Mungolian Jet Set’s Ostentatious Folk-Rock-Jazz-Disco And The Return Of “Balaeric”

TimFinney | March 25, 2008 1:00 am

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 gets lost in the maximalist world of prog-disco remix kings Mungolian Jet Set, one of the many neo-“balearic” production teams digging up obscure soft-rock/folk/jazz gold.

As a sound and a scene both, the dance music sub-genre “balearic” is obsessed with marginalia. If this was true of the term’s original incarnation–think of UK DJ Paul Oakenfold boasting of dancing in Ibiza, one of the islands from which the sound gets its name, in the late 80s to a soundtrack of Chris Rea and the Woodentops while high on ecstasy for the first time–it is doubly true of its reemergence today, when reissues and digital downloads place almost the entire history of modern music at the dilettante DJ’s fingertips. (Or enough of that history so as to hardly make a difference.) Less “anything goes,” perhaps, and more “everything goes.”

Well, not everything. For one, in today’s revivalist parlance balearic does conjure up at least some stylistic markers: slow, torpid grooves baring at the very least a tangential relationship to disco, and florid musical arrangements, especially anything with splashes of synthesiser color, sparkles of flamenco guitar, or the now-cheesy frippery of once-earnest world music signifiers. More subtly, balearic shies away from music that is self-consciously “bleeding edge”, music that clearly blazed a trail and set the terms of a new zeitgeist.

Partly, it’s because too much success and recognition goes against what at times can be an obscurantist vibe running through balearic music and those who play it. Where balearic enthusiasts would most readily acknowledge genius would be in cases of “forgotten heroes” such as Arthur Russell; now universally hailed as a visionary, Russell’s obscurity throughout the ’80s assures permanent martyr-like status as an uncomfortable outsider, perched precariously on the (hitherto unimaginable) borders between disco, pop and modern classical music.

Perhaps though it’s the liminality of Russell’s sound, and that others like him, more than their obscurity, which renders them appealing to this mindset. Current gold-digging sets from self-styled “balearic” DJs are filled with examples of ostentatious border-crossings: from hoary disco-rock extravaganzas (Zazu’s “Captain Starlight”); to frail acoustic ballads from R&B groups (the “Folk Version” of Womack & Womack’s “Missing Persons Bureau”); to starry-eyed Afro-pop from erstwhile spare folk-rock crooners (Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, recently transformed by Scandanavian producer Todd Terje into a dazzling dub-disco epic).

That last example isn’t obscure at all, but obscurity and liminality converge in the ever-present danger of a song or act falling between the cracks. Whether due to crudity, tardiness, popular failure, or some other perceived illegitimacy, balearic-identified music stands apparently condemned–literally as “marginalia”–by the relentless hierarchical/chronological advance of history, its fate to be forgotten or at least politely ignored by tastemakers and hoi poloi both. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work; the curious emergence of Simon’s Graceland as a key reference point for indie-rock in 2008 is testament to the fact that history has an interesting sense of humor.

No current act reflects this aesthetic of looking to the margins better than Norwegian remix team Mungolian Jet Set. Starting life as a self-consciously wacky electronic jazz group, two years ago they added a low-slung 4X4 beat to their noodlings and declared loose allegiance to Lindstrom-style space disco. If they’re clearly balearic, it’s less to do with their actual sound than a certain sensibility: their perversity, their unabashed love of the epic, their willingness to court bad taste.

So while their remix of Lindstrom’s “A Blast of Loser” may sound like Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Hacienda, their remix of LSB’s “Original Highway Delight” is simply burbling italo-disco rewritten on a grand scale, complete with glass-shattering Minnie Ripperton vocals performed by the group itself. Conversely, their take on Ost & Kjex’s “Milano Model” (the remix proudly boast the title of “A Thrilling Mungophony in Two Parts”) is so gratuitously maximal and excessively camp that it could be Basement Jaxx writing a new soundtrack for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That, or the Wicked Witch of the West’s henchmen putting on a cabaret show for Dorothy and all her friends.

Meanwhile, recent remixes for Ronny and Renzo and Mari Boine see the group lost in a lush, alien soundworld somewhere between the ethnodelic mystery of Brian Eno and David Bryne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the cheesy progtastic expansiveness of Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. If previous productions were tinged with an air of comedy, on these more “serious” efforts it becomes (almost disconcertingly) clear that Mungolian Jet Set are personally committed to their ethic of excess. The remix of Boine’s “It Ain’t Necessarily Evil” is their finest work to date in its capacity to set any number of ill-fitting elements in suspended orbit around an all-consuming disco beat, from Mexican guitar licks to what sounds like Rolf Harris’ wobble board, while still retaining an air of expansive mysteriousness rather than patent ridiculousness.

Mungolian Jet Set’s live performance suggests they haven’t completely nailed the transition to tight production team; if their recorded output is thrilling partly because of how closely it hovers above the line between chaos and order, when I saw them play in Paris last year I started to doubt whether such a line existed, or whether the band or the audience would recognise it if it did. Thunderous disco grooves would emerge triumphantly, only to be lost moments later under the confused melange of melodies and keyboard improvisations. At its most clangingly discordant, I was reminded uncomfortably of the kind of self-important collaborations one sees at gallery functions, where a laptop DJ is pitted against a group of traditional “third world” instrumentalists to the detriment of all involved.

Down the front, some kids tried to dance in a desultory, hippy fashion, the kind of dancing non-dancers often engage in, heavy on the flowing arm movements and appearing to bear no relationship to the groove actually playing. It seemed appropriate though: anyone trying to catch the beat soon would have been confounded. But if the performance didn’t quite match my expectations, it still sketched out clearly the promise of this group and their unpredictable, ridiculous sound; what makes Mungolian Jet Set’s recorded work so exciting is precisely how it seems to snatch victory from the jaws of disaster, venturing dangerously into a no man’s land of overblown grandiosity, and coming back with treasures that in anyone else’s hands would be mere trash.

Perhaps it’s partly this sense of audacity–as well as, er, my trend-happy gullibility–which makes me disinclined to dismiss the return of balearic as just the latest in a long line of dubious revivals. Some critics have complained that each attempt to rehabilitate a sound previously cordoned off as beyond saving–from soft rock to hair metal–advances a “flattening out” of enjoyment, whereby we lose the capacity to distinguish between actually bad and good music. But maybe this very loss helps makes the enjoyment of, er, nu-balearic music so masochistically intense: it’s because of one’s instinctive resistance to this music’s absurdity that the moment of capitulation becomes all the sweeter.

Mungolian Jet Set [MySpace]