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Held Back by the Old School

Chicago house producer Traxx could make better music if he put less stock in 25-year-old production techniques.

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For a genre often seen as futuristic and technology driven, house music is stubbornly traditional. Fans around the world can rattle off its genesis story, in which DJs Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy are prophets and the site of the Warehouse and the Music Box is holy ground. Producers still load up their tracks with commands to "jack your body," just like Steve "Silk" Hurley did on his genre-defining 1986 single. Purists hold dear the precise models of synthesizers and drum machines—as well as some of the antiquated recording techniques—used on classic house tracks, continually resurrecting them to repave well-worn paths or create new ones. And people still rhapsodize about a "house nation" even though the movement is more of a diaspora now than ever before, with most of its centers in Europe. None of the innovations in house music since its birth have weakened this reverence for and deference to the past.

Local producer Melvin Oliphant III, best known as Traxx, witnessed the salad days of Chicago house firsthand. A teenage fan during the scene's first wave, in the mid-80s, he spent more than a decade establishing himself as a DJ before giving production a try. At the turn of the century he joined Jamal Moss (aka Hieroglyphic Being) and Daryl Cura (aka Deecoy) as the Dirty Criminals, releasing a single in 2001 and a full-length in 2004, then began collaborating on his own with an extensive list of artists, among them current collaborators Tadd Mullinix and D'Marc Cantu.

It wasn't till 2007, having absorbed enough technical knowledge to flesh out his aesthetic, that he released his first solo 12-inch singles. Oliphant's debut full-length as Traxx, Faith, came out on vinyl in September and on CD last month. He's always stayed in touch with house music's past—he uses almost exclusively analog gear and tracks parts of his songs in real time, turning knobs and hitting keys as programmed sequences play—and on the new album this sense of communion with his predecessors is particularly strong.

Faith is largely born of the same scrappy spirit as the earliest Chicago house. Straightforward synth progressions burn raw, familiar patterns into listeners' brains, their intensity matched by perpetually bustling hi-hats and flurries of hand claps. Rendered with seat-of-the-pants urgency—as if the tracks would've evaporated if not captured in the first few takes—the album is defiantly unpolished. Unfortunately its rough edges don't add any charm; though they don't take away from the strongest songs, they're a drag on the weak ones. The vocals on "Down 2 House" and "A Heart Alone" aren't just tuneless but so coarsely recorded they might as well have been cut with an old Dictaphone. "My Soul," with vocals by French disco artist Nancy Fortune, is marred by a murky mix and synth tones that often bunch up and distort, as though their levels were oversaturating the cassette tape he used to record the song.

These lapses in fidelity are especially frustrating because Oliphant works by choice under many of the same technical limitations that faced the forefathers of house, out of admiration for the rigor required of producers who use analog gear. By opting not to conceal the evidence of his hands at work, he seems to be celebrating the flaws in his production—the way black-metal bands use fiendishly lo-fi sound to establish their kvlt bona fides. But Oliphant's focus on the authenticity of his process doesn't enrich his results. Many other American house artists, including Theo Parrish, Fred Peterkin (Black Jazz Consortium), and Omar-S, also favor vintage tools, but their music only occasionally feels as nakedly haphazard.

But the sonics of Faith are only one variable, and not the one most likely to sway audiences—for most listeners, the songwriting carries more weight. Oliphant and his contributors are at their best on the most song-oriented tracks, "Parametric Melody" and "XTC 4 Love." The former chops the soaring outro of the Peech Boys' seminal 1982 single "Don't Make Me Wait" into soulful shards, layering them between sweeping jazzy organ riffs, blinking synth leads, and battering percussion. "XTC 4 Love" balances puttering acid-house patterns and melancholic organ chords against Mullinix's ranting vocals—there's probably no need for 12 and a half minutes of the hedonistic yarn he spins, but most of it's good campy fun, full of lines like "Bad little kitty, I'll pounce on you."

A handful of tracks, including the skeletal "Body Control," the loping "Violet Epoch," and the blurry "Down 2 House," are tailored more for a DJ's hands than a home listener's headphones: they're utilitarian and extremely repetitive, with plenty of transition points. Those cuts aren't Faith's biggest problem, though. Where the album really goes wide of the mark are the pieces falling somewhere between the song-oriented compositions and the full-on dance tracks. These often feel more like sketches than thoughtfully executed blueprints.

With its wistful tone and evocative title, "A Heart Alone" seems to be setting up an emotional moment, but it comes across more like a drunk dial in your voice mail—Oliphant carelessly mouths unrelated phrases like "work work" and "lonely heart," the synths bumble rather than soar, and the song's fidelity is irritatingly thin. "Cosmic Zig Zag," cowritten by Mullinix, could've used an editor to keep its different parts in line; its catchy loops and vamps are buried under obnoxious keyboard noodling. The anxious-sounding "My Soul" needs a meaty synth part to counterbalance Fortune's halting singing. Only "Enka," written by Todd Osborn and Mullinix and "remodeled" by Oliphant, successfully straddles the track/song divide: its potent blend of heart-searing acid progressions and introspective organ chords both singes listeners' ears and applies a cooling salve.

The bright spots on Faith aren't enough to support the tracks that sag. The bulk of the album is prosaic at best, unpalatable at worst. In holding true to the techniques and attitudes imprinted on him during his formative years in Chicago house, Oliphant has blinkered himself to many of the ways that the developments of the past 25 years might've improved his music. It also would've served him better to think less about gear and more about songwriting. For listeners outside the most dedicated circle of house fans—that is, listeners immune to the legitimizing aura of the old-school style Oliphant practices—Faith is merely an album like any other. And though it shows glimmers of promise, it more often falls flat.

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