All you need to dance is a beat, but sometimes more will do: juicy textures, electronic nuggets, decorative splotches, maybe even a melody. These ingredients are all extraneous, of course, but excess can delight. The albums reviewed below demonstrate the charms of maximalist dance music, a mode that prizes density.
Valgur: Zapandu (Valgur)
Gleefully arch beneath a beguiling surface, this experimental Mexican pop band has invented the glassiest of pop templates: lustrous and cloudy, like the magic vapor swirling around inside a crystal ball. The tone of their songs, at once solemn and excitable, pushes the sound into electric motion.
The album’s most startling weird noise among many is Elizabeth Valdivieso Gurrion’s voice: a gentle, graceful soprano — naturally high but electronically altered to echo — singing neat, pretty, almost classical-sounding melodies in both Spanish and Zapotec while seeming to exude a pale, eerie glow.
The band layers its cold, wispy keyboard hooks, bursts of spiky rhythm guitar, percussive synthesized bass, and random sound effects — a crying baby, a ringing telephone — to create a sense of crisp clarity obscured, slightly, by hazy chill. The harsh, airy propulsion of the music moves like a large, sleek, unpredictable machine, programmed to do its job cleanly and efficiently, but capable of violence.
To pair such music with such a singer could have produced cheerful camp, extracting humor from contrast, but in fact the blurred edges of the electronic sound accentuate her ghostliness; she sounds like a disembodied, avenging spirit, forever trapped in a state of extreme, furious, mournful, but somehow etiolated, feeling. The effect, while not devoid of humor, is perturbing; the whispered chorus in “Vampiro” and the dissonant key change in “El Pozo” (the hook: “Uno dos tres/cuatro cinco seis”) prickle the skin.
If Shura sang for US Girls, she might sound like this — a breathy, technologically modulated vocal performance, designed to illustrate how automated gestures can both hide and magnify emotion, incorporated into a scarier, jerkier, shuffled recombination of keyboards, guitars, and extradiegetic noises. To hear emotions shuffled and manipulated so transparently — this is what’s scary.
Having streamlined its sound just enough to move elegantly without ironing out the creepy surprises lurking beneath the polish, Valgur crunches and glimmers. Between detachment and emotion lies an uncanny valley.
Ibibio Sound Machine: Doko Mien (Merge)
Supposedly a tribute band paying homage to the last days of disco, this London ensemble blends electrofunk and Nigerian pop into drum-fueled overdrive. Floating buoyantly over a jittery combination of live instruments and programmed sounds, it’s colorful, splashy party music.
As disco modes go, Ibibio Sound Machine’s is spiky rather than smooth. The zigzagging layers of warm live drums, snippety drum machines, and assorted clacking percussive instruments don’t bounce so much as stagger around, surging and receding in intricate, aggressive patterns, always pushing in some direction — a reflection of the Afrobeat influence.
The disco influence inheres in the band’s casual mastery, the way the beats circle back on themselves to imply the permanence of an eternal loop, and in the enthusiastic vocals of Eno Williams, who belongs to a grand tradition of gawky, somewhat awkward singers swept off their feet by the grace of a beautiful dance groove and everything it represents — connection, romance, poise, confidence, community. In another context, the corny cheer with which she exclaims “I want you to be sweet like sugar, sweet! for! me!” would sound forced; instead, whether she’s singing in English or Ibibio, her chatty good humor lends the music emotional verve.
“Just Go Forward” hops back and forth, with contained energy, over twitchy rhythm guitar and at least three different drum tracks before erupting in a brass-punctuated chant that sums up their musical philosophy: “Just go forward! Don’t look back! Always forward!” “Wanna Come Down” incarnates that principle, propelling its horn blasts and serrated wah-wah guitars round and round in a spiral; occasional key changes make the return to the refrain sound all the more inevitable, as if the song were a vicious cycle.
