Smooth Landing

After more than a decade as San Francisco's signature house DJ, Mark Farina delivers his long-awaited debut album

There are literally thousands of house-music DJs in the world, and it seems like a quarter of them live in San Francisco. So what sets Mark Farina apart? How come so many other DJs study his mix tapes and show up at his gigs? (Up-and-coming local DJ Masao of the Brown Hornet crew says that he makes sure to catch Farina manning the decks as often as he can, even going out of his way to see him play while vacationing in London.) Why do people still drop their Sunday afternoon football-watching whenever Farina plays a boat party, even after he's been spinning here for over 10 years?

It's because he hates the same things about house that you do. You've got a beef with house, and he's got the steak sauce. "House all sounds the same," you gripe. In response, Farina plays some weird and refreshingly silly downtempo songs. "House DJs play crap tunes all night just so they can save two or three good records for a peak," you moan. Farina is known for keeping the pace churning throughout his entire set, and spins CDs in addition to vinyl (particularly unreleased CD-Rs by upstart bedroom producers), making for diverse set lists. "House is full of tired- ass divas singing some feel-good bullshit," you might point out. He feels your pain there, too. "Yeah, I'm very wary about playing vocal tracks," he explains over the phone from his San Francisco apartment, "especially any big vocal gospel anthems. Really can't stand those."

Frustrated, you unload your final, sneakiest stereotype: "Well, I'm sick of all these dweebs standing behind turntables pretending they're actually making music." Now, this comment might once have been a legitimate dis on Farina (well, besides the dweeb part). He was known for years as the DJ who spun much (as often as 300 times a year at his most active) but produced little.

This week Farina ends the drought by releasing his first artist album, Air Farina (OM Records), with 13 original tracks. The challenge wasn't just the personal one of tearing himself away from his greatest addiction, the DJ booth. He also had to face the much larger curse put on the music by God himself: Thou shalt not put out a good house full-length. Most great house music comes as seven-minute songs released as singles, which DJs assemble into great house sets. What Farina wanted to do was build an entire record out of mostly one aesthetic -- the quirky hybrid of hip hop and underground deep house he plays as a DJ -- an approach that typically appeals only to the already converted electronic music audience. But Farina has bigger plans: "I'm always trying to figure out how to rope in the general listener, the kid who listens to rock."

If Farina can pull off spooning out unsweetened dollops of house music to the uninitiated masses, it will definitely be a coup. House, which like Farina came of age in Chicago in the mid-1980s, has been the most conservative, least changing form of dance music. With its chunky, straightforward rhythms, the genre has splintered into a few offshoots -- deep (the closest to black soul music), progressive (more driving and synthetic), and ambient (swirly and spacious) -- but it's still a tightknit family. Farina eschews the ready-made crowd-pleasers for deeper, more sophisticated tracks.

The first impulse for an untested house producer putting together an album might be to prove his musicianship by gathering tracks from all over the house spectrum. No one wants to hear only minor variations on the same theme for an hour, so the artist could offer the songs as free-standing pieces. But then the assemblage might be disjointed, eliminating half the fun of the house listening experience -- the fluid slide of one track into the next.

So Farina decided to do both, putting continuously mixed sets and individual standouts on the same CD. First he came up with a unifying theme -- air travel -- and then he used interludes of cockpit banter to section the album off into two separate DJ mixes, one inspired by departures and the other by arrivals. He produced the tracks in the studio with drum machines, samples of live musicians, and the lightest touches of synthesized melody, then loaded them into his CD decks and blended them seamlessly together. Each series of songs is filled with workhorse tracks that DJs will appreciate (and that, as such, are being released unmixed on vinyl). No single song is particularly noteworthy, but the mix is something special, with the same soul-jazz flavor, extended instrumental breakdowns, and vocal snippets that first defined S.F. house.

Isolated from the two mini mixed sets are the oddities of the album, four tracks memorable as individual songs; they show that Farina knows where to put a chorus. The undeniable best of these is "Dream Machine," the only cut that stands some chance of having a life outside clubland. Over a rustic-sounding, acoustic guitar­driven instrumental, San Francisco lounge denizen and singer/ songwriter Sean Hayes channels a disco-fied James Taylor to croon a melancholic ode to a "rattlesnake charmer out on the dance floor." The result is an endearing curiosity, an anthem suitable for both swaying in front of a stack of speakers and bouncing down a dusty country road in a Chevy pickup.

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