Review Summary: Shut up and dance.
In what can only really be described as an indignant and somewhat self-righteous attempt to tank sales and alienate potential customers, popular vinyl distribution site Boomkat has allowed a rare negative review to accompany a listing of Jamie xx’s newest LP, In Colour
. There, mere inches from the “Buy” button, appears a scathing critique of the safeness and lack of spirit the release ostensibly embodies. “In Colour
posits Jamie as the pre-eminent posh soul boy, lifting and massaging inspiration from the rich heritage of late '80s + early '90s London dance culture and channelling it into a pop-ready format palatable to Radio 1 daytime tastes and festival soundtracks,” it complains. “The putative ‘soul’ of rare groove, boogie, hardcore and early jungle is sucked out and spliced with vocals in feathered arrangements ripened up for students and yummy mummys alike - all under one roof.”
The reviewer isn’t wrong: this isn’t your cool older sibling’s favorite ‘90s jungle album. In Colour
doesn’t really encapsulate any of the sweat-drenched rave so pristinely captured and preserved in some of the best pieces of hardcore and groove of the yesteryear that it apparently tries to emulate. The painstaking care taken in the creation of the album doesn’t manifest itself as whatever an “authentic-sounding” choon from the glory days of the London dance music scene might have exemplified. Instead, it indeed sounds “pop-ready,” shiny and crisp and easily digestible. If you were to put on In Colour
expecting an album pre-cooked for ecstasy-saturated warehouse parties comprised of people sick of what mainstream culture has done to music, you’d naturally be a little disappointed by the result.
However, I think that Boomkat may have approached this album the wrong way. Though I may be misunderstanding the nature of their review, I see them complaining that In Colour
is despicable because of its pop edge, unfaithful to the material it samples because it aims for a crowd comprised of the very people the original music tried to avoid or anger. In this reviewer’s eyes, In Colour
is an excellent album precisely because of that attitude. It’s a pop album through and through, which should have been clear to just about anyone who’s heard anything Jamie xx has ever laid his hands on. He’s proven that he can be a mainstream mastermind time and time again (lest we forget, of course, that the xx’s “Crystalised” is a practically perfect pop song), and “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is a perfect display of that mastery. Its echoing snaps and fluty bells are eminently memorable, appropriately repetitive (but not tiresomely so) and adding tasteful yet full-bodied color to Young Thug’s sugar-sweet verses.
In the beginning of “Good Times,” though, I think I hear something the aforementioned Boomkat reviewer might have been complaining about. There’s a crackle of static as a needle hits a record in the split-second before the a cappella soul sample which kicks off the song enters. Especially in conjunction with the candy-coated, hyper-poppy body of the song, this moment feels strikingly artificial. It’s as though Jamie xx is actively trying to aggravate the seasoned ravers who might be checking this album out, teasing an ostensibly analog and visceral song before cheekily dropping a monster of a radio-ready hook. This kind of juxtaposition - “rare groove” and “feathered arrangements,” radical tunes and tunes with widespread appeal, counterculture and culture - will inevitably infuriate some.
I think there are a number of ways to counter those who pine for some sort of nostalgic music - the stuff with this ineffable soul for which so many are mad - but the most effective response, to me, would be pointing out that you can’t go home again. Electronic music, from where we stand today, is impossible to extricate from mainstream culture. Drum & bass - a genre born directly from jungle - is hitting the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic. “Rare groove” has been repurposed in the hands of Internet collectives and bros with a knack for sweet melodies, meaning that the kinds of reworked old-school funk and hip-hop you previously might only have been able to find deep within the bowels of a hollowed-out Manchester mansion are reaching the ears of Coachella attendees. Most importantly, the kinds of nigh-archaic equipment used to create this “putative soul” have all but been replaced with computer software, meaning that any sort of analogue-sounding groove created today, from Tessela to Ta-ku, will be made of different sweat and blood than the stuff from which it’s sampled. It will inevitably be informed by the culturally-immortalized legends of producers who may have been underground at one point but no longer are, now available and easily accessible to anyone from “students” to “yummy mummys.”
So, when Jamie xx samples a guy saying “It was good, you know, we enjoyed it, but we never used to, like, rave to it” at the end of “Good Times,” he’s got a point. The definition of rave music (and that of raves in general) has mutated and fragmented so much over the past twenty years or so that there really isn’t any one dominant distinction anymore between music that’s good to rave to and music that’s overwhelmingly dull and lacking in soul. Just because you didn’t “used to rave to it” doesn’t necessarily mean you wouldn’t now, and just because you thought something might have been terrible years ago doesn’t mean that you might enjoy it as the culture around it shifts. I would wager Jamie xx knows this; that’s why In Colour
so flagrantly spits in the face of the old-school crowd looking for quality new ‘ardkore. It’s why “Stranger in a Room,” with its lugubrious guitars and panicked synths supporting Oliver Sim’s plaintive crooning, is such a perfect late-night driving song, almost defiant in the impossibility of weaving it into any sort of dance-based set. It’s why “Hold Tight,” the following track, abruptly changes the mood, sounding like some sort of bizarre industrial-lite Deadmau5 radio single thanks to its simplistic chordal instincts and nagging, off-center high-frequency percussion.
Most notably, though, it’s why “Gosh,” that glorious piece of “deflated hardcore,” transitions so beautifully from meandering jungle to a warped, wildly colorful piece of sun when the bass’ melody comes in. Strictly as a hardcore song, it’s pretty miserable, milquetoast beats repeating over and over with barely any variation in timbre or tone. However, it’s such a good song because it simply uses hardcore as a front, creating a skeleton of stock drums and then messing with the tone of the bass and the bloom of the treble until everything shines rainbow and there’s no room for anything but unadulterated joy. In a sentence, that’s why In Colour
is so good: it remodels slabs of wax in a way that not only acknowledges but embraces the pop potential those snippets of sound have been denied for so long.
When Boomkat grumbles that In Colour
is “ripened up for students and yummy mummys alike - all under one roof,” then, the assumption it makes is that this kind of mainstream sensibility is undesirable. However, contrary to its statement, there is no longer that one roof under which we can all rave at once. I’m in one place, dancing in my chair late at night in a mid-Atlantic university because I’m playing “Good Times” on repeat. Somewhere thousands of miles west of me, a mother is probably playing “Seesaw” as her young child falls asleep. And, of course, somewhere in the U.K, a music critic is probably glowering into his computer as he tap-tap-taps away against the downtempo schlock of “Loud Places.” Point is, by limiting yourself to a narrow and possibly archaic definition of what constitutes “soul” or utter trash, you fail to allow yourself to properly appraise an album which falls outside that definition. How we treat albums always depends on the situation in which we find ourselves, and there’s no single scene or warehouse uniting us anymore. In this case, In Colour
might be “channelling” the deep and storied past of UK’s underground electronic music scene “into a pop-ready format palatable to Radio 1 daytime tastes and festival soundtracks.” As long as you don’t assume that this conversion is inherently bad, you might find that the album repurposes old material into its new context remarkably well. And, really, isn’t that the point of sampling in the first place?