Where is the heart of house these days? Is it the drum, as many an overused sample (or any drummer) will tell you? Is it the melody, carried by a voice, a sample, or a synth? London’s Jesse Rose would likely answer that it is instead the pulse of the bass, the bump that has carried dance music from Detroit techno to German minimalism to today’s pan-global house hybrids, if the steady, propulsive basslines that pervade most of Playing Around are any indication.
Rose’s Made to Play label is only a dozen vinyl releases old, but its tracks have found homes in DJ crates far and wide, not least of all Rose’s own as an ascendant festival DJ and remixer, and all have exemplified the “fidget house” tag. Originally coined as a joke between Rose and Dave Taylor (a.k.a. Switch), “fidget house” describes this music perfectly: choppy, herky-jerky vocal samples and goofy left turns into sound effects and breakdowns, all smoothed out with consistent, thunderous bass for the bins. While the label’s strictly limited 12-inches are a secretive DJ’s dream, it means the home listener has been left in the dark regarding the buzz around this label and the fidget house style.
Playing Around rectifies that with a disc of 13 tracks, hand-harvested and assembled by Rose from Made to Play’s vinyl releases, and a second disc continuously mixed (from largely the same selections) by the label’s rising star Oliver $. The glitch/micro-sample bag of tricks rarely empties for the label’s more inventive producers as they use spoken bits, alien noises, or reconfigured musical snippets to layer over the strictly 4/4 beats (choppy and funky as they may be). Izit’s “Heavy What” appears in two almost unrecognizable versions: “Our Version” relies on a killer gnarled bass hook, while “Honky Version” grafts on cut-and-paste banjos and harmonizing cowboys, weaving into Herbert-esque territory. This is where Playing Around reveals the strengths and limitations of fidget house: On headphones, seven minutes of a single beat and even the lushest bassline can wear thin, but the consistently inventive samples and surprisingly placed breakdowns keep the momentum going at all times, and a sense of humor lifts the best tracks into the transcendent, the cheesy, or a cheesy transcendence, recalling the shameless mix of tough and vulnerable that characterized its jacking Chicago house predecessors. As well, fixations with old hip-hop and even drum & bass crop up at unpredictable times (Buckley’s “Block Party” steals a goofy skit from Digital Underground’s ancient “Doowutchyalike”) to keep the well from running dry.
The downside of fidget house is that much of it relies on midtempo beats with glitchy variations and unexpected samples; when those touches are lacking and a track turns toward the minimal, it can get cold and dull. Oddly it’s the Jesse Rose and Oliver $ collaboration, “Wake Up,” smack in the middle of the Rose’s selections disc, that suffers the worst, throwing off a blasé vibe (even stranger, it works fine early in the slow build of Oliver’s mixed set). But one track later Rose and Sinden’s “Me Mobile” perks things up again with a fizzy bassline and a sprightly swing. It’s hard to say exactly why house needed another tag to further splice the current state of the genre, but somehow it fits: Somewhere in the middle of a triangle formed by minimal/experimental house, traditional Chicago jack, and treble-heavy hard-rock house à la Justice sits the Made to Play crew, playing around with processed vox in their hands and traditional bass in their hearts.