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DJ Sprinkles: Midtown 120 Blues
- Steve Mizek

In Little White Earbuds (US), December 10 2008.


Like disco before it, house music was born in queer club culture, one of the few places its artists and patrons - mostly gay minority men - could be themselves without fear of reprisal. And also like disco, house was co-opted by ever larger audiences, shedding its ethnicity and sexuality along the way. With this in mind, Terre Thaemlitz begins Midtown 120 Blues with a challenging statement: "House isn't so much a sound as a situation." As she dismisses popular perceptions of what informs house - "life, love, happiness" - in favor of more concrete ones - addiction, sexual/gender crises, queer-bashing, censorship - and frames house geographically in "East Jersey, Loisaida, West Village, and Brooklyn" rather than as a universal phenomenon, the situations which defined the music for him become clearer.

Thaemlitz left the American Midwest in 1986 for New York City, where he DJed in midtown Manhattan transsexual clubs as DJ Sprinkles and witnessed the first bloom of deep-house. Roughly twenty years later, as the sound and definition of deep-house has expanded immeasurably, Midtown 120 Blues serves as an elegy for the scene as she knew it and a kiss off to its current de-contextualized form. Although countless tracks and dozens of artists vocally revere the roots of house music, few offer more than platitudes about its origins. By pointing out its blanched, commercialized trajectory in a series of no-punches-pulled monologues and samples, Thaemlitz bravely confronts listeners with oft glossed over issues and participants in history. Given the scarcity of house tracks which address any sort of social issues, an entire album cast in such a light is a rare, engrossing treat.

Whereas the concepts Thaemlitz presents are provocative, the music of Midtown is more serene. Draped in lush, droning chords, punctuated by crisp, mechanical hi-hat dashes and synthetic snare ellipses, and hovering instead of stomping, its deep-house sound is so deep it's practically ambient at times. Piano is splashed across many of the album's 10 tracks in broad, resonating chords carrying listeners forward as much as the percussion. Flute, acoustic guitar and drums and a few other elements round out the sound, underlining particularly emotional motifs and pushing the material towards self-described "fagjazz" on "Sisters, I Don't Know What This World Is Coming To" and "Reverse Rotation" with Kuniyuki. Taken together, it's a gorgeous, twilight aesthetic that hits notes of sorrow, longing and contemplation.

Nominally a house album, Midtown flirts with the dance floor only on a few songs, though it's quite satisfying each time it does. [The title track] "Midtown 120 Blues" is simple and effective, colored by two massive piano chords that decay slowly, as alacrative percussion carves out the groove. Joined by pulverizing sub-bass, depth-plumbing bass notes and a disembodied diva's single-word refrain, the track's subtle tweaks keep it continuously compelling. "Grand Central, Pt. I (Deep Into The Bowel Of House)" and "House Music Is Controllable Desire You Can Own" have fuller sounds and rest at the dance floor's edge. Thick with sub-bass and gently modulating pads, Thaemlitz's use of limber bass tones, catchy little progressions and endlessly refined percussion patterns draw listeners through their bountiful lengths.

Other tracks like "Brenda's $20 Dilemma" and "Grand Central, Pt. II (72 Hrs. By Rail From Missouri)" have the hallmarks of house but are content with ambience, blanketing listeners in sublime pads marbled with wandering synth melodies and sampled vocals. The album's most emotionally evocative song, "Ball'r (Madonna-Free Zone)," is also its best, layering drag queens' playful leering atop interwoven melodies undulating in and out of focus. Mournful yet tinged with hints of past cheer, it's a candid reflection of the vibe Thaemlitz misses. Even if the listener doesn't yearn for the same things, the concepts, mood and slowly unfolding chapters of Midtown 120 Blues create an atmosphere ripe for reflection on people and places which no longer exist as they once did.