Willie Reviews Laurel Halo’s “DJ-Kicks” Mix

Willie Reviews Laurel Halo’s “DJ-Kicks” Mix

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Laurel Halo’s contribution to the DJ-Kicks mix series has all the erratic pops and snaps we’ve come to expect from her music as well as some massive, ripping techno. With a whole lot of great artists and a steady curatorial hand, Halo makes you ask yourself “Why am I murmuring in the club rn?” Here’s what’s new with Laurel Halo:

The DJ-Kicks mix series, put out since 1995 by electronic label !K7, has come to incorporate all styles of producers and DJs and the wide breadth of material brought by each of those individuals. Musician and DJ Laurel Halo enters the series for its 68th installment and brings her very large net to pick up sounds along the way. The challenge and joy of Halo’s music is juggling the elaborate musicality of her work along with the chaotic arrival of sounds dropping in. She spatters them around, sparking questions of the sound’s origin as well as giving that satisfying feeling of hearing something so new. Chance of Rain was a revelation in 2013, forcing club music through a new mold. Her 2017 album Dust has the rapid breathing quality of an anxious rabbit, and it pressed each of its hundreds of organic sounds into thin layers. Raw Silk Uncut Wood from late 2018 skewed ambient and warranted its title by pouring on luxurious textures (in a phrase, “expensive sounding sounds”). So what does Laurel Halo want to do with her DJ-Kicks mix? Make the people dance!

Though the continuous mix of the tracks is an hour, the 29 tracks by themselves in sequence last just over 150 minutes. This gives Halo a lot of room to work, and she takes advantage of it, pulling from all directions. We get to see her interests and obsessions, frequent themes, and outsider picks. It’s an oblique portrait of the DJ, as all sets are, but as a bonus, she includes two new tracks exclusive to the mix—“Public Art” and “Sweetie.” Then there are five originals from other artists. Many of the tracks share Halo’s tactile, buzzing aesthetic, but the mix is also necessarily danceable. But no more summary, it won’t work!

 

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Halo’s first original comes at the very start and addresses the concept of the mix. “Public Art” has fun with the idea of a curator. Its twinkling and off-balance behavior loops again and again, mimicking the behavior of a crowd. Voices murmur indistinctly, but maybe curiously? You can read it two ways: one is an interested crowd, pointing and looking at an object placed mysteriously in its path. The other possibility is the invisibility of that same art object, with crowds passing it like river water around a boulder. Maybe there is a bit of both, but you have to trust your DJ at the end of the day. It introduces what’s to come, then falls right into Stallone The Reducer’s grimy “Always Hate.”

You can divide out the tracks in a couple of large groups, the first being those organic beats that sound accidental or otherwise copy-and-pasted from another, unknown place. These are the ones with direct connections to Halo’s on-record style. “Just Made Some Jazz Music” by Machine Woman takes a rambling vocal sample and puts it against a straight club beat, all the while talking about jazz but delaying its arrival. When the jazz finally does arrive in a series of two alternating jazzy chords, it knocks out the original beat and takes its place. The confrontation between jazz’s refusal to settle in and club music’s insistence on it is both very funny and very danceable. The song, teasing jazz for  minutes before delivering, shows how easy it is to “just put this tune on and just play.” It’s like, whatever.

Nick Leon’s “Pelican Dub,” another exclusive, is an energetic assemblage of nature sounds (I do love a bird song). It turns a flock of birds into a dance tune with interesting phrases to boot. Still, it is upfront with its source in a way that Halo’s tracks rarely are. The soul of sound-searching and arranging raw material is there in “Pelican Dub,” just without a completely opaque cover. “Plastic PQ” from Yamaoka is suggestive of a woody texture, but has a polished electronic finish reminiscent of Halo’s ambient work. The song’s atmospheric qualities work well in the mix, stretching out the sounds around it. Panda Lassow’s “Lachowa” shares maybe the closest ties with Halo’s style. It gets into temporary grooves and leaves lots of empty space. The clipped edges on the samples chisel away at the source material to get at interesting vocal artifacts.

 

Laurel Halo, photo by Phillip Aumann

 

Beatless meanders also have their place in the mix. “Brian’s Having a Party” by Geoffrey Landers sounds like the massively slow unwinding of a tape, an echoing, formless thing that introduces confusion on top of its neighboring dance tracks. Think “advancing frame by frame through a musical sting from a Vincent Price thriller.” The Whitefield Brothers’ “Ntu” is ostensibly a recording of traditional music and it closes out the set, a choice made doubly bold by the fact that Halo cuts it off before it gets into electronic music territory. The gesture of avoiding its seductive qualities cannot go unnoticed.

The remainder of the tracks are all ventures outside the sound sculpture arena, and they’re really what makes the mix so strong. The funk samples in “Loser” by Kirk The Flirt expand the pool of influences for Halo, and a number of big techno tracks get the spotlight throughout. Dario Zenker’s “Koraimer Bro” is big and takes up lots of space. Even (and especially) the tracks that are loudest within their genre have tricks to play. “Koraimer Bro” shifts tone from passive to active about halfway through, going from “music for standing in a room” to “music for running down the middle of the road.” You will not grab the attention of the room without strong cues to dance coming through clearly and frequently. The mix is won by the biggest of the big sounds. It gets to go to the places it does because it always comes back to a head-nodding blast.

In the continuous mix, everything finds its place. The hilarious self-questioning of “Just Made Some Jazz Music” plays over a chorus of descending runs in “Cricoid Pressure.” Both lead to nowhere and no conclusion and thus play beautifully. “Funky World” and “Freakey Ke Ke” find a middle ground of bounciness. You can make some more connections on your own listens. It is better that way. Laurel Halo gets to release every part of her artistic curiosity that cannot or does not make it onto her originals. She shops for bits and pieces, some with a recognizable part of her. Maybe this extremely eclectic mix only muddies the waters, but the day it becomes clear what’s going on in Laurel Halo’s music will be a sad one.

Score: a somewhat sinful sculpture garden in the middle of an amusement park.

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