Routes Not Roots

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Routes Not Roots is the debut album from Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion aka K-S.H.E., one in a lengthy string of monikers adopted by Midwest-bred, Tokyo-based transgendered thinker/scholar/DJ/producer Terre Thaemlitz. Initially released in Japan in 2006 on Thaemlitz's private Comatonse label, and made more widely available through a 2011 reissue, it serves as something of a companion piece to Midtown Blues, Thaemlitz's acclaimed 2008 album as DJ Sprinkles, offering a similar mixture of trenchant (if sometimes oblique) social critique and sterling, smooth deep house grooves. (Both albums also share a recurring train motif.) As Midtown Blues made explicit, Thaemlitz is interested in exposing and investigating the frequently obscured and erased history of house music's development -- specifically, its roots in queer, black, urban subcultures -- through the medium of house music itself, but as this album's title points up, he's less concerned with origin stories per se than with contexts and journeys, and the intermingling cultural, social, political, and economic factors that resonate within those stories. And it's quite some intermingling he's got here. The album's adventures in identity politics range from an interview with Japanese "hermaphrodite" Saki-Chan, set amid absurdly lush harp runs and recorder beeps, to "Stand Up"'s harrowing spoken account of tranny-on-tranny violence (involving a gang of "flaming" Puerto Rican queens), delivered against a pointedly callous, canned laugh track. But these interstitial curiosities (which also include, for no readily apparent reason, a solemn synthesized rendition of folk standard "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair") merely form the backdrop for the real meat of the album: five extended house workouts, ranging from seven to fourteen minutes, which operate on multiple musical and textual levels. Expansively bleak opener "Down Home Kami-Sakunobe" gets the multi-cultural stew simmering, dressing up its deep, mournful post-disco grooves with incongruous (but emotionally kindred) country-style fiddling and intermittent, discordant piano clusters. The similarly constructed locomotive shuffle, "Hobo-Train," eventually reveals the source of its seemingly club-minded driving utterance ("work, sisters!") to be a rabble-rousing sermon about unemployment (sampled, oddly enough, from an episode of "Good Times"), while the taut, propulsive "B2B" lets the insinuations of its numbingly incessant refrain ("brother to brother, brother to brother") speak for themselves, or, perhaps, in conversation with the openly gay African-American voices heard on the Stevie Wonder-sampling "Crosstown." Perhaps most effective, both as commentary and dance music, is the uncharacteristically cheerful, buoyant "Infected," which takes on HIV drug trials by way of frothy filter-disco and corny sampled dialogue. Clearly there's a lot to take in here, but Roots' wide-flung, omnivorous approach is seemingly a crucial part of its socio-political purpose. Alternately, with a few sore thumbs excised, it works equally well as a collection of mellow, moody, late-night groovers.

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