Cut to today. Mix CDs are largely in the province of electronic music, often aimed at the dancefloor, and showcase both a DJ’s mixing skills and their artistic ability to construct a single narrative. Other than the 'Back to Mine' and 'Choice' series, there are few mix CDs that hark back to the '80s compilation feel of “a selection of tracks”.
Enter James Holden’s 'At the Controls'. A glance at the artist/tracklist of the double CD set suggests that 'At the Controls' will showcase James Holden at his border hopping best. Plastikman beside Massive Attack, ‘70s Krautrock band Harmonia beside the Midi Miliz, the IDM of Christ beside the laptop lo-fi ambience of Fennesz. Yet what holds these tracks together (so disparate at first glance) is not a stunning display of cross-genre mixing from Holden, but the indie-rock aesthetic that so many of them share. Guitars dominate many of the tracks, along with “live” sounding drumming, especially in the tracks by Death In Vegas, meta.83, and Malcolm Middleton. Vocals are equally important, with many of the tracks essentially functioning as songs, such as Middleton’s 'Solemn Thirsty', Trans Am’s 'Cold War', and Apparat’s 'Wooden'. Furthermore, while mixed, most of these tracks are allowed their own identity, given time to breathe and speak for themselves.
Of course, it’s not all indie-rock, (or electronica reminiscent of indie rock); there are plenty of electronic booty shaking moments. Midi Miliz’s 'Trace Function', Apparat’s mix of Nathan Fake’s 'Charlie’s House', and Paul Kalkbrenner’s 'Gebrünn Gebrünn' will get heads nodding and hips swaying. However, this is not a mix for the dancefloor. A dancefloor track is just as likely to segue into an indie song as it is into another dancefloor number.
Holden actually faces something of a tough sell with 'At the Controls'. For those fond of his progressive past, or looking for another mix similar to his Balance mix, this may be somewhat disappointing. Similarly, fans of techno may not be happy, expecting something directed at the dancefloor after looking at the tracklist.
However, for those who want a mixed compilation of tracks and songs for home listening, or as a soundtrack to their next Friday night knees-up, 'At the Controls' is the best mix(ed) tape you’ve never made. Recommended.