Music Kills Me
VHS or Beta
The most frequent complaints about postdisco dance music boil down to aspersions cast upon its authenticity. How can you call it music, the logic goes, if nobody's hitting any strings or skins? Where's the soul? Where's the talent? So when a house or techno artist takes pains to point out that he's using "real" instruments alongside, or in lieu of, the usual synths and sequencers, the news is frequently received with a sigh of relief by critics and less-than-hard-core fans: Whew, now we can justify liking this stuff to our friends. Even widely admired producers Masters at Work, whose brilliant use of machines played a crucial role in shaping 90s club music, got their due only after they made the move toward big-band arrangements on 1997's Nuyorican Soul.
But now that house is finally a household word, you've got bands of live instrumentalists--like France's Rinocerose and Kentucky's VHS or Beta--endeavoring to make, or at least approximate, the music from scratch. Unlike, say, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra or Soviet, who're making waves by resurrecting dormant dance-music strains (Afrobeat and electro respectively), both these groups are trying to find a way to make contemporary organic dance music without nostalgia or kitsch.
Rinocerose is the husband-and-wife team of Jean-Philippe Freu and Patou Carrie, former indie rockers who work by day as psychologists. On their first album, 2000's Installation Sonore, they fused acid rock's phased, overdriven wahwah guitars with acid house's squiggling 303 lines and thick, enveloping club beats. "La Guitaristic House Organisation" broke down halfway through into a duel between a squawking machine and a Funkadelic-style riff, while "Le Triangle" wedded Velvet Underground strum to house's velvet-rope hum. The result was a riff-based rock-dance merger that avoided big beat's bully-boy attitude; live they played with a big band and no drum machine.
The recent Music Kills Me works the same way: the title track is as guitaristic as anything they've done, organized around a repeated chunky chord, with single-note lines weaving around it and each other. Even on songs whose hooks are provided by flutes ("Resurrection d'une Idole Pop," "It's Time to Go Now!") or discoized strings and horns ("Le Rock Summer"), there's plenty of six-string sweetening and shading. The execution and production are technically quite "good" by the professional standards of a music whose primary practitioners' job is in large part to count beats per minute--house DJs, popular music's accounting department--but I liked Installation Sonore best when it got raucous. The playing on Music Kills Me is so clean that it might as well be sampled. There's no character here--and isn't that what live instruments were supposed to provide in the first place?
VHS or Beta, on the other hand, do more than just replicate machine-tooled precision--they approach the intersection of vintage disco and contemporary house from a mildly improvisational angle that locates them somewhere between postrave and post-Dead. Zeke Buck's guitar tone bears more than a passing resemblance to Jerry Garcia's, and as a live band the group has a genuine grassroots following. On Le Funk, the Louisville quartet's first full-length, the beat is so loose it threatens to come apart entirely, and the best moments heat up with a friction that recalls the Dead at their most interactive--except that even the aimless stretches have a beat pumping away in the background.
Le Funk closes with a pair of tracks recorded in concert, but VHS or Beta get as much gristle on the studio cuts. "Disco Paradise" layers robotic voices over analog synth lines a la Daft Punk, but the fallible rhythms bring it down to a human scale. "Solid Gold" opens with the sound of waves lapping, then breaks into a cool piano groove buttressed by congas and echoing siren guitar. And Buck turns "On & On" into a nasty wahwah shredfest. All of which, ironically enough, might block the band's access to club kids whose definition of "authenticity" now inherently disallows the human touch.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Sergent.