The Document fills me with dread.
I've long made fun of musicianship for musicianship's sake and can recall chiding a friend for owning a Kitaro tape only because "the pitches are perfect." Now that I am a musician of sorts (I DJ to supplement my near non-existent writing income), I find myself perhaps for the first time ever admiring a record on technical grounds and getting cloudy-headed whenever I try to assess its musical merit. And I fear I'm crossing over to the jargon-soaked, emotionless realm my friends always
assumed I occupied while listening hard to music when all along I've really
just been searching for the ultimate in a shameless beauty that will push
teardrops behind my eyeballs.
But I cannot tell a lie. What excites me most about Portishead DJ Andy Smith's The Document, the zaniest mix-CD ever released through major-league (and probably even minor-league) distribution, is how seamlessly Smith mixes
from Marvin Gaye's "T Plays It Cool" into Tom Jones "Looking Out My Window" or from "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" into Peggy Lee's version of "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." This is the kind of DJ I
always thought I'd be when I first started learning how to mix. Sick of
hearing the same-old at this Club X, I would use my ridiculously eclectic
tastes in music to spin the craziest, most all-over-the-map sets ever.
Ha, fat chance! Once you learn how difficult it is to mix two records from
even the same genre together, you start to understand why you rarely hear
unbridled eclecticism in the clubs. Electronic dance music dominates the
dance floor because it's, well, electronic. Or, to get technically precise for
a moment here, electronic music is quantized. That is, all notes played fall
on the nearest specified beat and maintain an exact rhythmic position
throughout the entire song. This makes it easier (key word) to mix two beats
together since they never waver off-rhythm. Songs played by silly little
humans, on the other hand, are by nature going to be off the beat a little (or
a lot, depending on the skill of the musician) making it incredibly difficult
to match the beats of two such records.
Incredibly difficult but not impossible. Andy Smith does it here. And I greatly admire the skill with which he mixes Jeru the Damaja into the Meters into the James Gang. Here you should hope that ATN records the mixes for you to hear rather than the raw material songs themselves. You know (or should
know) what "Cissy Strut" sounds like but you've never heard it in and out of "Funk #49" and "Come Clean" and that's where all the drama of The Document lies for me. And, needless to say, I admire just the fact that Smith even
knows about such records and took the time to figure out whether or not they'd work together. DJs can be a mighty myopic bunch and it's refreshing to
hear one with such a gluttonous passion for music.
But as a pomo pop-music critic first and foremost, I like the idea of mixing
Jeru the Damaja into the Meters into the James Gang. In a perfect,
multifarious musical universe, that should seem like a natural occurrence. But
here's where I find it difficult to assess the musical worth of such an undertaking. A mix is only as good as its raw material. I find that once the thrill of the mix is over, I get bored with many of these tracks.
And there's one crucial element I've neglected to mention so far, an ingredient that a DJ does a lot of existential wrestling with -- an audience.
I'm still not sure how well The Document dances. There are some abrupt shifts,
like the one from "Funk #49" into Barry White/Love Unlimited's "Can't Seem To
Find Him," that might make a dance floor scatter. Even a flawless mix from S.L.
Troopers' "Movement" to the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm A Man" isn't so seamless simply because the styles are so opposed. For the record, I'd get
lynched if I played it in Milwaukee. My floor has a very circumscribed type of
music they want to hear. Can even Smith himself find an audience for this?
This isn't to suggest that one doesn't exist. If pressed, I'd say this would
go over quite well at a Grand Royal magazine party. The Beasties & Co. would
get off on the camp of Peggy Lee and the groove of the Meters that the B-Boys tried to
emulate on Check Your Head. The raps are a shoo-in and the pimpier tunes fit
their mock-sexist craziness. But the fact that Jeru's "I snatch fake gangsta
MCs and make them faggot flambé" has survived Smith's scratch and mix
unscathed suggests The Document's eclecticism isn't as utopian as it at first seems.