The Freemasons, Beyonce, And The Thrill Of The Histrionic Diva House Anthem

tfinney | March 12, 2008 12:30 pm

Despite our housebound reputation, even bloggers like to occasionally go out and shake what passes for our stuff. That’s why every two weeks Idolator club guru Tim Finney will be dragging us onto the dancefloor to explore the latest sounds from the worlds of house, techno, and beyond. After the jump, he gives himself over to the martial beat of the Freemasons, finds out what happens when R&B divas become unwitting weapons in the “gay house” arsenal, and offers tantalizing clues to what Beyonce’s next move might sound like.

As the clock ticked over from 2006 to 2007 it was a (then unknown to me) house remix of Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm” that ushered in the New Year, its commanding presence and martial tone mirroring the almost grim determination that seemed to fill the club by this point: dancers had popped their pills and narrowed their options of potential assignations down to shortlists, and the time for fun was over. Shit was getting serious.

It’s part of the genius of the Freemasons’ remix of “Ring The Alarm” that, despite being better than any other example of, er, well, let’s call it gay house, that I heard last year, it is defiantly not fun. With its shrill string riffs and strident house pulse, the remix sounds purposeful and decisive where the original sounded (enjoyably) confused and frantic. Beyonce’s vocal is slowed down to lock step with the pounding groove, infused with a studied, almost objective air, less railing against her lover than calmly pronouncing a law of historical materialism.

This transition expressed something eternal in the physical distinction between R&B and diva house: if the slowed down, throbbing grooves of R&B seem to insert themselves in the electrified space between two dancers, the histrionic diva house anthem is sexually charged only as an afterthought; its primary purpose is subjugating and ordering an entire floor of dancers. In the Freemasons’ hands, “Ring The Alarm” becomes less intimate or interesting, because anything that stands in the way of this higher purpose is ruthlessly suppressed.

Right now it’s a common experience to go to commercial house clubs and unwittingly hear a half-dozen Freemasons tracks and remixes in the space of an hour. This monopoly is a simple consequence of supply and demand in commercial house music: as nearly every other major producer has embraced the hyperactive synth arpeggios and lumpen guitar riffs of electro-house, the Freemasons are almost alone in having kept faith with the larger-than-life disco-house sound that defined the genre at the beginning of the decade. Or at least, they’re the only ones to have done so while still sounding interesting.

In fact, it’s less a fidelity to any particular sub-strand of house that defines the Freemasons — they’re prone to indulging in synth arpeggios too, and are as fond of David Morales-style piano, William Orbit-style trance chords and Deep Dish-style wispy overproduction as they are Joey Negro-style disco strings — as they way their music unconcernedly transcends any particular historical moment in commercial house as if to embrace all of them.

Still, there’s definitely something very ’90s about the Freemasons, as much because I have no idea what they look like. In an era when even middle-aged veteran commercial house producers feel compelled to sport eyeliner and assymetrical haircuts in order to establish a profile, the ubiquitous, omnipresent invisibility of the Freemasons is a great comfort. Their reliable presence on track three of every other new female-fronted R&B single reminds me of such daring and forgotten predecessors as Peter Rauhoeffer, Club 69, Maurice Joshua, and Thunderpussy–all noble culture warriors for the cause of anonymous and functional house remixes.

How does the Freemasons’ staunch defence of house anonymity square with intriguing reports that Beyonce is drafting them in to produce her next album? It’s true to say that R&B and house are closer to one another than they’ve been since the mid-nineties: just witness the success of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music,” driven by the economic crunch of a pounding four-by-four beat. You’d probably have to go back to the heyday of Whitney Houston’s songs for The Bodyguard to find anything comparable. It’s understandable that Beyonce’s got one eye on her key rival and perhaps a second eye on her international market (always more sympathetic to house than U.S. listeners). But what would a Freemasons-produced R&B album sound like?

A small clue can be found in their “radio edit” of Kelly Rowland’s “Work,” which junks the tense Scott Storch funk of the original in favour of a soundclash between frenzied tablas and Spanish trumpet on the one hand, and a shiny, carefree disco groove on the other. The track strongly alludes to house, but nonetheless moves at an R&B tempo, one more suitable for bumping and grinding than hands in the air euphoria. What mostly carries over from the Freemasons’ house work is their strange capacity to throw everything but the kitchen sink at a groove and still come up with something that sounds deliberately unthreatening. It’s a nice trick: what defines the sudden resurrection of four-by-four disco grooves in R&B and pop (see Britney’s “Gimmer More”, Timbaland’s “The Way I Are,” etc.) is how comfortable and comforting these tunes are, emphasising durable craft rather than stunning sound design.

But the Freemasons’ greatest strength as house remixers or even urban producers — their defiant anti-charisma — becomes a mixed blessing on their own releases. The overwhelming but generic assault of their sonic blueprint works best when rubbing up against personality-charged vocals from the likes of a Beyonce or a Faith Evans: their sassy, bumping disco remix of Faith’s “Mesmerised” being perhaps their biggest track to date. Compare the startling, sensual force of those performances to the poised sweetness of the session singer on the duo’s “Uninvited” (bizarrely, a cover of an old Alanis Morrissette hidden album track), where no matter how many histrionic string riffs the duo concoct in the background, the ultimately passive pleasantness of the vocal can’t help but undercut the tune’s wow factor.

On the duo’s just released debut album (wryly titled Unmixed), one searches in vain for a storming diva-fest to quite match their takes on “Ring The Alarm” or “Déjà Vu,” although the massive breakdowns and climaxes are all present and correct. Perhaps it’s that, even when they draw on fabulous-sounding, big-chested house divas, like on the sweeping Salsoul-meets-Loleatta Holloway grandeur of “If”, the producers seem unable to coax a performance that stands on its own, rather than sounding like just another functionally appropriate trick from their toolbox.

But once you adjust to this slight disappointment, the hyper-generic quality of these songs makes a great deal of sense: Unmixed recreates perfectly the essential interchangeability of the music at the seediest of commercial house clubs, where overt memorability takes a backseat to a certain sleek familiarity–in both the tunes and the erotic encounters they soundtrack. Every night, every moment, is meant to be indistinguishable from the previous, only bigger than before somehow. It’s a vibe not really suited to solitary listening, but no music better sums up the… no, not the euphoria… the flushed, preening, wired-up largeness of the eternal now.