Maxmillion Dunbar's Earthy, Celestial 'House of Woo'

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

Last year I sat in on an episode of Beats in Space, the weekly WNYU radio show that broadcasts from the basement of the NYU freshman dorms and showcases the best in the electronic underground. For this particular installment, host Tim Sweeney had as special guests New York’s own Ron Morelli and Washington D.C. duo Beautiful Swimmers. While the former’s set was brusque, coarse and dark as a New York winter, the Swimmers (Ari Goldman and Andrew Field-Pickering) offered up a set that drew primarily from the golden age of deep house music (Masters at Work, Ten City, Strictly Rhythm cuts), all glossy pads, synthesized sheens, and crisp drum programming, as shimmering and sinewy as their name might suggest. Or as Field-Pickering quipped at one point on the show, discussing the acts’ conflicting yet oddly complementary styles: “Fellatio versus jerking it.”

Field-Pickering also works solo as Maxmillion Dunbar and unsurprisingly, his own tracks exhibit the same luster of the Swimmers, though with a crucial difference. “Beautiful Swimmers is much more the product of two brains,” he told me. “I just work very intuitively and quickly when I work solo, improvising things. It becomes a personal thing.” His debut, 2010’s Cool Water, drew from the boxy drum beats of boogie, early acid and D.C. go-go, the beat evolving as it went, feeling like a bildungsroman at times. And this week sees the release of Maxmillion Dunbar’s House of Woo (on RVNG, order on iTunes), his most sumptuous, mature work to date.

A chirpy flute tone on “Slave to the Vibe” opens the album, before a sharp closed hi-hat and jumpy keyboard figure join in, the three sounds leading into a lush middle section. One of Dunbar’s tricks is to unmoor those brisk sounds from the normal 4/4 pacing, more kin to the drummer’s role in jazz. It makes sense given that Dunbar named a track on Cool Water “Rhythm Track for Rashied Ali” (best known for unleashing galaxial rhythmic outbursts as John Coltrane’s late period drummer) and made explicit his love for free jazz on this fine Swimmers’ mix of trumpeter Don Cherry from last year. “That to me became one of the central vibes or themes of the LP,” he said. “Like the drums are the planet and all this melody and bass orbits around it.”

Woo can feel earthy and celestial at once. Rhythms draw on a Detroit house producer like Theo Parrish but filtered through the steez of someone like Newworldaquarium, yet the synth tones he favors throughout venture deep into the “New Age” zone, sounding like Andean pan pipes, tubular bells, pink clouds, healing crystals. Field-Pickering points to “Coins for the Canopy” as a pivotal track for the album, the one that clearly defined the sound in his mind. “I really got that one to hover for me, and that to me became one of the central vibes or themes of the LP,” he said of his intent. “I also consciously wanted to zone out on these tracks; I wanted it to sound pretty horizontal.”

Last year’s massive single for Germany’s Robert Johnson club/ label “Polo” (which bore a sticker proclaiming “No.1 Illegal Download of the Year”) foregrounded that sensibility, wafting synth ambience before delivering the beats come down. “That’s a sensibility I definitely have, that debt to the ‘Extended Dub,’ the ‘Percapella,’ the ‘Ambient Mix,’” he said. “I made a lot of ambient music up front during the sessions for HoW, and then dumped a lot of that into the sampler, to use where I would have previously used records.”

Elsewhere, Dunbar favors the rayon sheen of early '90s R&B, the tropical humidity of Beninian synth wizard Wally Badarou, as well as Fingers Inc. and 808 State-styled house. Sumptuous as the album is though, Field-Pickering suggests he’s already changing up his sound. “I already feel myself stepping back from the new age/ambient side of things in my tracks since the LP though,” he said. There will be new productions for Morelli’s L.I.E.S. imprint later this year, more drum-heavy: “I’ve been feeling a lot tougher.”