Snuggle & Slap
Established in 1999, Circus Company specializes in an off-kilter and funky brand of house and techno that allows traces of hip-hop, jazz, electro, and African music to seep into its snappy grooves. The Paris-based imprint's acts include label vets (Ark, Nôze, Dave Aju, Sety), recent additions (dOP, MyMy, Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts, Audio Werner, Antislash, Oleg Poliakov, Le K), and new recruits (Ryan Crosson, Nicolas Jaar, Homewreckers). Having weathered a decade's worth of storms seems like reason enough to celebrate the accomplishment with a two-CD compilation that, on paper at least, splits material into “home listening” (Snuggle) and groove-centered (Slap) halves.
Disc one's material branches beyond conventional dance music genres to work soul, African, and especially jazz elements into its dozen tracks. Making a strong early impression, dOP's tribal house cut “Alligators” (featuring Dave Aju) includes chanted vocals and jazzy flutes that seem to originate from some jungle swamp. In Aju's own standout vocal cut “Hide and Go Seek,” a deep bass throb rumbles during the verses while the haunting chorus theme plunges like an out-of-control roller-coaster. Perhaps better than any other, “Hide and Go Seek” serves as a succinct ambassador for the Circus Company sound: lop-sided and imaginative yet still grooving. MyMy's “Bonus Jack” (the lone non-exclusive cut) neatly weds a crackly Rhodes sample to a lazily swinging two-step pulse, with cowbells and percussive accents lending the tune exotic colour. In one of the collection's jazzier tracks, Ryan Crosson's feverish “Slow Down” teleports the album to the center of a frenetic traffic intersection where snatches of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain ring out amidst the tumult. Recorded live at Café Bohemia, Homewreckers' “Chicago Urban Blues” is closer to soulful deep house than blues per se. “As We Are” by Nôze member Ezechiel Pailhes is the kind of voice-and-piano sketch one might have heard a tipsy Edith Piaf rehearsing at an after-hours French cafe decades ago. The first half also includes a moody amalgam of atmospheric house and African jazz from Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts (“Odyssee”) and a high-spirited, funk-house workout by Nôze where Spanish guitar playing and jazzy horn lines bolster the cut's Mediterranean feel (“Drums”).
Though the gravelly vocals on Nôze's disc two opener “Boredom” initially seem like a bit of an acquired taste, after repeated listenings they come to complement nicely the track's steel drum-and-horns powered swing. Like Aju's “Hide and Go Seek,” “Boredom” too speaks strongly in favour of the Circus Company approach, with Nôze incoprorating a wealth of orchestral detail into the track's eight-minute running time. dOP's “Stock Option” similarly includes vocals, which in this case push the pulsating tribal-house track into a bluesy direction. As mentioned, Slap 's tracks are a clubbier bunch, and that driving quality is never more in evidence than when Destination Danger (Oleg Poliakov and Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts) rolls out eleven minutes of steamy, tribal-house thrust in “Du Rififi au Katanga,” and when Sety and Guillaume & The Coutu Dumont dig into the equally storming “Le Bourdon” and “Peneloppe” respectively. The label's jauntier side also comes to the fore during Audio Werner's “Bakshi.” The supposed difference between the two discs is actually slighter than the Snuggle-Slap dichotomy implies: the former obviously isn't ambient by any stretch but rather a beat-based collection of idiosyncratic design that's less club-centered than disc two's deep house offerings. In keeping with the label name, Circus Company allows for a generous quota of wackiness in its material—which shouldn't be interpreted to mean that the contributors aren't serious about their respective tracks, just that this inspired and eclectic collection refreshingly lacks a dour character.