It’s pretty damn easy to make yourself a playlist these days. Spotify even prioritises random playlists over actual artists and albums in its search results. So the few labels that still publish and promote compilations need to have some sort of unique selling point. This might mean putting out tracks that are unavailable anywhere else, or are mixed by some sort of genius DJ, or even just stuff that has been criminally overlooked.
French imprint/fashion brand Kitsuné have issued an impressive flotilla of compilations since starting up in 2002. In the process they’ve helped to break acts like Phoenix, Hot Chip, and (temporarily) Fischerspooner. Typically these releases have justified their existence by demonstrating their good taste and consistent aesthetic of technicolor, catchy, danceable, trendy and non-threatening indie/electro-pop. But after a decade of compilations, have they still got it?
From the off Kitsuné America sounds exactly like you’d expect it to sound, albeit with a definite emphasis keyboards over guitars. It’s probably too early for mid ’00s nostalgia, but were someone to hand you a copy of this album on a sunny day in 2005 (possibly along with releases by Frou Frou and Postal Service), you wouldn’t bat an eyelid, much less accuse them of time travel or sorcery. Which is to say that this is a dance compilation that is wilfully ignorant of the darker directions that dance music has taken in the past half-decade. No nods are made at any point during this release to dubstep, grime, or any sort of minimalist electronica. James Blake might as well be a romantic poet, Pantha du Prince an aftershave, and Skrillex a brillo pad.
But then wouldn’t many of us prefer if Skrillex was a brillo pad? In lieu of pounding bass, the playlist is held together by acts that, at their best, rely on the joy of florid house synths, moogs, handclaps, tuned percussion and sirens that go “BEEEAAUWWWW” just before the chorus kicks in. The first three tracks, in particular, hit a sweet groove. The leisurely new wave of St Lucia is reminiscent of Yeasayer without their frenetic pace. Dwntwn boast some truly inane club lyrics, but some truly euphoric club beats. And a sharply simple remix of Childish Gambino’s ‘Heartbeats’ by Them Jeans actually leaves the TV star sounding heartfelt. Later in the album XXXChange‘s ‘F*k Yeah Ace of Hearts’ is almost as awesome as the name suggests (and way more sawtoothy), and Emil & Friends take what sounds suspiciously like a heartfelt love song complete with boy-girl harmonies and a very timely reference to Instagram, and bury it under 8-bit Gameboy noises.
As with many compilations of unknown artists there a few utterly undistinguished tracks in the mix. Frances Rose‘ ‘Vampire’ has all the bite of a Jessica Simpson track, Poindexter do Phoenix-by-numbers, and Gigamesh churn out some step-aerobic disco that sounds as dated as a Babylonian epic. The latter even features prominent use of the phrase “Rock your body”, which surely was officially banned from dance music sometime in the late ’90s.
In sum it’s a mixed bag, but the gems outweigh the turds. Childish Gambino aside, Kitsuné deserve kudos for digging up a bunch of lesser-known (or up-and-coming) US acts and actually creating a coherent and interesting mix. There are times when one wishes that they’d stray a little further from their comfort zone, but then there’s plenty of other playlists out there if you get bored.