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K-S.H.E. - Routes Not Roots

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Artist: K-S.H.E.

Album: Routes Not Roots

Label: Skylax

Review date: Mar. 29, 2011

One of the world’s leading scholars, artist or otherwise, on the identity politics of dancing queer, Terre Thaemlitz transcends gender as effortlessly as s/he balances side projects. Be it DJ Sprinkles, Fagjazz, Trans-Sister Radio or Terre’s Neu Wuss Fusion, on the surface at least, hir work plays no different than any other SAMO crate-digging buffoon — club for the club-footed, house for the school house’s homeless. Lend a closer ear, however, and after a bar or two, you’ll no doubt hear the intellectual heft of hir creations.

On Thaemlitz’s first proper Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion disc, the complexity of the undertaking is, understandably, understated. And like most of Thaemlitz’s dance music vis-ŕ-vis, that endeavor is thusly: to craft structurally sound deep house, from New York via Chicago, for the discerning thinker-cum-dancer. To be sure, there aren’t too many disc jockeys, as it were, spinning this kind of thing. And there are fewer still who can do it well. (Aside from some of Matthew Herbert’s guises, I’m drawing a big, fat goose egg regarding other examples.)

Trading the tropes of IDM’s kick drum trig and stutter-edit calc for the harder sciences of tranny sociology, gays’ anatomy and as Thaemlitz’s describes hirself, a few “sexually amorphous Japanese cross-dressers posing as high school girls,” what comes out of the speaker cones for hir is a dance music decontextualized from the dancefloor. Forget for a moment the phallic, almost prurient origins of house, itself. That is, house as homosexual FUBU music — for gays, by gays, and at least until the Brits caught wind in the late ’80s, almost exclusively the province of gay men. Such a one-dimensional, vanilla-gendered history, however, matters not to these 12 K-S.H.E. bangers.

Lest you think Thaemlitz is all queer tower theory and ascetic footnotes, peep the halfway track “Stand-Up.” A six-minute bit where Thaemlitz, presumably, recounts a vicious subway assault at the limp-wristed hands of a “Puerto Rican gang of street queens,” each gory detail is answered with canned laughter from a comedy club audience. Even funnier is the dark, near jingoism of the two-part “Saki Chan.” Backed by seemingly ironic harp glissandi and punctuated with 8-bit answering machine beeps, we’re introduced to a transvestite who, in a nigh on unintelligible concatenation of English and Japanese, seems to be lamenting his inability to afford the latest in haute couture undergarments. Woe is s/he, indeed. Elsewhere, the traditional Scottish tune “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” receives an uncharacteristically plaintive rendering from a lovesick Thaemlitz, as if s/he’s trying to clue us in on a secret crush.

Of course, these are just silly digressions from the more austere rhetorical fare of Routes Not Roots. As empowering and salacious as it is to talk about transgendered “brother” hood (“B2B”) or turning tricks in Washington, D.C.’s U Street corridor (“Crosstown”), there are indeed bigger issues — especially given the milieu in which Thaemlitz best operates. Perhaps chief among them all, still, is AIDS. And while Thaemlitz the reluctant academic, and Terre the sometimes advocate, are in fact two discrete sides of the same essential coin, neither mien sounds shy on the record’s best cut, the album-closing “Infected.” Opening with B-movie dialogue (“A cure? / I would do anything for a cure!”), it’s certainly not a subtle nod, but the caffeinated BPM and telegraphed brass stabs make for a truly, well, infectious dance record.

By Logan K. Young

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