The pleasures of bastards, Bran Van 3000's Discosis
by Anthony Easton
in Freaky trigger, 30 octobre 2001
Bran Van 3000 are a Montreal nonette known primarily for a one hit wonder. In fact I am not sure how popular "Drinking in L.A." was outside of Canada. So when I got Discosis I was shocked by it. They have managed to make one of the most complex and layered disco/funk/house albums and then add lyrics that are both exquisite in their eroticism and divine in their absurdity.
This could have been a mistake. They use so many layers of pastiche and reference that it could have been pomo bombast. They use so many prominent guest stars (one on every second track) that they could have taken over the album. There are so many members of Bran Van 3000 itself it could have been messy. But they seem to be a collective and they have made an album that seems to be a tone poem to the Future of Funk.
The record starts with a beat as steady as a pulse. It's soon buried in electronic buzz cymbal crashes and elegant strings. Three back-up singers break the noise and clear the way for Curtis Mayfield's trademark growl. You assume its him singing but looking at the liner notes it's an adept use of sampling. Towards the end of this song the vocals switch to French. Three things about the first track establish a pattern for the rest of the album. A use of the female soprano interacting with a male bass, the use of prominent guests and the use of French on nearly every track. The vocals seem to be about adding texture and the guests they use have easily identifiable vocal styles. Their use of French seems to be related to the Disco Gobbling Paris House scene rather than Bran Van's Quebecois roots.
The most interesting thing is how much they crib styles and technology to make a cohesive whole. A funk rave-up follows two straight hip-hop tracks follows a french house track using Dimitri From Paris. But the tracks seem to loop into each other. There are no spaces between tracks -- for example a bass line started in "Astounded" (the first track) is picked up in "Loaded," the ninth.
The vocals seem to be there as Freudian word play, mentioning technology and sex. They seem to relate to music in its love of fun. They add texture bubbling up with absurd word play. Sometimes they are processed to sound artificial (the use of the vocoder in "Shoppin'") and sometimes they seem to be made cleaner and clearer (Jean de Loups' work in "Dare I Say"). The use of technology in both instrumentation and lyrical reference seems vital but it is not cold, sterile or dystopian. It is dirty tech meant for humanist pleasure. In the Momus song he talks about "obscure protocols" to deliver such pleasure. This song perhaps is not the best to chose as indicating a purpose because it is him at his most silly. It is a call and response that starts fairly sensibly and ends up mentioning everything from Sesame Street to the Threepenny Opera. But the technology is there, meant for pleasure. It is a way to further funk in both the George Clinton sense of Utopia and the Blues Idiom.
If you listen to this you realize how erotic it is. There are mentions of Cunnalingus Kiss-a-grams (Momus on "More Shopping") and female vocals that sound like fembots (Jean de Loups). As well, there is the song "Loaded." The song uses the title in all its senses: drunk, transferring data and bling bling excess. She spits the words 'party' and 'fun' like pleasure bullets from a tommy gun.
The tracks following "Loaded" seemed to provide a coda. The first one is boring and repetitive until the hip-hop section. It mentions everything and it becomes a boring Beck rip off. The best of these is "Predictable," a surprisingly moving song about the romantic consequences of the technofucking prevalent in the rest of the album. Where else can you hear the lines:
"And like you say/I can change/They can fix me/Remix me/Seduce and abandon me/Build me /like Tetris/Pile pieces around me/It's so easy:/For once in your life/Just say I'm worthy"
The longing of the heart to remain clear and the longing of technology to be clean never seemed so clear. This is followed by a French ballad that uses Cuban piano and an understated funk bass line to extend the musical motifs, to tie them up into a discreet package. It uses a similar bass line to what is in "Astounded," "The Answer" and "Speed." But the phrase 'Senegal' reappears as a lovely reprise. The overlapping vocal that harmonise are a mainstay, created through a cappella and not ping ponging multi-channeling. The last song sounds like an Anglophile who has just found Francois Hardy. But Jean de Loups' cutting soprano and the clutter in the corners of the music makes sure this is the same album, just afterglow.
The last listed track called "Rock Star" starts with a rolling acoustic guitar and a check list of things to be such a person. It is the least cohesive track on the album. It seems to be unrelated to the cool down of the last tracks and the funk work up of the first tracks. It is a pretty little piece but it should not have been included. For a group of people that worked so hard at making sure the album was a complex work that worked as a whole, that quoted itself in ever widening loops both musically and lyrically. the inclusion of an overly simple acoustic song at the end of it was a disappointment.
This probably explains the pure bass and orgasmic moan of the bonus track But the bonus track is nothing to be excited about. It is the motif that they use through the album without any of the complexity. Eventually you realize it is a single track remix of the initial track, so that this album continues. The stripped down Mayfield connects the two parts of the album, so again it is an interlocking whole.
Disco has been dismissed as kitsch and funk is a aficiando's buisness. But the children they spawned are ruling the world. The pop that enthralls teeny boppers is as ubiquitous as Coca Cola. Hip-hop is the best selling genre on the Billboard charts. Clubs from Tokyo to Toronto are filled to the rafters dancing to drum loops and electronic synths. Even the guitar bands need two tables to win. Disco won but it has been a phyrric victory. Discosis reminds us how vital those sounds were and how important they are now.
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