Romance of the Long Night: Philip Sherburne recommends Live at Robert Johnson’s Lifesaver compilation
Frankfurt’s Robert Johnson is one of Germany’s key clubs whose label Live At Robert Johnson has just released its first compilation of sparkling house jams.
“Offenbach ist nicht Berlin.” That’s the motto of the storied Robert Johnson club, a bohemian paradise on the banks of the Main. Just as its all-night disco antics offer a cheerful reproach to the Calvinist mores of Frankfurt, whose skyline glitters across the river, the 13 year-old club also presents a playful alternative to Berlin institutions like Watergate and Berghain/Panorama Bar: it’s smaller in size, woolier in feel, and maybe even wilier in its ambitions.
As for its in-house label, Live at Robert Johnson, the list of artists who have recorded mix CDs—Chloé, Prins Thomas, Ivan Smagghe, Roman Flügel, Dixon, Thomas Hammann & Gerd Janson, Arto Mwambe, and founder Ata—suggests the scope of the club’s open-minded aesthetic. Since 2009, LARJ has also built up a fine catalog of left-field house and techno releases, ranging from The Citizen Band’s ramshackle circus tunes to Flügel’s Duran Duran-sampling “Brian Le Bon”. Lifesaver is the label’s first compilation, and it reinforces the idea that Robert Johnson represents not so much a sound as a state of mind, where the wooden dancefloor acts like a springboard to a magical world.
Lifesaver varies widely in tempo, from the slow-motion creep of Chinaski’s “Lunch” to the jittery techno of Portable‘s “NanoFlower”, and while low-key, analog-leaning house tracks predominate, the comp also ranges considerably in style, from mid-tempo synth boogie (Pagliara’s “LM2-808-SH101-MP-P6-JP4-P5-SPX90”) to moon-stomping dub (Tuff City Kids’ “People Is a Crackhead”). It even dips briefly into pulsing ambient with The Citizens Band’s “Descend”, which hangs teasingly in the balance between Vainqueur and Oneohtrix Point Never. But there’s a common thread running through all 11 tracks, which shimmer with hope and delight in updating familiar sounds with a tinge of strangeness.
Call it the romance of the long night. Although unmixed, the compilation does a wonderful job of compressing the midnight-to-sunrise run into little more than an hour. It begins with the woozy “Lunch”, by the newcomer Chinaski, and picks up steam with Pagliara’s ode to Metro Area; it peaks with its penultimate track, an explosion of flutes and drones and stuttering drums by the South African-born, Lisbon-based producer Portable. Tuff City Kids’ dubby, druggy “People Is a Crackhead” brings the album to a close on an appropriately bleary note, with mournful melodica twined around wordless voices, and dub delay stretching out like stepping stones between the dancefloor and a comfy mattress.
The bulk of the album is given over to various takes on sparkling, 120-BPM house jams. Lauer, whose “H.R. Boss” is one of LARJ’s catchiest singles, proves himself once again to be a master of expressive hypnosis with “Hector”. It’s an emotionally ambiguous track, with a repeated guitar riff that sounds like an unanswered question, but the way its eighth-note bassline keeps returning to the root feels calmly definitive; whoever Hector is, we’ll assume he’s a cautious optimist. Orson Wells, another newcomer, explores sundown-y house vibes on “At Play”, a DX-drenched song halfway between Smallville and Maxmillion Dunbar, and LARJ regular San Laurentino plays with similarly chiming sounds on the rosy “Final Landing”.
The Citizen’s Band (aka CB Funk) is the only artist to get two slots on the comp. After his swirling “Descend” provides a sort of ambient intermission, he delves into “Softest Touch”, a swinging, dreamy cut whose crisp drum machines and warm pads again recall Smallville’s brand of Larry Heard-inspired deep house. Benedikt Frey’s “Sometimes” explores similar terrain, with watery chords and an indistinct spoken-word vocal smeared over a crisp kick/hi-hat groove infused with a hint of vinyl crackle; it sounds a little like Beanfield’s “The Season” glimpsed at the bottom of a murky pond.
The album’s toughest track comes from Roman Flügel. “More Is Not Enough” rides a jacking machine groove and pumping chords that instantly scan as ‘classic house’, but his slippery, detuning keys and squealing bleeps (shades of John Tejada!) tip everything slightly on its ear. Unlike so much identikit deep house right now, it turns classic tropes into new possibilities, and it proceeds like a drunken reel through a hall of mirrors, twisting and turning and stumbling, dizzy with delight. The title is telling: “More Is Not Enough”. Robert Johnson may not be as (in)famous as Berghain when it comes to marathon parties, but Lifesaver proves that abandon can be measured many different ways. Smooth as the well-worn floorboards of Robert Johnson’s dancefloor, these understated tracks offer a sublime, seductive window into this unique little club on the Main.~
Lifesaver is out now on Live At Robert Johnson.
Published May 01, 2013. Words by Philip Sherburne.