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Figuring Out Why Americans Sound So Great on House Records

And why do European ones sound so...wrong?

by Josh Baines
Jun 15 2017, 2:34pm

Photo via Flickr/Nicolas Raymond.

Some key differences between the UK and America: we Brits spell aluminium correctly and they eat arugula, we have a monarchy and they load washing machines from the top. Despite our differences though, we've lived in relative harmony as brothers divided only by 5,000 miles of water, striding through history to a point where Swedes watch American sitcoms dubbed in Swedish and Americans devour American remakes of Swedish dramas.

Something, though, still divides us. Something major. Something that's rift-widening. Something we can't ignore any longer. Our brash transatlantic cousins have one up on us: they know how to use male voices in house records.

Ever since Jesse Saunders changed the entire world with 1984's futureshock of a record "On and On," American house producers have never shied away from foregrounding vocals, never feared marrying the abstraction of electronically derived music and the naturalism of the human voice. Think of the power of those early releases, the tracks that an entire world was built around: think of Darryl Pandy's lovelorn honking on "Love Can't Turn Around" or the down-tuned exhortations that spook their way through Phuture's "Your Only Friend" or the James Garcia sung, Omar-S produced paean to sexual expectation "I Wanna Know"—these are records that hum with vitality, humanity, vibrancy, and, let's be honest, sexuality.

European house, European techno, has seemingly always come from a more studied place. Perhaps something was lost in translation from Chicago and Detroit on its way to London and Berlin. Maybe our ancient roots and awareness of a pre-1700 way of being has resulted in a society and culture in which genuine expression has been subsumed by the need to retain the identity-protecting divide between the artist and his creation. It could, however, just be that European accents sound shit on dance records.

Let's jet back to those cities forever destined to be twinned in the annals of dance music to make a potentially wanky but pertinent point. House and techno are inherently politicised musics that arose from the pressures and struggles faced by minority groups facing systematic oppression. House literally gave those groups a voice, ownership of something that may have stemmed from disco—another genre eventually co-opted by white, straight, middle classed Europeans—but was an entirely new sound-world, with infinite possibilities. European men do not need another avenue of self-expression in which to make their voice, their experience, heard.

The vocal house that emerges from our side is arch, plastic, embarrassed, self-conscious. It's Justus Kohncke covering Jefferson Starship's "I Wouldn't Wanna Be Like You", it's Superpitcher's horribly cloying closeness on "Happiness," it's a million and one bedroom producers from Manchester to Mannheim giving up sampling the speech from "Can You Feel It" by Mr. Fingers.

Now, THUMP is a celebratory site that wants to share with you, dear reader, the transcendental joys of dance music. As a European I'll cede defeat and admit that any record produced in our green and formerly-prosperous part of the world should only come in the dub format. Instead of bemoaning our deficiencies let us, instead, praise the other. Let's talk about American voices.

There's always been something naff about singing with, say, an English accent, compared to an American one. The fact that the history of recorded popular music, and popular music at large is an American history, an American phenomenon, means that we've come to assume that the American voice is the 'correct' voice, the voice that makes the most sense in its context. American voices, it seems, it feels, work. It doesn't matter if it's Jovonn talking about his hard kicks on the seminal "Back in the Dark" or Aly Us getting sentimental on the Strictly Rhythm tearjerker "Follow Me"it seems like everyone in the club yearns for an American voice.

The alleged authenticity of that voice is presumably why so many non-Americans pinch and sample from those that are. House has always sought the maximum amount of authenticity for the minimum of effort, but that's another story. The Dutch producer jacking a Robert Owens line wants people to play his Dutch record alongside ones from Chicago and for no one to know its provenance. The Romanian chucking a Detroit accent into his room three tech-house meanderer wants the same thing. Can you blame us?

The sad truth is, we don't, or at least don't seem to, possess voices as pristine as Kenny Bobien's—for those in the dark on this guy PLEASE check the stratospherically wonderful "You Gave Me Love" and "Why We Sing" ASAP—or as rich as Yohan Square's, or as straight up sublime as Duane Harden's (which propels classics like "You Don't Know Me" and Powerhouses' "What You Need"). We don't have a Jamie Principle or a Joe Smooth or even a Moodymann. We don't have a "Let Me Show You Love" or a "That's the Way Love Is".

Europeans, let's stick to what we're good at—league football, breakbeats and subtitled films about depression—and leave the diva vocals to the big boys.