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Ivan Smagghe - Live at Robert Johnson, Vol. 3

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Artist: Ivan Smagghe

Album: Live at Robert Johnson, Vol. 3

Label: Live at Robert Johnson

Review date: Oct. 1, 2009

I’d wager that most people — Americans, at least — who listen to electronic dance music grapple with the fact that it’s so easily caricaturized as faceless consumer-throb. Mixes in particular have had a hard time receiving the same sort of critical attention lavished on albums that work in the rock tradition, presumably because of this ideological baggage. As a former employee of Rough Trade’s Paris location, French DJ Ivan Smagghe has a rock snob-ready pedigree as well as a grip of high-quality mix CDs, including entries in the Fabric and Suck My Deck series, under his belt. Although you wouldn’t mistake Live at Robert Johnson, his latest mix, for an entry in the Late Night Tales mixtape series, Smagghe’s style of mixing and the logic behind his track selections would make as much sense at a college radio station as it does in the club.

Whether it’s a function of running out of new things to hype or simply an openness to investing in music you might not pay money for, internet music press hype cycles have spotlighted electronic dance music with greater frequency, and it’s easy to imagine Live at Robert Johnson as a gateway mix. Smagghe pulls off some pretty rugged transitions between tracks: Two Banks of Four’s “Junkyard Gods” turns into Eddie Zarook & Casino Casino’s “Was” rather abruptly by DJ standards … but the three-second stretch where the beat falls out and returns with a distinctly darker cast provides the kind of narrative toehold that a smoother, more uniformly minimal mix -- like Konrad Black’s Watergate 03 -- doesn’t offer.

It’s not as if Smagghe is making any concessions here. There’s trancey repetition to spare in unlikely and more familiar forms, from the rubbery basslines of Holy Fuck’s rework of Röyksopp’s “Happy Up Here” to the more familiar seven-minute wiggle of Mock & Toof’s remix of the Loin Brothers track “Heavy Helmet.” Brian Eno’s definition of ambient music as both ignorable and interesting has some bearing on quality dance music, too. Smagghe’s strength in Live at Robert Johnson, and what accounts partly for its accessibility, lies in his ability to drop the right cues at moments where monotony might otherwise take over, letting the listener’s attention go slack before reining it in again.

Smagghe’s record rat tendencies surface at the mix’s end. Deep cuts from Dark Day ("No, Nothing, Ever") and Rheingold ("Dreiklangsdimensionen") close the album in home-listening isolation mode. The songs’ chilly affect reminds me of Tobias Freund’s superlative Resident Advisor mix, in particular the way Freund inserts paranoid story-song "The Neo-Realist" by forgotten Seattleites Savant as a means of closing his icy, luminous, early-morning selection. Live at Robert Johnson doesn’t conjure its own space quite as effectively as Freund’s mix, and that’s the point: Smagghe’s taste is catholic, esoteric and a little bit populist. As different as their styles are, there does seem to be a through-line in French electro – from Nôze to Jennifer Cardini and Smagghe, certain French producers and DJs clearly prize house music because it’s inviting and inclusive. Live at Robert Johnson is rewarding at its several depths, regardless of whether you know how to parse your deep house from your acid.

By Brandon Bussolini

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