Optimo Demolish the Subgenre
Shake off your flesh
I probably shouldn't rep too hard for something affiliated with one of my home teams, and I probably wouldn't even be talking about this if it wasn't such a slow day, but the new continuous DJ mix from JD Twitch, which Pitchfork made available for free download on Monday, is one of the best pieces of music I've heard in a while. Twitch is half of Optimo, a Scottish DJ duo who lean hard on psych-rock but who have a whole lot of fun grabbing from any available source, and this Pitchfork mix reflects their aesthetic beautifully. The Pitchfork mix is ostensibly a dance mix, and there's plenty of dance music here, both old and new, but the real joy here is in the connections that Twitch makes between that dance music and music that virtually no right-thinking club DJ would ever even consider pulling out. Some of the most devastating moments here come from recontextualization. Black Sabbath's "The Wizard" comes in after some old obscure French guy's Afrobeat tribute-song, and so the first thing you notice about "The Wizard" is the song's breathlessly funky drum-work, not the megalithic guitar-riffage. We hear a bit of John Cooper Clark's "Evidently Chickentown," an apocalyptic postpunk rant and probably the best end-credits song in Sopranos history, but they come with fluttery Italo-disco synths and drums layered underneath, and that makes for a neat contrast with the original track's stark menace. The same thing happens with "Shaking Hell," a particularly vicious early Sonic Youth song; in the accompanying interview, Twitch notes that he'd been dicking around with the song and he'd realized that it had a 4-4 beat that might actually work in clubs. The mix ends with Grinderman's "No Pussy Blues," a song I've been sort of obsessed with since I saw Grinderman absolutely murder at Madison Square Garden about a week ago. Twitch fades from Lee Douglas's "Breakwind," a straight-up disco instrumental, into "No Pussy Blues," and he leaves the former's drum-track in place until the latter's climactic guitar flare-up; Nick Cave sounds even sleazier with Douglas's drums burbling underneath him.
The thing I really love about the mix's transitions is how unobtrusive they are. The DJs in the Hollertronix camp can bring playlists as stylistically divergent as Twitch's, but for them the whole point is the rupture, the instant and euphoric rush of recognition that comes when one style of music careens violently into another one. Twitch's transitions are a lot subtler and more intuitive, and his mix has a sort of organic wholeness to it. The straight-up dance tracks are, more often than not, great; he uses Lindstrom and Solale's "Let's Practice" and Carl Craig's remix of Faze Action's "In the Trees," two of my favorite dance singles of this year. And he uses the momentum he builds in those tracks to extend to the rock and funk songs, bringing out the dance-music undercurrents that I would've probably never recognized otherwise. It's not a perfect mix or anything; it drags a bit when he gets into horror-film music, and I wish rap would find its way onto Twitch's radar, though a house remix of an old Jodeci song is at least a step in the right direction. But the whole thing moves amazingly well, and it includes some amazing songs that I might've never heard otherwise. Johnny Wakelin's pulsating Ali tribute "In Zaire" was apparently a massive one-off hit in the 70s, but I'd never heard it, and holy shit it's awesome. This isn't even the first time that Optimo have pulled off miracles like that. 2005's mix CD How to Kill the DJ (Part 2) was some straight-up evilness: Cramps, John Carpenter, Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf." And that same year's Psyche Out mix was a great history-lesson in drug-music. Optimo don't DJ in the US too often, and I've never heard them in an actual dance-club setting, but I have to imagine that my brain would probably melt if I did.
The mix has me thinking a lot about eclecticism, about the ways in which we broaden our scopes to let in different things. The most interesting part of a music genre's evolution is usually its beginning, since eclecticism is sort of a necessity. I'm thinking in particular about how David Mancuso would spin Led Zeppelin and Curtis Mayfield in the Loft before disco became an actual genre, how 70s hip-hop DJs would plunder Monkees and Steve Miller Band records for breaks, how the DJs at the Hacienda would apparently play any damn thing before acid-house matured into an actual thing of its own. One inevitable by-product of the internet's impact on music is that categorization becomes a whole lot more important. We have the entire history of recorded music at our fingertips, but that's way too much to ever make sense out of, so we cherry-pick our favorite styles to the exclusion of all else. And that ends up having an impact on music itself. We have hybridized micro-scenes and subgenres that have willfully isolated themselves from the rest of music, dance-nights that focus exclusively on minuscule individual crumbs of the dance-music pie. For better or worse, scenes are ossifying into distinct things more quickly than ever before. The DJs in Optimo clearly have wide and encyclopedic bases of music-knowledge, and they're not afraid to put those bases of knowledge toward some fascinating and satyisfying ends. They exist outside any genre I can name, and they've managed to carve out a niche by sounding like DJs who are on the verge of inventing their own scene. I hope they never quite get there; the journey is a whole lot more fun than the eventual destination could ever be.
Voice review: Nick Sylvester on Optimo's How to Kill the DJ (Part 2)