Friday, October 01, 2004

A year and a half ago, I wrote a piece for I'd titled "The Erotics of Microhouse." Among other things, it would have alerted the world that I don't really know how to properly use the term "erotics"--what I meant was something more along the lines of "Microhouse: It's Sexy." Anyway, I hadn't written anything for Nerve for awhile until this week, when my Q&A with John Leland, whose brilliant new book, Hip: The History, is discussed. But I did find that microhouse piece--which ran at about 3/5ths of its originally written length here--and am presenting it at full length below:


Lots of music is sexy and plenty more aspires to be--especially in club culture, where going out with old friends and coming home with new ones is never far from anyone’s mind. And why not? Dancing, after all, has been synonymous with sex since the waltz swept Vienna and then Europe in the early 1800s, not to mention the free-love apotheosis that was the disco era. So it’s hardly surprising for dance-music fans to encounter, on the one hand, sexed-up electroclash artists like Peaches (whose The Teaches of Peaches, set for a U.S. reissue with a bonus disc of remixes, features such heat-seeking charmers as “Fuck the Pain Away” and “Lovertits”) and, on the other, the all-too-aptly named Naked Music, a San Francisco label whose sonic m.o. is dreary, funk-laden downtempo seemingly intended for bachelor-pad use. So, it appears, are the covers: line drawings of reclining, birthday-suited women who look like they were taken off a special softcore-porn run of the Fabergé Organic shampoo bottles of the ’70s.

By contrast, there is little overt raunch in the minimalist bump-and-growl of what fans call microhouse. Mostly made by German producers (Cologne is the style’s unofficial capital) who weld voluptuously rounded beats and basslines with timbres so tactile they’re almost visible, microhouse replaces dance music’s usual lecherous caricature with something subtler but just as fervently erotic. If disco, as funkmeister George Clinton once asserted, “was like fucking with one stroke,” in microhouse that single stroke operates like a stone hitting water, rippling out like nerve-ends in a thousand directions. Beatific but insinuating, working best in intimate club spaces, microhouse is incredibly close sounding. You can dance to it, but you won’t throw shapes; it’s make-out-and-beyond music, just as likely to send people home in pairs from the barstool as from the dance floor.

The most intense microhouse evokes overwhelmingly passionate sex, but there’s also a cool detachment that makes it somewhat elusive--and, as a result, even sexier. Much of the time, the music alternates between an almost preverbal (or maybe post-coital) sensuality--less suggestive of pornography than, say, a straight-laced businessperson unexpectedly falling into erotic-daydream mode in the middle of a company meeting--and an arch tongue-in-cheekiness of the “Oh, so you like that, do you, you naughty, naughty person?” variety. The staticky clicks and squelching overtones that frequently decorate the music put it in line with the experimental “glitch” techno of artists like Pole and Oval. But in microhouse, the sometimes grating quality of those textures is offset by the lubricious grooves, creating a satisfyingly lustful dialectic, like a particularly fluid fuck switching into rougher gear when your partner’s fingernails suddenly rake down your back.

Though some artists, particularly those on the Kompakt label, frequently feature sung vocals, much of the time microhouse treats the human voice as another malleable fragment. This started with Luomo’s 2000 album Vocalcity, which fed generic house-lyric fragments through the grooves, rendering them malleable both emotionally and sonically. Even when someone like Benjamin Gibbard of Seattle indie-rockers Death Cab for Cutie takes center stage, as on Dntel’s “This Is the Dream,” the vocals murmur, not shout; sometimes they’re barely audible, like a climactic moan buried in a pillow, or a TV left on in the background. On Pantytec’s “Elastobabe,” a snatch of a male soul vocal surfaces (“You wanna cry my…”) before being snatched back into the ether. Luomo’s “Market,” Dimbiman’s “Koppchen (Herbert’s D-D-D-Dazzle Dub),” and Markus Nikolai’s “Chitchat on Sunset Cliff” cut moans and sighs and gasps to ribbons, sprinkling them through the mix like confetti, the aural equivalent of passing by a cracked-open door and catching an accidental glimpse of private activity, turning the listener into a kind of voyeur/participant.

Like the music itself, track titles like “Muff Diver,” “Feel Sensual,” “Elastobabe,” “Chickflick,” and “Candy Coated Conspiracy,” and artist names like Pantytec and Narcotic Syntax, and Luomo, play up the music’s libidinous quality, frequently with a wink. (The frequency with which microhouse folk close together multiple words, melding discrete entities into one, is pretty suggestive itself.) There’s also an appealingly mischievous aspect to the labels’ visual aesthetics. The Perlon logo, for instance, is the label’s name in colorful block letters (on Superlongevity, a double-CD compilation, it’s red and orange) placed diagonally across the cover’s corner about a quarter visible. It’s more suggestive than explicit, and incredibly inviting.

What may be sexiest about microhouse, though, is its deviant playfulness. A track like Dimbiman’s “Hokule’a” features a half-dozen particles continually zipping in and out of the mix, dizzy in the head, dazed and drunk on pure sensation, squishy and playful, like a color-saturated David LaChappelle photograph reduced to a miniature squeeze-toy. Then an exhaled male uhhhh signals post-orgasmic contentment--or is it confusion? Good sex continually flouts those categories; it explores, takes risks; it’s aggressive and comforting both at once. With its seething undertow, expanding/contracting groove, and popping, brushing, crackling whirs of sound and sense, microhouse does something similar with its musical tools. It sets and unsettles its groove, staying in one place but exploring every possible detail. [April 2003]