A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Last week Disclosure released their new album, Settle to much acclaim. Indeed, psyched reviews abound! Much of the appeal stems from the fact that the young English sibling duo of Guy and Howard Lawrence that comprise Disclosure are clearly students of the history of dance music beyond their years – particularly the sidelined subgenre U.K. garage; in fact, their resurrection of that sound has become a top selling point for Settle.
While some pundits are already declaring Settle the dance album of the year, is it perhaps more of a pop album? And really, what’s the difference between dance music and pop music anyways? Oh jeez, here we go. To think about how we should be thinking about Settle, Ducker chatted with Rich Juzwiak, a staff writer at Gawker who has also contributed to The Village Voice, SPIN, This American Life and The Washington Post. He was also previously an arts writer for The Daily and co-authored the book Pot Psychology’s How to Be: Lowbrow Advice from High People, an extension of his video series with Tracie Egan Morrissey on Jezebel.
Eric Ducker: How did you first discover Disclosure?
Rich Juzwiak: I downloaded some of their stuff randomly. But it wasn’t until Jon Caramanica’s show review last year that I really paid attention. That really made me listen to them and get excited for what they were doing.
ED: What did you find exciting?
RJ: Production-wise, they are very clean. They seamlessly synthesize their influences, but at the same time aren’t exactly breaking new ground. So it’s really more about strong pop songs in the dance music clothing.
ED: How do they line up in terms of the type of stuff you usually listen to?
RJ: I certainly pay attention to the big, electronic/dance event albums; and this is one of them. In general, I love house music. I have since I was, like, 12. And Disclosure reminds me the most of deep stuff I listened to as a kid – Masters at Work, Tony Humphries and others. They remind me more of garage in the original sense of the phrase than in the U.K. garage sense.
ED: You called Settle an “electronic/dance event” album, but do you think that’s the best way to understand it? Is it maybe a pop/R&B album? I’m curious if we’re all looking at this album through the right lens.
RJ: Were Inner City pop or Detroit techno? Is Lady Gaga just another pop diva or the face of dance music’s mainstream resurgence in the U.S.? Is soulful house more soul or house? It’s difficult to draw specific boxes like that. However, I will say that Settle definitely falls on the pop side of dance music. My primary complaint is that it doesn’t knock hard enough. The four-on-the-floor beats are pretty polite; it reminds me of Robyn in that sense, although I think she’s more guilty of giving the impression of dance music to make pop. Settle is a little deeper, and certainly more concerned with dance music history.
ED: My thinking is that, for the past few years, people have been talking about dance music’s explicit influence on hip-hop and pop and R&B. Likewise, Settle feels very much like a pop or an R&B album, yet it’s still being introduced to American audiences through the channels of dance music. I don’t know if that’s because of marketing, or a lack of understanding from music listeners, critics and so on, or if that’s how Disclosure themselves want to be perceived.
RJ: All of that is very slippery, but the sense that I get is that a lot of critics haven’t taken dance music seriously until now – so when a solid album like Settle comes along, it’s THE BEST and IMPORTANT. But dance music has always been pop music. Its point is to reach as many people as possible, and not just that, but physically move them. And look at Madonna. Reggie Lucas produced some tracks on her first album, which is a post-disco work. Is “Lucky Star” a dance song? Sure. Is it a pop song? Absolutely. Settle is a great relic of its time, though: it’s a nice reminder that something with populist leanings can be loved by critics, and that pop and dance are inextricably bound. What makes it feel more pop than dance to you?
ED: I still have the bias that dance music, which as you’ve discussed is a flawed term per how I define it, is fueled by the desire to make new sounds. It should push what instruments and computers and technology can do. I think Settle sounds very familiar. And that’s not a knock on the final product. It’s a really good album, and I love plenty of things that are incredibly reminiscent of older things. So it’s tough for me to look at like, “This is what the new sound of dance music is,” when to me it’s more like, “It is interesting to hear pop music go in this direction.”
RJ: I think the opposite has been true. The Chicago house guys were just trying to make disco. They were just trying to replicate what Frankie Knuckles was spinning at the Warehouse, and what Ron Hardy was doing at the Box. It was their technological limitations, ironically, that made them break ground.
ED: I don’t think that attempt to sound new is always conscious, but there is an inventiveness that can come with reinterpretation. And as you said, it was the limitations and the workarounds and the experiments that created something different. And I’ll admit that, a lot of times, trying to make new sounds results in really boring music or unlistenable music.
RJ: I definitely agree that there is no invention with Settle. In that sense, it does have the treading water nature of pop, i.e., “Let’s see what we can do with this stuff people already like!” That’s an important exercise, but a different one than what you’re talking about as an ideal.
ED: I don’t want to make it seem like I’m not impressed with this album, or think it’s lacking. What I’m ultimately saying is that I want more people to hear it because I think lots of people will like it because it’s poppy, and shouldn’t be shunted out of the mainstream.
RJ: It is a solid, enjoyable album.
ED: They could license the hell out of it to commercials and trailers. And they should. And they probably will.
RJ: I’m interested to see what kind of legs it will have in the U.S. I doubt it will spawn a Top 40 hit, but it seems like anything goes with dance music’s popularity these days. Two months ago, I would have never predicted that Daft Punk would go Top 5.
