, not that one) and David Brown have concentrated more on crafting precise and individual tracks, rather than mining a single, easily identified sound. While the pair's 1998 full-length, Snowboarding in Argentina, was hailed as a tech-house masterpiece (Mixer magazine named it Album of the Year), their limited-edition, 12-inch Disco Dub Plate volumes were filled with funky loops and '70s flair. Swayzak is one of those rare groups that are all over the map, yet never seem lost. Which makes life difficult for record-store clerks. How, exactly, should the duo's music be filed in the bins?
Simple, says Taylor—under Swayzak.
A rack Taylor clearly doesn't want to see Dirty Dancing in at the shops is the one marked electroclash, or electro, or whatever we're calling the current wave of skinny synthesizer acts filling the fashion pages this week. Never mind that Swayzak's new single, the icy "I Dance Alone," features vocals by Nicola Kuperus of Detroit duo Adult., or that the album's closer, "Ping Pong," could easily be a lost track from Kraftwerk's Electric Cafe. Forget that Swayzak's "State of Grace," from 2000's Himawari, features prominently on the anthology This Is Tech-Pop: 21st Century Electro and New Wave. Taylor insists he's "not excited" about the ongoing vogue for '80s revivalism.
"I don't even think there is a movement," he opines. And, as for the term 'electroclash,'" he adds, "I preferred 'electronica.' At least you could do anything within that [description]." Nor is he enthusiastic about the nascent genre's heavy emphasis on visuals and video. "It all looks like porno adverts to me!"
Considering that Taylor also admits he once dyed his hair bright orange, and former Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson was courted as a potential guest star for the new album ("He never called back!"), one might accuse him of protesting too much. But in the group's defense, Dirty Dancing does cover a hell of a lot more stylistic ground than recent offerings from Ladytron or Mount Sims. The echo and reverb rippling through "The Punk Era" reflect the influence of dub reggae, while "Halfway to Yesterday" is an eerie down-tempo excursion. Claus Kotai's stream-of-consciousness lyrics and dry delivery on "Buffalo Seven" are practically dead ringers for Underworld's Karl Hyde. Meanwhile, Snowboarding fans, who might be taken aback a bit by the new album's emphasis on traditional song structures, will find comfort in the pared-down and percolating "Celcius."
Further reinforcing Swayzak's refusal to be easily boxed in, this is one of those rare dance-music acts that opts to promote its releases by actually performing live, rather than just hiding behind the turntables and spinning records. "We don't DJ so much, and playing live has always been very important for us," says Taylor. In fact, after Brown and Taylor first hooked up in 1994, they spent the next three years hidden away in the basement learning to play their instruments, while figuring how to get the most out of the recording studio.
And while he's not leading the charge to bring back the Lambada, Taylor admits he's been known to attempt a bit of Dirty Dancing all his own, even though it typically ends in "falling over, or spilling drinks," or making an ass of himself while "trying to talk to girls who don't want to talk to me." No matter. Swayzak more than compensate for any personal shortcomings on the dance floor by inspiring fancy footwork in others—thank heavens enjoying their music isn't as perplexing as defining it.