There are few pieces of music which have the power to bring tears to my eyes every time. Round Two’s ‘New Day’ is one of them.
‘New Day’ – Round Two, Main Street Records, 1995
…available as part of the compilation: Round One To Round Five 1993-99, Main Street Records, Main Street, 2000
I think if I encountered someone who dismissed house music as a genre out of hand, then it’s the record to which I’d turn to show them the error of their ways (1):
This is deeply emotional music, primed for the dance floor. But the latter does not mean we should analyse it in a different language from the one I used to analyse Bach and Glenn Gould in my last post. For me, that would be patronising, hierarchical and deeply insulting to the men who made it. Those men – Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus (here joined by vocalist Andy Caine) – have left an indelible mark on electronic music in the last 20 years, under the aliases of Basic Channel (1993-1995), Maurizio (1992-1997) and Rhythm & Sound (1996-2006).
With the two, earlier projects they brought elements of dub to techno music. What was extraordinary about this had little to do with technique and everything to do with sensibility. For what set the duo apart from both contemporaries and imitators was not their use of delay and reverb, or the adoption of the mixing desk as an instrument, or even the emphasis on the space between sounds as much as on the sounds themselves, but the attitude of patience and mindfulness so prevalent in all their work.
With the later Rhythm & Sound project, they would come full circle. In these tunes – exemplified best for me by the mighty ‘Jah Rule’ below (2) – they created dub reggae over which Jamaican vocalists toasted: a singular form of dub reggae that could only have grown out of the dub-influenced techno they themselves had pioneered in the earlier part of their career. Once again, we observe the pattern I mentioned in my first Can’t Live Without post, the arc of a career bringing musicians back to an original source. ‘We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.’ (3)
All of which brings us to ‘New Day’ (and the Main Street side-project of which it is part) which exists apart from – and between – these two different career phases: all the Basic Channel material preceded it; all the Rhythm & Sound material would follow. So in ‘New Day’ we encounter von Oswald and Ernestus at a musical crossroads.
And how different this tune is from everything else in their body of work! The first two records on the Main Street label are ‘Chicago House’ tracks – an obvious homage to the earlier forms of house music. And there is, of all things, a song and a soulful vocal – a man mourning a beautiful love he may have lost but ultimately celebrating the prospect of a new beginning.
This taste of joy mixed with a lament for the passing of something beautiful, is for me, the very heart of what house music is. At its source, house music is a music of yearning, a seeking for solace from a bitter world. This is a fundamental part of the black American experience and part of the gay experience too: strands that are intertwined in the genetic twists of house that can never be unwound. ‘Don’t let me suffer, / Don’t let me suffer / In this suffering,’ goes the vocal.
Yet house music equally offers us escape and comfort. It lets us transcend the cares that bind us and tie us to the earth. So when we later hear ‘Nobody else lets you be yourself / Understands what makes you feel fine’ Caine is singing as much about his relationship to the music as his relationship with his lover. And the tune will end with a veritable cliché of house music: the evocation of the new day, the promised land, the rising sun – but realised so beautifully one can’t possibly be cynical about it.
In itself, all this is beautiful. On this basis alone, I wouldn’t be able to live without ‘New Day’.
But what makes it even more essential is the fact that the meaning of the song is reflected in the production (4). Just as the new day is coming for Caine and his lover, so are possibilities for a new music opening within the tune itself. Listen to 3:35-4:05 for instance: there is a sensibility at work here that is quite different from most house music I know. It is as if von Oswald and Ernestus are consciously making an offering to their ancestors – to the gods of house – before heading off on an entirely new road. And these little musical hints show that their journey has already begun (5).
And so the bittersweet song about a difficult relationship with a lover and the desire to move on is mirrored by the production itself – and furthermore, by the place of the production in the career of its producers. And all this is inextricable from the bittersweet heart of house music itself that honours suffering on one hand and offers the hope of transformation on the other. And all these factors working in unison make an already ecstatic tune utterly awe-inspiring.
I am conscious that part of what I am ascribing to this record couldn’t have been clear or conscious at the time it was made. But for me, thinking about these levels of meaning enriches my enjoyment of the music and makes it even more powerful. And besides, too great a respect for artistic intention can be limiting when we interpret a work of art. It can close off meanings when there are other possibilities to explore. ‘Open your eyes / And you will see / That this was meant to be. / There ain’t nothing standing in our way. / We got a new day.’
And you can dance to it too, you know.
(1) Some may argue that this is not house music but a subgenre: deep house or techno or dub techno perhaps. Believe me, I don’t dismiss these generic tags lightly. Indeed, genre is an important tool – not just for marketing purposes but for binding producers and listeners together in meaningful communities. I believe the notion of genre, of a template within which an artwork can play or strain against or beautifully subvert, can often enrich our enjoyment of music. But in the course of the argument that follows it is crucial that we see ‘New Day’ as ‘house music’ for reasons I clearly explain. Besides, what precise subgenre of house music ‘New Day’ fits into is a quibble that brings nothing additional to the pleasure of it – and pleasure is what I’m after.
(3) From ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets, T.S.Eliot (1943).
(4) This beauty – the ability to manifest the meaning of the lyrics in the form of the music – is something I also discuss in Facebook Can Wait.
(5) To be rigorously specific. The road they are taking is not a road to an entirely new music; it is a road towards a new relationship with the music they make, away from the density of layering many sounds into an exploration of space.