!K7’s unstoppable DJ-Kicks series, over thirty mixes deep and still going strong, has many virtues, but chief among them is its auto-critical bent. The idea is to commission headphones records from dance DJs, and somehow, the results almost always play like musical interviews. Probably because their makers are forced to reach, if only slightly, beyond the party mixes they normally produce, without abandoning the name recognition that clearly sells these records, they tend to reflect these DJs’ attempts to deconstruct their own sound. At best, a DJ-Kicks disc is nothing short of revelatory. At worst, it is at least entertaining.
James Holden’s entry is an example of the latter, and perhaps that’s all it could ever be, which certainly is no small feat. His inexplicably popular “Horizons” threw him into the open arms of Britain’s glow stick brigade pretty quickly, turning him into a bit of an icon before he had turned twenty or made anything at all distinctive or memorable. Since then, a string of singles, remixes, and club dates have seen him develop remarkably as an artist. He hasn’t strayed too far from the hypnotic push-and-pull of trance, but the intricacy and breadth that have come to characterize his bloops, bleeps, hisses, and moans often beg for bedroom listening, which suits DJ-Kicks perfectly.
This precision is often Holden’s saving grace. His only original album, The Idiots Are Winning, had about half as many ideas as its running length required, but its sound alone provided redemption. Whatever Holden’s secret recipe of compression, live sampling, or sacrificing ravers to the Norse god of thunder is, it produces percussion that sits firmly on top of everything else and always sounds like you’ve never heard it before — even if you can tell it’s only a piston pop or a flam. When he brings this subtle quirk to his remix work on DJ-Kicks, as he does on Grackle’s “Disco” and Lucky Dragons’ “Open Melody”, the beats crackle and resonate with authority and charisma while dark waves snake-dance behind them.
Otherwise, he shrouds the mix in a bottom-heavy harmonic ambiance, which melts everything into an hour-plus progressive reverie at the expense of the songs themselves, some of which are barely recognizable. Resenting Holden for tweaking these tracks to his own ends is a little unfair, since this is supposed to be an artistic statement and not simply a playlist, but why include familiar names at all if what ends up here has little to do with the original material? “Auto Dimmer”, from Black Dice’s Eric Copeland, is an exception to this rule, retaining almost all of its glitchy, echoey uplift. Otherwise, Mogwai’s “The Sun Smells Too Loud” gets butchered, while Caribou’s “Lemon Yoghourt” is one of those Caribou tracks that sounds nothing like Caribou and more like, well, James Holden. Their inclusion strikes me as little more than a bit of hipster pandering.
Which is a shame. Or a quibble. You should understand that James Holden’s DJ-Kicks is very good. I’m nitpicking because it has a high standard to meet, set by Erlend Øye and Four Tet in previous years, and doesn’t quite get there. Simply put, it lacks variety; that Didier Pacquette’s “Arwen, Namarie” stands out, just barely, with its warped vocals and retro synths, isn’t saying much. The album plays seamlessly, and maintains a consistently ultramodern, yet balmy, tenor, but Holden never lets his songs speak for themselves. It can be a little like meeting your soon-to-be boyfriend’s friends for the first time, only to discover that they’re all exactly like him. But if you like him, you’ll probably like his friends, so why complain?