Cat Power 

Electro heavy Felix da Housecat makes new songs sound classic

Happy hour, sun shower, 808 gives you power/Happy hour, sun shower, 808 gives you power

The "happy hour" part is about drinkin' in the afternoon, the "sun shower" part about feeling groovy and high -- on your basic Mother Nature tip. The "808" refers to the classic Roland TR-808 analog drum machine, the beast that's powered a million beats over the past two decades, beats with so much oomph that, despite the myriad technical innovations in the field of electronic music since 1980, they still shine brighter than all other synthetic rhythms. This leads us to the "gives you power" part: As has been proved time and time again, great dance and hip-hop producers possess a special power.

Miss Kittin (ne Caroline Herve) "sings" "Happy Hour" -- a song from Felix da Housecat's 2001 full-length Kittenz and Thee Glitz -- in her own monotone fashion. She's European and sometimes dresses like a nurse. She's pretty hot, too, singing/talking in a sexy, detached Marlene Dietrich kind of way -- she doesn't care that she cares. Combined, the three ideas -- drinkin', Mother Nature, beats -- celebrate bliss.

If you need a genre tag to wrap the song around, call it house, or electro, or poppy techno, or synth house or electropunk. You can coin your own term for it; nobody will know the difference if you say it with authority: Glitz rock. Freaq-nasty tech. Analog hip-house. Feeling particularly trendy and with it? Go with "electroclash," the flavor of the week -- or was that last week? -- in London and NYC.

Actually, don't call it electroclash, because that's a stupid name for a genre and everyone lumped within it -- Fischerspooner, Chicks on Speed, Peaches, et al -- hates it. Saying you're really into electroclash is like saying you're really into emo. Don't embarrass yourself.

We'll call it electro, because that's the safest, and simplest, tag for Felix's most recent album. It acknowledges that Felix da Housecat (né Felix Stallings Jr., born in 1970), who's spinning at Velvet on Saturday, sits on a continuum that stretches back to the '70s, has bleeped in and out of favor a few times and has for the past couple of years been reappearing on CD and wax, both in the form of reissues and new material, and reinfluencing a host of electronic-music producers all over the globe. On its release, Kittenz and Thee Glitz leaped to the top almost immediately and came to define the electro revival, which had long been simmering in Europe.

Before rap and electro split into distinct genres in the early to mid-'80s, the two were one and the same, or at least two camps in the same forest, working together and leaping back and forth. Early synth-driven rap hits such as Newcleus' "Jam On It" and Afrika Bambaata's "Planet Rock" are considered foundations of both rap and electro, and you can hear the sound of this solid '80s vibe throughout Kittenz. You can also hear new wave -- Human League, New Order, early Depeche Mode -- and, as a result, you can hear the foundations of Detroit techno and Chicago house. You can hear it all, and the brilliance of Felix is the way in which he acknowledges and pays homage without getting all teary-eyed and nostalgic. This record is decidedly new but sounds classic.

But even the term "electro" is a misnomer for Felix, because he got his start eighteen-odd years ago in Chicago, where he played a pivotal role in the advancement of Chicago house, which would a few years later take Europe by storm and help ignite the worldwide explosion. His recordings under miscellaneous pseudonyms (Thee Maddkatt Courtship, Aphrohead, Sharkimaxx), stretching back to his first twelve-inch, 1987's "Phantasy Girl," are consistently solid, rhythmic affairs that have at their heart the 808 and a world of melody.

In the mid-'90s, Felix launched Radikal Fear records, a Chicago label that, along with Cashmere's Cajual Records (with whom Radikal Fear shared the brilliant DJ Sneak) and Dance Mania, released hard, crazy minimal house records that foreshadowed and influenced a whole world of European producers. Felix da Housecat's Metropolis Present Day? The Album!, though rather inconsistent, still sounds fresh today.

But chances are, unless you're old-school and have been following his progression, you know Felix da Housecat from Kittenz. Before, he was one of many. After, he was the one. The record struck a nerve with those who got their kicks with bouncy electronic melody, who dug the celebration of club life, easy livin', joy, Hollywood, pleasure.

Recorded in Chicago, New Jersey and Geneva, Kittenz stands as one of the best dance records of this new millennium, mainly because it's just so damn much fun. The song titles say it all: "Silver Screen Shower Scene," "Runaway Dreamer," "Glitz Rock." This is the stuff dreams are made of, and on top of a slick, bouncy, chrome-synth canvas, vocalists Miss Kittin, Melistar and Elektrikboy (Felix in disguise), pose and strut for the flashing cameras.

The record also struck a nerve with other artists, who still wait in line for his remixing skills. Among many others, Felix has remixed Madonna ("Die Another Day"), Diana Ross, Basement Jaxx, Si Begg, Röyksopp and Ladytron. His remix of French artist Rinôçrôse, "Lost Love (Felix da Housecat Thee Clubhead Mix)" is up for a Grammy for Best Remixed Recording, Nonclassical.

What makes Felix a master on Kittenz is his ability to draw from everywhere, both structurally and melodically. He's discovered pop songs but can't deny the pleasure inherent in relentless repetition. The first half of a song can head in one direction, and you think it's a tight little A-A-B-A structure -- your basic pop song -- and then, just when the hook's over and you think he's ready to resolve the whole thing, he'll refuse, or get diverted, or meander somewhere else, and then, all of a sudden, we're in a different dimension within the same world of the song, one that uses as a seed some aspect of the original melody but sprouts a whole other idea altogether. Unlike many producers, Felix likes a good pop hook.

It's this appreciation of simple song structure that sounds so fresh. A transformation has occurred in the past couple years of dance music, one that's been a long time coming, although it was once the norm: dance music with pop hooks and chord changes. For about fifteen years, dance forgot about pop structure and drew almost entirely from the Autobahn school of composition: linear, focused rhythms that stuck to a single propulsive idea and rode it until the end of the song.

Yes, melody was lurking within, but the hooks weren't pop, they were drops: Find a melody, build it up over and over again, add texture while the thump provides momentum and keep going, adding drama and intensity and then, at just the right moment, kill all but a tiny fraction of the rhythm for sixteen steps -- whoosh; from everything, nothing. The silence, the very absence of the collected rhythms, makes for a heavenly release, but on the dance floor, these heavenly sixteen beats are a tiny pit stop, one that dancers crave. But the pause is really just a tease: They're really waiting for the next sixteen, when all those heavy-duty rhythms reappear and hit the dance floor like a Mack truck: Boom, we're back, and the dance floor heaves until the end of the song.

There's nothing wrong with the structure, other than a listening public so brainwashed by its ubiquity that they're unwilling to tolerate it on commercial radio (either that or program directors are too chickenshit to try it out). But partially as a result of this wall -- and partially because of curious producers such as Felix -- more and more, dance tracks are celebrating hooks.

Felix da Housecat's most recent release, Excursions, is a mix, and it moves all over the place. Mixes are always a doorway into a producer's musical soul, and Excursions leaps from the poppy electro of Ladytron to the harder techno of Detroit's Jeff Mills, the Britpop of Dot Allison and a handful of Housecat originals and mixes. The mix just moves, jumps, dances around -- and if it's any indication of the direction Felix da Housecat will take when he's on the decks at Velvet, those in the mood for a good dance are in for quite a ride.

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