Sharps & Flats

Fatboy Slim and Paul Oakenfold star on a comp for rave newbies, while the two-CD "Trance Nation America" thins the strong pulse of early-'90s dance music.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published June 26, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

More than 10 years after the inception of rave culture, the mainstream media has rediscovered it, as it tends to do every few years. There are three news films about the scene, "Groove," "Human Traffic" and the documentary love letter "Better Living Through Circuitry." A vacant-eyed raver, half her face overlaid with rainbow colors, stares from the cover of Time's June 5 issue. And in the past few months there has been an earnest discussion about dance culture on NPR and a hysterical report about ecstasy on "60 Minutes II." The cover of last month's Spin promised to explain "How the DJ Scene Got Massive"; its subhead coyly addressed the drug issue like this: "Ecstasy: The New Beer?"

All this means that the time is ripe for the music biz to take another crack at turning dance music into the next big thing in America -- a project started again in earnest about three years ago when the music found a new name, "electronica," and groups like Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers landed videos on MTV. In England, of course, electronic music long ago achieved market domination, and the latest wave of British invasion markets two double-disc sets from the two most famous dance brands in England. London Records offers "Essential Selection Volume One," part of a series inspired by Pete Tong's kingmaking Radio 1 show. And Ultra brings the first American release from the record label of British superclub Ministry of Sound, a two-CD mix by DJs Jimmy Van M and Taylor called "Trance Nation America."

Trance, an anthemic, melodic, slightly New Age-y strain of electronica, is the currently the world's most popular dance music, but relatively few American trance artists are well known domestically. It's unsurprising, if ironic, that a British franchise is trying to introduce the burgeoning American trance scene to America -- after all, ever since the early days of acid house, British kids have been making heroes of DJs from the States who remained obscure at home. Thus "Trance Nation America" makes sense. What makes no sense is the first American installment of "Essential Selection Vol. One."

"Essential Selection" comprises two discs, one mixed by Fatboy Slim and one mixed by Paul Oakenfold, two DJs with aesthetics so different that it's hard to imagine them having any fans in common. Imagine if a label packaged a CD by Madonna with one by Limp Bizkit -- the only conceivable audience for such an enterprise would be curious foreigners entirely new to American pop. Similarly, the market for "Essential Selection" seems to be those who've caught glimpses of those rave parties on TV and want to know what all the fuss is about.

Perhaps someone could justify marketing these discs together by calling them the opposite poles of rave culture. Fatboy Slim is undoubtedly the yang. His disc is a big-beat frat party: bombastic, muscular, fun and dumb. It's packed with songs by names that you've probably heard before, even if you've never waved a glow stick -- house DJ Armand Van Helden, the Chemical Brothers, Art of Noise, Underworld and Mr. Slim himself. The opening track, Walter Wanderley's lounge kitsch "Summer Samba," sets the insouciant tone, though the disc quickly goes harder with Van Helden's dirty, driving house track "Necessary Evil." Many of the cuts on this disc hew close to the formula that has made Fatboy Slim a star -- a combination of squishy hip-hop bass and loose-limbed, funk-tinged rhythms looped beneath goofy vocal samples repeated ad infinitum.

Superstar trance DJ Oakenfold, meanwhile, sets off on a smooth, spacey journey through faraway solar systems, enchanted forests and psychedelic daisy fields. Inspired by new-wave acts like New Order far more than by hip-hop, his music is glossy and epic, all Elysian strings, crisp galactic pulses and melodramatic crescendos. Unlike with the companion disc, none of the artists here will be familiar to non-initiates, though many should be. Jaya's sinuous, echo-laden "Precession" opens the mix and signals Oakenfold's commitment to dance music with passion and pathos, an aesthetic that reaches its apotheosis in the over-the-top celestial loveliness of Skip Raider's "Another Day."

Though "Essential Selection" was devised by Pete Tong, a credible and respected DJ and musician, the weird juxtaposition of Fatboy and Oakenfold makes it seem like the work of a clueless marketing geek. Conversely, the marketer who devised "Trance Nation America" was very slick indeed. Like "Essential Selection," "Trance Nation America" contains two discs mixed by two different DJs -- one by Los Angeles' Taylor, the other by New York's Jimmy Van M. But the sound is entirely consistent: Ministry of Sound has obviously clearly defined its demographic and assiduously courts it on its site, in its magazine and through its merchandising.

Unfortunately, the lifestyle Ministry of Sound is peddling is all about surface and affectless cool. The two discs are supposed to be a tour through American trance, a subgenre that, at is best, its ripe with ear-candy melodies and the grandiose pop emotions too often missing from dance music. But unlike Oakenfold, Taylor and Jimmy Van M studiously avoid symphonic grandeur and sentimentality.

While some consider Oakenfold's baroque flourishes cheesy, they recall the concentrated bliss that marked the early rave scene. In the States, at least, rave's celebration of crystalline electronic beauty and unfettered joy seemed, at least in part, a reaction of against the disconsolate sludge-rock of grunge. Yet at this point the warm, wild exuberance often gives way to a very stylized pose, which is what one hears on "Trance Nation America," with its long stretches of angular, passionless percussion, lukewarm builds and disdain for melody.

Sure, these tracks might work differently if you were sweating on a dance floor and buzzing with chemicals, but heard on their own, they certainly don't suggest the "expanded consciousness through repetitive beats" ecstasy that was once rave's raison d'jtre. As a famous purveyor of some of the world's most accessible electronic music, Oakenfold's street cred may be nil, but of these four discs, his mix alone offers the thrilling starburst beauty and intensity that once made raves a refuge for those disenchanted with the jaded, blasi mainstream. Oakenfold's music leaves one dazed with pleasure. Otherwise, the only trance this music invokes is the pall of zombification.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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