Agnès presents Cavalier, A Million Horses


Painting by Karsten Schmidt

[Drumpoet Community]


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What is one deep house record too many? Is there a point at which we reach some kind of critical mass of deepness? These are the unfortunate thoughts I find myself having each time I set Cavalier’s A Million Horses on the platter. Why unfortunate? Because rarely do I come across a record whose quality is belied by its sheer lack of necessity in most record bags; rarely does something so well produced — so well intentioned — do itself such few favors. Cavalier is the Drumpoet Community-centric alias of Agnès, the seasoned minimal house producer and the force behind Swiss label Sthlmaudio. Cavalier represents Agnès at his housiest, which is to say Agnès has one of hell of a house impulse: over 80 minutes, he inhabits a warm, vintage, and unabashedly soulful pocket with a fervor few can match. When paired with his considerable production experience, this fervor becomes a kind of crusade. Whether putting bottoms into motion swiftly (opener-in-earnest “Kabardin”) or at a slinkier pace (mid-album stretch highlight “Yonaguni feat. Torpedoman”), Agnès handles these sounds confidently and with great care: his vintage drum machines sound dusted off, his keyboards purr and swell, and all his sounds sit together like soulmates.

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This would all be fantastic if the very roll Agnès is on weren’t the same roll a lot of other producers have been on for a few years. But while these Cavalier tracks can go toe to toe with so much of the Moodymann-derived material on the market today, they don’t go so far as to exceed them. Even when the tracks are really fantastic — the Nino Rota-vibin’ “Uzunyayla (Hallucinatory Narcosis),” the Isolee-esque “Napoletano” — they curiously don’t draw much attention to themselves; pretty much all they’re doing to differentiate themselves from everything else in your record bag is that they’re well-produced. When the tracks aren’t so great, like the “E2-E4”-reverent “Yonaguni,” you’re likely to yawn more than grimace. And in the context of an album, this lack of sonic individuality coaxes you into a kind of time warp: short tracks (and many of the CD version’s 19 cuts are under the five minute mark) feel remarkably long, and just when the album starts to get into a groove, Agnès drops another slamming hi-hat for what feels like a reset. Even when I divorce myself from all the deep house I’ve been inundated with, I feel fatigued by the halfway mark; when I listen to this album as part of the continuum of deep house obsessiveness, that fatigue sets in almost immediately.

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It feels sort of unfair to knock an album because of forces acting outside the album itself, but albums don’t exist in a vacuum. Between Sascha Dive, Brothers’ Vibe and the bulk of the Drumpoet Community roster, this material has been done to death at this point. And producers who release on labels like Laid, Workshop, or even Rush Hour show us that house music doesn’t have to tread water just yet. Cavalier has an ethic, but the project hasn’t yet found that thing that makes this house different from every other house on the block. Until Agnès finds it, I’d wade in cautiously.

Anton  on September 28, 2011 at 10:30 AM

I see where you’re coming from, Jordan, with regards to this record coming on the back of a long period of deep-obsessed house music. At the same time, I think you’ve undervalued what Agnes has done because of the environment this album was released in.

A Million Horses is by no means a perfect album. The last five or six tracks are fairly inessential and the whole thing would have been made stronger choosing 12 tracks. The streamlined vinyl version is the superior version for it.

But for me, at least, the impeccable construction of these tracks is more than enough to set it apart from legions of also-ran deep house. Agnes is a master of percussion patterning to the level that you could pay attention only to the drums and get a lot out of it. His bass lines are divine. Stylistically he’s not breaking a lot of ground, but he’s not just using the same Rhodes/organ sounds. His sounds seem hand tailored and get across the “deep” feeling without necessarily hitting all the deep talking points, if you will.

To your point about the tracks not drawing a lot of attention to themselves, you’re correct. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing: they reward close listening but it’s not essential if you just want to get into his sumptuous grooves and just ride. (I would also say this record is best heard while moving; listening to at a desk or something is a less engaging experience.)

In sum, I love A Million Horses and can’t stop listening to it. It’s a gorgeous if flawed album that, for me at least, beats out almost every other house LP this year. I think a lot of people will enjoy this, so long as they’re not sick of straightforward deep-house.

