John Roberts, Mirror

Art by Peter Chmela


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Though he sports one of the less memorable names in house music (as compared to, say, “Black Jazz Consortium,” “Mr. Fingers,” or “Sascha Dive”), John Roberts possesses one of the most distinctive and individualistic sounds of the moment. His tracks are wonders of acoustic sound and digital grid structure, of quirky detail and suffusive mood, of widescreen scope and hand-lettered modesty. All of which has made him the torch-bearer of the day for Hamburg’s Dial Records. “Mirror” finds that torch in good hands indeed.

The dusty organ stabs and the outer-space synth melodies would situate the EP’s opening, title track squarely in deep house territory, were it not for the clacking drum sticks (à la ESG) and whimsical slide-whistle accents (à la bad luck on Wheel of Fortune). Two parts sultry funk to one part abstract pop assemblage, the incongruous flavors don’t so much blend as complement each other to memorable effect. Similarly, the brooding piano on “Pruned” plunges into epic retrospection through an interplay of evocative samples that feel like cinematic references, from feudal drums to whistling cowboys. Solemn soundtrack music with a determined beat, it isn’t enough to say that “Pruned” is unlike any other house track I’ve heard this year — this is only incidentally dance music.

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Sandwiched between those two exemplary tracks, “Maroon” is my preferred pull from the EP. Here, heart-quickening shifts between reserved, muffled kick drums and crisp, enlivened snares inject expectant tension into a drowsy network of samples — the twilit hum of crickets, some radioed vocals, and an arcade bouncing effect (think Pong on a stalled-out Atari). But it’s the weary keyboard melody, which touches on the the Boards of Canada play book, that gives 2009 one of its most touched, tender songs of any genre. Roberts’ MySpace page cites “slow motion dancing” as his lone influence. Certainly that image pairs well with the track’s mesmerizing slow-burn (and practically begs for a YouTube fan video). But it’s also a bit disingenuous, dismissing a surrender to sentiment that, on “Maroon” at least, means the difference between a well-crafted mood and actual poignancy.

chelsea  on August 1, 2009 at 7:35 AM

I thought I would translate that last sentence:

It’s innacurate to suggest that the poignancy of “Maroon” is, in fact, nothing more than well-crafted mood if you don’t allow yourself to surrender to its charm.

chris miller  on August 1, 2009 at 3:40 PM

great review, great record. dial/laid’s output over the past couple of months has been almost absurd. for such an established label to keep putting out music of such high caliber is remarkable.

can’t wait for john’s upcoming laid record.

chrisdisco  on August 2, 2009 at 1:09 AM

laid is off to a good start, and will continue it with john’s ep, which is a bomb. as for dial? i wouldnt agree that their recent output has been very strong. roberts is one of few bright spots there now. the others just seem to be going through the motions a bit. dial definitely isnt the buy on sight label it used to be.

chris miller  on August 2, 2009 at 9:02 PM

2008’s output was hit and miss, sure, but it hit big when it hit (miles and hesitate). efdemin’s drone piece earlier this year was great in my opinion and i personally liked pantha’s single. i also give them props for putting out something as odd as christian naujoks’ album.

i don’t wanna be that guy who refuses to accept when a label’s output takes a dip, but for me dial is still up there as a favorite.

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