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V/A - Idol Tryouts

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Artist: V/A

Album: Idol Tryouts

Label: Ghostly International

Review date: Jul. 11, 2003

The Midwest’s contributions to modern music are well documented, despite the bicoastalism of prevailing media and cultural conglomerates. Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis have all given birth to underprivileged icons that thrived outside the national spotlight until their luminescent mark on history grew too bright to ignore. The industry’s presence, and focus, on the East and West coasts allowed artists like Sun Ra and George Clinton to experiment with more radical material and ideologies that, while never fully contaminating the mainstream, attracted enough malcontents and dissidents to constitute entirely new methods of mayhem.

As technology progressed from the late ’70s to the early ’80s, Detroit’s Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, masked often behind the anonymity of pseudonyms and white labels, unleashed a 4/4 future called ‘techno’ on a supposedly uncultured demographic about the same time New Yorkers deemed disco-punk the next chapter in evolutionary theory and it’s no surprise which movement attracted the most attention. While the Lower East Side, for all intents and purposes, stacked Sid Vicious over the Bee Gees over James Brown, the Rock City renegades built their own pyramids without the aid of preexisting blueprints – master plans that have yet to receive their just due outside of Berlin.

Eno never saw fit to assemble a No Detroit album, but two decades later Sam Valenti and the Ghostly International label have collected a troupe of artists that dwarfs the current Yes New York ensemble. Not surprisingly, Idol Tryouts: Ghostly International Vol. 1, a compilation featuring music from Ann Arbor and slightly beyond, portends the future instead of aping the past and resonates with the same experimental aspiration that has distinguished the Midwest musical mindset thus far.

Valenti took over a year to compile Idol Tryouts, working with Ben Mullins of Midwest Product to collect and sequence the best work on the Ghostly label. After 10 different concoctions, the final product exudes the exhilarating mystique of the dancefloor without succumbing to hedonistic mindlessness. The songs on Idol Tryouts are for the most part intelligent – unpredictable without feeling alien.

Unlike the rhythmic transcendence that formed the core of Detroit techno, melody is an overt ingredient in Ann Arbor’s electronic ideals. Midwest Product’s “Laundry” and Outputmessage’s angelic “Bernard’s Song” both hang their drum machine hooks behind melodic exteriors, resulting in pop songs that rely on dimension and texture, rather than catchy choruses. Outputmessage, a.k.a. Bernard Farley, is but 20 years old, but his audition is easily one of the top offerings on the compilation.

Valenti & Co. would be remiss to exclude the darker side of their community, and thankfully they don’t. James Cotton, a.k.a. Tadd Mullinix (a.k.a. Dabrye), dives into the murky potential of techno and emerges with “Help Me Think of One”, while Charles Manier submits a grinding crowd-pleaser in “At the Bottle.”

First place, however, goes to Dykehouse for his cover of Wire’s “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”. Mike Dykehouse, who’s known more for his IDM material and solo album on Planet Mu, recorded this poppy maelstrom alone in his bedroom, an astounding feat considering the lush, masterful production. This shoegazer take on a post-punk classic epitomizes the often untapped potential of cover songs – Dykehouse dispenses of Wire’s static aesthetic and replaces it with a technicolored flora reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, paying tribute to Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis by revealing the song’s inherent malleability instead of just attempting imitation. It’s hard to believe that this was Dykehouse’s first demo recording, a feat that points to his impressive production sensibilities and sets the expectations frighteningly high for his debut Ghostly full-length, which is scheduled for a Fall ’03 release.

Perhaps most telling are the low points on Idol Tryouts. The sonic canyons in Ann Arbor would be mere potholes in most other cities (and possibly historical landmarks in L.A.’s broken music scene). The album remains engaging from beginning to end, bookended by two tracks from Ghostly’s friendliest spectre Dabrye, the latter take being a Prefuse 73 megamix.

While Idol Tryouts may be an intentionally ironic title referencing the underexposed legends atop Michigan-music’s family tree (and hopefully not a pun on the current trend in network primetime programming), there are a few instances here worthy of worship. The project reinforces Ghostly International’s reputation as a label to watch in the future and adds another feather to the cap of Midwest modernism.

By Otis Hart

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