2008 saw an awful lot of looking back in the world of dance music, with many artists offering revisitations and re-presentations of various "classic" sounds, such as disco, dub techno and deep house. Japanese label Mule proved itself to be prescient indeed in predicting the third of these trends when it released You? Again? halfway through 2006, an outstanding collection of lush deep house tracks originally produced and released by Terre Thaemlitz in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now, the fiercely experimental and intellectual producer returns to the sound with Midtown 120 Blues, his first full-length album under the DJ Sprinkles moniker.
This is, however, most definitely not Thaemlitz cashing in. He is deeply suspicious of the deep house revival, and in many ways Midtown 120 Blues is an attempt to make us question what we think deep house "means" and to draw our attention to the contexts that formed the sound. In a moment of delicious irony, Thaemlitz lays it out on album opener "Midtown 120 Intro" with a coolly delivered voice-over that deliberately evokes scores of classic house monologues.
There must be a hundred records with voice-overs asking, "What is house?" The answer is always some greeting card bullshit about "life, love, happiness...." … House is not universal. House is hyper-specific … The contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, HIV, ACT-UP, Tompkins Square Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment and censorship—all at 120 beats per minute.
But the album isn't just an intellectual exercise. In the course of locating the sound in a highly specific context, Thaemlitz treats us to well over an hour of exquisite deep house. Other than a handful of monologues and loops of vocal samples, Thaemlitz eschews vocals and keeps things instrumental—there are no wailing divas here, but instead richly textured productions that are warm and enveloping, full of gently tapped pianos and flute notes floating by. Even as the tracks groove (and they do indeed groove—many of these tracks would be quite welcome on a dance floor), there's a gentle fluid grace to Midtown 120 Blues.
There's a definite twinge of melancholy here too. For Thaemlitz, deep house is not the music of celebration, but the music of sadness. Perhaps this is sadness for the original context that has been erased, buried and gentrified. Perhaps it's the sadness of the original context itself. Perhaps it's a mix of both. This melancholy is clearest on "Grand Central, Pt. II (72 hrs. by Rail from Missouri)," almost nine minutes of gently drifting ambience, as a piano softly dances over warm gentle tones, the sound of a record crackling and popping, and a woman's voice reflecting on seeing somebody "getting knocked around." The final minute is silent except for the sound of vinyl crackling. More than anywhere else on the album, this track underlines what deep house means to Thaemlitz—sadness, pain, the threat of sudden violence and the fleeting promise of escape in a club.
Midtown 120 Blues is an incredibly deep album—not just in terms of the "deepness" of the house on offer, but emotionally and intellectually so, as Thaemlitz maps out the sound in a deeply personal way. A meditation on the "meaning" of house, a critique of the recent deep house revival, an exploration of one man's personal relationship with the sound—Midtown 120 Blues is all of these things, not to mention being some of the best deep house you'll hear in a very long time.