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Maybe it's the mix of beer and Red Bull in my system, but I am finding it hard to be cynical on a recent Wednesday evening at the Virgin Megastore on Market Street, where local DJs/producers/label owners Jondi & Spesh are celebrating the release of their third full-length, The Answer. The second-floor dance-music section at Virgin, where the duo have set up, isn't packed, but there's a generous helping of fans, maybe three dozen or so, and their exuberance makes up for the low turnout. Someone has printed large stickers that read "We § Jondi & Spesh" and is handing them out to others in the crowd, who proudly affix them to their bodies. I do not reach for a sticker, nor do I care so much for these guys' tunes, but the mood in here is like that of a birthday party, so it's getting harder and harder to scowl.
Standing amid the rows of CDs and listening stations, the fans come in all shapes and sizes. There are older, housewife-looking ladies as well as sprightly gray-haired men; there are hipper, chiseled guys dressed in faux-fur coats and good-looking girls in cowboy hats and sleek tank tops. Everyone is smiling; most are taking pictures with digital cameras. When someone new floats up on the escalator, only a head emerges before the visitor is recognized and welcomed.
One such person is a man blowing a referee's whistle and wearing a soccer player's uniform and dark blue sunglasses, a pair of hoop earrings dangling from his lobes; he's carrying a trophy and holding a soccer ball. It is explained to me by one of the DJs' associates that this man is the "Ambassador of Qoöl," "Qoöl" being the weekly dance-music happy hour party that Jondi & Spesh have been hosting for close to nine years. The Ambassador of Qoöl (aka Mark Fong) is so named because for the last 2 1/2 of those years he has been organizing themed dress-up nights for a group of the club's devotees; past themes include "cowboy," "safari," and "superhero." Tonight is "FIFA" night, hence the growing number of fans at the Megastore dressed like they're off to the World Cup.
"There's all different types of people [drawn to] 'Qoöl,'" Fong tells me. "People you'd make fun of in any other place, but you walk in [to 111 Minna] and you're part of the club."
Am I part of the club? I feel like part of the club. Before I can think twice about it, though, Jondi & Spesh conclude their in-store and we all head down the street to 111 Minna, where "Qoöl" is already under way.
The Answer is not a particularly mind-blowing dance-music record. Chalk it up to the fact that when putting the thing together, Jondi & Spesh made a conscious effort to move away from the hard-driving trance sound they've become known for.
"We wanted to make a sound that wasn't just a dance-music sound," explains Jondi, aka JD Moyer, who, like his partner Spesh, or Stephen Kay, has bleached blond hair, fair skin, and striking blue eyes; while Moyer is a few inches shorter than Kay, the two otherwise look disturbingly alike. "Even though we love making dance music and probably always will, it's a little bit limiting if every song you do has to be for the dance floor. It feels restrictive after a while, and we've been doing it for 10, 15 years. So we wanted to sit down and get rid of that limitation and just write songs. That was the idea."
It was a bad idea.
While plenty of albums, such as those from acts like Orbital and Underworld, have managed to take mainstream dance music's constituent parts -- four-on-the-floor beats; ascending and descending arpeggios; sweeping, melodic chords -- and reconfigure them into new and interesting combinations, The Answer is not one of them. To use the trance sound palette to make songs that diverge from the formula, which sums up J&S's ambition on their latest, is to run the risk of exposing how truly facile those sounds are, and that is what The Answer does.
The spindly synth accents on "Fly (On Your Own)" sound hollow and cheap, as do many of the rest of the bleeps and bloops on the record, especially the crusty synths of the title track and the tired 808 kick drum on "Can You Remember"; few songs have the sleek sheen of today's better productions. J&S succeed when they stick to familiar territory, as with the driving beats of "Ten Cities, Ten Days" and the throbbing urgency of "Everybody Went to Burning Man," which recalls Underworld's "Push Upstairs." But for the most part, in attempting to make a record that propels their brand of dance music forward, Jondi & Spesh have produced something that comes off like it was discovered in a time capsule from a decade ago. Unless I didn't get the memo, the sounds of 1994 have yet to come back into vogue.
But if The Answer has its shortcomings, they are minor failures when placed next to the huge success of "Qoöl" and the community of shiny, happy people that has sprung up around it.
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