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After-Hours Man: Danny Tenaglia lends his imprimatur to a new DJ compilation.

All Mixed Up

Celebrity DJ Danny Tenaglia has good taste, but his new mix album is no substitute for making your own

By Michelle Goldberg

ELECTRONIC MUSIC and DJ culture have done as much as a thousand Ph.D.s in poststructuralist theory to call the notion of artistic authorship into question. In techno and house music, anonymous bedroom tweakers put out singles made up largely of computerized beats and samples. A DJ takes these tracks, cuts them up, splices them together and disguises the difference between them in the interest of creating a seamless flow.

Originally, utopian ravers thought this system was going to destroy the lead-singer worship that dominates rock. But people seem to have an ingrained need for figureheads, and thus the cult of the superstar DJ was born to replace that of the rock star.

New York City house DJ Danny Tenaglia was anointed early on and now functions in a gray area between artist and brand name. After all, an ecstatic DJ set that both anticipates and responds to a crowd's collective emotion may be a work of art.

On a CD, though, such a set is simply an ingeniously arranged collection of other people's songs. Nowhere is that more clear than on Back to Mine (Ultra Records), an excellent chill-out compilation that happens to bear Tenaglia's name.

Tenaglia's Loft in Paradise is the first in a series of discs that asks top DJs to create after-hours mixes. It's both a very good idea and a very strange one. On one hand, the music at after-parties and lounges is often more interesting than that at a raging bacchanal because, liberated from the tyranny of bpms and the imperative to fill a dance floor, DJs can be far more eclectic.

On the other hand, though, there's something odd about wanting famous DJs to curate one's relaxation. Now that MP3s, CD burners and make-your-own compilation services like CDuctive are common, it is easier than ever to create a personal soundtrack for introspection and lazy bliss.

DJ dance mixes still make sense, because it's the peaks and valleys, the tension and climaxes, that make house, techno and trance compelling, and such a sonic journey is almost impossible to achieve simply by playing one track after another on a CD player. This collection, though, which basically amounts to Tenaglia's favorite songs, has far less internal logic.

As the line notes ask, "What does Danny Tenaglia play when he's at home and there's no crowd to please but himself?" Apparently, a combination of soulful, string-filled ambient music, light house, R&B, Latin-flavored lounge, electro and ... Danny Tenaglia.

The third track on Back to Mine is an eight-minute-plus mix of Tenaglia's "Loft in Paradise," a song that starts out lovely but runs out of ideas just a couple of minutes in. Back to Mine begins with a pretty, melancholy filigree of jazz piano, a sprinkling of spry high hats and a female voice saying something like "I float in the cloud." That vocal sample will repeat itself about a hundred more times as the song progresses, along with plenty of looped piano and squelching bass.

The track is fine, but in the context of the record, it seems like little more than a trademark, stamping Tenaglia's sound on a collection of music that otherwise has little to do with him.

OF COURSE, nearly every DJ mix CD has tracks from its titular artist, but it makes more sense on discs that are supposed to capture a live club set. After all, crowds often thrill to hear celebrity mixologists dropping their own beats.

Back to Mine, though, bills itself as something more personal, more private. The inclusion of Tenaglia's own track helps to destroy that illusion and to show up Back to Mine for what it is: a very good compilation of old midtempo dance music boasting the Tenaglia brand.

Indeed, those who buy Back to Mine will likely do so because, unlike one's own personal mixes, this disc can be played at a party secure in the knowledge that it's been deemed cool by someone cooler than oneself. In many ways, this is music as wallpaper--lulling, tasteful, unobtrusive. It's occasionally gorgeous, but the beauty is meant to wash over you like a warm bath. Functionally, it's similar to those Starbucks and Pottery Barn mix CDs, aimed at a hipper demographic.

With its sunny lite-jazz piano tinkling, Outside the Plan's "Minty" is modern elevator music. Of course, thanks to lounge and the brief mania for easy listening, the very term elevator music is no longer a pejorative, but in this case perhaps it should be. "Minty" isn't an ambient psychedelic reverie, or even an after-party soother. Instead, it's straight-up Muzak, nice enough but utterly bland.

To be fair, most of the collection is far more interesting than "Minty." The album begins with the Gentle People's "Emotion Heater," a track so lush and sylvan it approaches camp. Tremendous synthesizer waves, chimes and strings swirl over mod Saint Etienne-style vocals low in the mix. It's like Hooverphonic with Pizzicato Five's sense of kitsch, a song full of diaphanous, watercolor radiance but utterly without pathos or melancholy: spa music for hipsters.

The next song, actually, is the kind of thing one would hope for from a record like this: an obscure gem of the kind that gets passed around on mix tapes by knowing friends. "To the Sea" is a track by electronica pioneer Yello that's not available on any album. It's simple, composed largely of light breakbeats, soft synth pulses and girlish vocals. But the play of Stina Nordenstam's curling, feline voice over the shimmery beats is like sunlight on waves, and while it's deeply narcotic, it's far from numbing.

"To the Sea" isn't the only high point on the album. Isolée's strange, fabulous "Beau Mot Plage" sounds like Kraftwerk playing salsa, the coolness of the minimal, metallic beats contrasting eerily with the warm rhythms and effervescent melodies.

The deep, slinky funk of "Bang the Party" throbs with an aggressive sexuality absent elsewhere on the record. Kimara Lovelace's discofied "Only You" is house music of the most succulent, uplifting kind, and CeCe Peniston's "Keep on Walking," the album's one straight-ahead R&B cut, is rich and triumphant. Tenaglia has good taste. That's what people who buy Back to Mine are paying for.

Ordinarily, the joys of receiving a mix tape come in part from the music, in part from knowing that the songs were selected just for you. The satisfaction of making one derives from the songs' personal resonance, the strains of nostalgia and discovery that course through the soundtrack to your life.

Back to Mine is a glorified, marketable mix tape, created by someone with access to a massive musical library and years of expertise. But in this particular form, professionalism can't replace personalization. It makes sense to have a star guiding the night at a club but less sense to turn one's private moments over to a celebrity.

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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