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Album Review: Hercules and Love Affair – Sidetracked

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Hercules and Love Affair‘s self-titled debut last year was something of a revelation. Andy Butler’s wonderful disco-influenced project — which was primarily Butler in the studio, but a band for touring — felt like we’d finally found a dance party with a soul. We knew guest vocalist Antony Hegarty had a unique sound, and his collaborations with Björk and CoCoRosie taught us he had range, but no one expected him to be a dance floor sensation. Yet, that’s what he became with “Blind” and “You Belong”.

Hercules and Love Affair is reminiscent of Moby’s Play in that it is as much a contemporary release as it was a lesson about past genres. Fitting, then, that the Hercules and Love Affair moniker is at the turntable for Sidetracked : the inaugural mix disk from dance label Renaissance. However, whereas Play came from Alan Lomax’s archives, Sidetracked comes from Butler’s disco vinyls.

Here Butler collects 13 songs that he enjoys (or was influenced by) and gives them the remix treatment. The result is something akin to Hercules and Love Affair, only not quite as compelling. Therein lies the difficulty with judging a dance mix: You’re not dealing with original material, so you’ve got to let your shoulders do the grading. On that basic level Sidetracked‘s a success. From the someone’s spoken “Heeeey, girl” intro to the whistle blows of Westbam’s “And Party”, you know you’re going to be standing under a mirrorball for the next hour. Each song slides into the next, occasionally punctuated by a voice that eggs Butler to “play some old disco or something.” The result is a party album that you could keep people moving without hitting the skip button.

For Hercules fans anticipating new material, Butler does provide one original track here, the thumping “I Can’t Wait”. Musically, it’s not a radical departure from earlier work. It relies on simple grooves and the sing-speak of Hercules bandmate Kim Ann Foxman. Lyrically, it’s more confident than the lovelorn tracks they’ve previously released. Her refrain of, “I won’t bear this cross/I won’t wear these chains”, suggests it’s not that she can’t wait — she just refuses to. And nestled between Sax’s “No Pares (Don’t Stop)” and In Flagranti’s “I Hadn’t Screwed Around Before”, the album’s narrative of love on the dance floor begins to surface. Perhaps it’s an incidental trope that appears anytime you place enough disco and Chicago house tracks next to one another, but it still works.

The album gives Butler a chance to flex his DJ skills, which is a skill often maligned in an era where you can fade any tracks you want together on iTunes. If you compare these versions to the album’s second disk, which consists of 11 of these tracks in their original-but-remastered form, you pick up on the subtle changes he’s made to the tracks. Butler’s edits are very similar, only with amplified beats or bass lines brought to the front of the mix. Plus, that each song can flow into the next with such ease is a testament to Butler’s sequencing. Even more interesting for the listener who’s paying attention to more than just the beats is the noticeable shifting of eras between certain tracks. For example, in Gino Soccio’s “Dream On”, you can tell that the 1982 track sits in the shadows of the previous decade, but you can hear how it broke the groundwork for the moodier dance gaining ground such as the likes of Depeche Mode and other New Wave acts.

In my experience, listeners are far more likely to approach mixes with their own agendas than with a conventional studio release. Some look to hear the fingerprints of the DJ all over the collection of tracks. Others want to get lost in the music. Some want exposure to obscure tracks you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Sidetracked sounds like a collection of songs that left a mark on Butler, but he isn’t in the mix. If anything, the album serves as an homage to the artists who shaped his songwriting, and it’s a catchy one at that. For Hercules fans, it’s a nice crash course; for non-fans, it’s a fun hour of listening.

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