Dave  on September 28, 2011 at 10:44 AM

I can respect your opinion but i really have to disagree. I think Drumpoet in general, and this album in particular, take a specific stance on deep house that i find refreshing. Maybe it’s too accessible for those of us that have been inundated by the sound, but releases like this help me understand appreciate the European take on deep house as opposed to tire of it, if only because we get to see what a producer who is both talented and inspired can pull off.

Would you have loved this record three years ago? maybe. If so, that probably just means it will sound great in five years or something. i may be being a tad optimistic, but I’d like to think so.

Jordan Rothlein  on September 28, 2011 at 11:40 AM

Anton,

The environment in which this record was released absolutely contributed to my ultimate verdict on the record, but I guess where we differ is that I don’t see this as contributing to the record being “undervalued”: this music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and a lot of dance music’s value is caught up in its time and place. It’s meant to rub shoulders with other music in the context of a DJ set, and to be certain, the tracks on this Cavalier album rub up quite nicely with plenty of contemporary tunes. As a critic, I tend to skew a bit utopian on this point, but I want to see tracks that coax the floor along. And I feel like these tunes — however well-made — are dealing in a pretty entrenched sound and make for a somewhat stagnant dance floor. A producer like Agnes is free to use his considerable talents however he wishes, but if he uses them on well-traveled tropes and doesn’t offer much more than really high-quality production (something that’s not necessarily lacking in this style), I see that as properly contributing to a lower-than-average valuation of this music.

One album I kept thinking about as I listened to “A Million Horses” is Steffi’s LP, which also traveled a pretty well-worn path. A lot of why I loved that record and feel pretty uncertain about this one is in the attitude: “Yours and Mine” has this joy about it that can’t help but shine through, a kind of punkish excitement about finding the groove, and it’s utterly contagious. With Cavalier, I can get really excited about the production, but I don’t feel that same uplift. “A Million Horses” sounds superior, but almost in a smug way, and I wonder if this mastery of deep house production is a bit of a stylistic dead-end.

I’ll cede that you’re very right about Agnes getting “the ‘deep’ feeling without necessarily hitting all the deep talking points.” If I’ve undervalued anything in my review, it’s the subtlety Agnes achieves — something plenty of more “forward-thinking” dance tracks certainly sacrifice. And yes, this is moving music that dance floors probably won’t be shooting down. (I’m sure some of our readers love to picture us LWEers as tightasses gumming up the floor as we stroke our Lenin goatees and bemoan the stagnation of house music. But despite whatever criticisms I’m leveling here, this stuff surely gets/keeps me moving.)

Justin  on September 28, 2011 at 1:51 PM

So are we knocking this because it’s not a good album or because we already have enough good deep house albums? I guess we can stop making movies since we seem to already have a huge collection of great films on the shelf.

The ingredients may be similar, but I think the true awesomeness of this album is in the way they parts come together. In arrangement and drum pattering, Agnes is sort of saying “let me show the boys how it’s done.” And he does well!

ChoobbyJam  on September 28, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Jordan, i think you’re in a moment of lack of sweet lovin. You know that sweet g spot, get there, love it and listen to that LP again…

tony kukoc  on September 29, 2011 at 4:45 AM

I’m completely with the review. This is pleasant, well produced fare that I don’t feel very strongly about one way or another.

tony kukoc  on September 29, 2011 at 4:52 AM

“A Million Horses” sounds superior, but almost in a smug way” – This sentence in your comment is terrible though, and I’m glad it wasn’t in the review. I’d use a lot of words to describe the sound and production of this album, but “smug” is certainly not one of them.

Henderick AKA Thelonious Funk  on September 29, 2011 at 10:10 AM

I must admit that it is a solid LP. Sometimes people tends to critique things way too much… I like this album much more than the Sascha Dive & Brother’s Vibe productions. That is enough for me… In all fairness the album is not getting enough love because of the two aforementioned producers. However it’s not Agnes’ fault for this. I will say 4/5 for me…

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