The shiniest confection is “I Know That You’re Thinking About Me,” which repeats the title over and over as an echoey guitar solo gradually turns sparklier and sadder, fading in an ethereal haze of horn. “I Will Run” follows, a short epilogue whose chirpy bassline runs into your arms.
This album’s bubbly percussive energy is a syncretic, collaborative marvel. It moves and loves motion.
Hama: Houmeissa (Sahel Sounds)
A Nigerien composer whose short electronic instrumental pieces combine the sweeping and the dinky, Hama likes to imagine clubs in the future, where guests sip on bluish-purple beverages and dance to an array of vintage synthesizers. This album, a playful electric flurry, is his attempt to write the soundtrack for such a party.
Although Hama is a one-man-band who composed the album on his laptop, his offhand complexity and textural range are those of an ensemble, perhaps a brightly and surrealistically dressed band of keyboardists and drummers playing plastic, multicolored Dr. Seussian instruments, with loops and ornaments.
Fond of juxtaposing the concrete with the airy, he assembles a sonic kaleidoscope of varied keyboards: whooshing gusts, plonking shudders, blips and dings and clicks, lushly watery oscillations — echoing, lurid, glowing, pinging with assured solidity.
This music mostly consists of simple melodic repetitions, as Hama’s original melodies share space with traditional Nigerien folk tunes; often he’ll play a tune on one synthesizer and then repeat it on a different one. His trick is to pick melodies that lend themselves to endless rhythmic flow — the bouncy loop on “Houmeissa” is both mesmerizing and propulsive, while the rubbery jitters on “Dounia” gradually trace a wide, expansive circle that ends up back where it started (before starting again, of course).
Without interrupting the hypnosis, percussive effects provide variety: cymbal crashes, metallic pops, synthesized thwacks. Such regularly patterned music could keep playing forever in its little corner of the world.
What kind of party would play music that shimmers so evenly, without a single climax or drop? Not a dance party, or a dinner party — a party for ideal humans who never get tired or bored. This album condenses that energy.
Steve Lacy: Apollo XXI (3qtr)
Having gained renown as an adventurous, mellow producer for his work with Ravyn Lenae, Solange, Vampire Weekend, and his own group The Internet, on his first solo album Steve Lacy unveils his elaborate musical theories in full — about the fluidity of genre, the interlocking of guitars and synthesizers, the arbitrariness of song structure. The album’s complexity sounds like clutter.
Designed as showcases for experimental funk, Lacy’s convoluted musical knots can delight in the unlikeliness of their invention. On “Playground,” the guitar chords oscillate back and forth with the rhythm of a swing in a playground. On “Love 2 Fast,” a tart guitar figure combines with dazed background choral hums, Lacy’s echoed mumbles, and interwoven sung verses to provide a suitably summery, yet ominous setting for another distorted, piercing, almost tinny guitar solo, bursting forth with a fiery passion that strangely complements such a relaxed song.
“Like Me” generates queasy, frenzied tension from the shrewd placement of prickly bass and buzzy, dissonant piano spikes, which ricochet with such precision that it sounds as if many more musicians are involved in recording the song than there are, at least on its first half. After building marvelously for five minutes, the it segues into a slower, wispier section in which chimes ring and strings flutter, followed by yet another discrete section that foregrounds the squeak of his vocoder. Such is Lacy’s hallmark as a producer, at least on his solo material: he can’t stop fussing, can’t leave a simple thing alone.
Simultaneously faint and ornate, the album accrues light, feathery instruments to no end — strings, bilious keyboard swirl, breathy harmonies. The resulting songs aren’t topheavy, exactly, but they are as unwieldy as stacks of feathers. While the lyrics describe sexual anxiety and coming out with empathetic generality, Lacy’s hesitant singing often disappears beneath an oceanic expanse of high, wet, trebly rhythm guitar, the album’s loudest and mildest ingredient.
Aiming for warm, breezy ease, he veers into a quiet claustrophobia. He’s too absorbed in minutia for the album’s whole to click into focus.