ED: Do you think it would be more likely that it would have an impact on the charts and mainstream radio if all of the vocals were handled by Howard Lawrence, the younger brother, rather just on the song “F for You”? Is that “featured vocalists” aspect a stigma? Or have we moved past that with David Guetta and now Daft Punk?
RJ: If anything, features make things more commercial. I mean, that’s Hip-Hop 101 – but it’s not like U.S. teenagers are gonna drop everything to listen to something featuring AlunaGeorge, as much as they should. “Jessie Ware’s on that track? I just must hear it nowwww!” Just from what I’ve observed (and this is not a product of a scientific survey), a dance track is more likely to be popular if it has female vocals, so if anything, the guests will help more than hurt.
ED: Not that pop and R&B albums are made with one credited producer these days, but hypothetically, if Interscope had somehow convinced Disclosure to scrap all the vocals on Settle and give them all to one particular female singer who already had a following, how do you think it would do in the pop landscape?
RJ: I still think it would be a hard sell. Maybe Daft Punk have loosened things up, but this is deep, moody stuff. There aren’t drops; it isn’t nearly as rude as pop dance music is. That these aren’t block waveforms of electro shriek works against the album on a commercial basis. But maybe this will help nudge things in a deeper, more dynamic direction.
ED: I can see an older pop star, and by older I mean late twenties, hearing a song like “Latch” and telling their label, “I want to do that.”
RJ: That song is massive. And that hook is amazing, yeah, but U.S. radio has never experienced something so shuffle-y. I would love it, though. I mean, Settle is kind of saying, “Those weird, scary, niche sounds? They’re not so scary after all.” It feels like a gateway in a big way.
ED: Disclosure is playing the Hard Festival in Los Angeles this summer, and I’m curious if what they do will be not aggressive or intense enough for that crowd, which definitely is getting younger and younger.
RJ: I was surprised to see how into Boys Noize the kids were at Electric Zoo last year, but he’s a lot more aggressive. Still, it does seem like there is a certain open-mindedness that maybe Billboard isn’t reflecting.
ED: I agree. It doesn’t seem entirely regimented or totally codified.
RJ: One thing that does make this particularly pop is its cleaning up of dance music. It’s very blue-eyed. That includes the Disclosure boys and their vocalists, who are predominantly non-black.
ED: That’s interesting. I hadn’t really looked up all the vocalists to see what they look like. Plus I don’t think the group or any of the singers have been in any of the videos.
RJ: Right. There’s a lot of image manipulation involved that is Daft Punk-like.
ED: Would you connect them to the blue-eyed soul tradition?
RJ: Yeah, I think so. Though the vocals aren’t as try-hard as what we’d normally classify as blue-eyed soul. There isn’t a lot of over-compensating melisma here. At the same time, this is a bunch of white people making black music. People don’t really think of house music as black music, and I’m a lot less familiar with British forbears, so maybe there is a tradition of whiteness there from the start. But yeah, I don’t think that the extremely clean nature of everything on Settle is a coincidence exactly. Or if it is, it’s one hell of a coincidence.
ED: Observing U.K. garage from afar over a decade ago, it seemed like it was a racially mixed scene, both in terms of who was making it and who was listening to it. Then again, I always assume that everything in dance music started among a non-white community.
RJ: Definitely. The roots of disco and house are gay black and Latino men on both sides. U.K. garage did seem more mixed. I think that Settle is barely U.K. garage, though. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Settle is user-friendly to the point of being whitewashed.
ED: What do you make of “When A Fire Starts to Burn,” which starts the album, and is built around the sample of what seems pretty obviously is a black American man talking?
RJ: Yeah, sampling black culture is what Disclosure does, but I don’t condemn them for this. The argument that people not be influenced and act accordingly by certain parts of the culture that are only avoidable by will is just so backward and boring. I just think it’s funny that white dudes made a whitewashed album that’s still good! I mean, I’ll take this over The 20/20 Experience any day.
ED: Can you clarify what you meant when you said earlier that Settle is barely U.K. garage?
RJ: Just that this is barely kissed with a garage influence. Their snares are nowhere nearly as in-your-face and irregular. The bass drum, too. “You & Me” is the only real 2-step track, though you can hear elements of U.K. garage in “Stimulation” and “Voices.” It would be really ballsy to make an actual U.K. garage album; Disclosure are too polite for that.
ED: Do you think people who are calling it garage have their reference point off and it’s more indebted to house music? Or do you think it just doesn’t commit fully to any of those sounds?
RJ: It’s mostly just house, four-on-the-floors equally measured out. The vast majority of what’s here is that. But I like that they work in elements of U.K. garage! That’s a nice change. It’s awesome that “You & Me” was a single, too.
ED: Because they were willing to bring elements of U.K. garage to the mainstream, or just because you like it?
RJ: I just don’t understand why U.K. garage had to go away! Styles come in and out, but it seems particularly dead even compared to jungle, and I find it to be such an enjoyable genre. That Sunship album, Is This Real, is one of the best, most uplifting dance albums of all time.
ED: So even if Disclosure isn’t really a U.K. garage act, perhaps with all the connections people are making and the influence that is there, maybe others will go back and actually start making U.K. garage again.
RJ: Right. Again, right alongside its pleasurable qualities is this album’s status as a potential gateway. To me, those things are neck-and-neck in terms of its importance.