Music News

Electro-Style Wars

The most noticeable change trance DJ Sandra Collins undergoes between her last mix CD, 2001's Cream, and her new one, Perfecto Presents . . . , is visual.

On the cover of the old disc, she's hyper-modernist Euro, wearing a skintight vinyl top and an impossibly smooth gray skirt, looking very much like a marketing exec at a hip video game company. Date that aesthetic post-2011. Perfecto's photo, on the other hand, takes the taste making back to 1984. Collins wears punky pink and black, thumb hooked Billy Idol-style on her studded belt. Her hair is teased and she's standing in a public rest room, almost sneering, as if she's ready to steal Molly Ringwald's lunch money.

The extreme makeover would suggest that Collins has also drastically overhauled her sound. Her change in presentation, in fact, mirrors the identity crisis electronic music as a whole is enduring right now. The über-serious obsession with all things futuristic that propelled dance music to its commercial high-water mark four years ago has been replaced by the ironic, the lo-fi and the retro. Electroclash was the most hyped manifestation of that postmodern meltdown of techno culture, which came and went almost overnight. But the fad managed to inject dance music with a dose of humor and trashiness that's saving club culture from sci-fi sterility.

So it's odd that Collins, who looks like she's in on the electroclash joke, still sounds like she's spinning records for some imagined supper club on Mars. Impervious to the ongoing revolt, she's stuck to the same trance and progressive house style on Perfecto that led her from Phoenix -- where she began her career -- to the international stage in the late '90s. Trance and progressive, which are nearly indiscernible from one another, advance so glacially that the two years between her last two discs could have been just a quick flip of the crossfader. Her modus operandi remains the same: sleek, militaristically precise beats gliding along under cascades of icy, computer-generated melody.

Trance purists no doubt will commend Collins for keeping it real. No sellout, no concessions to the fickle tastes of the market on this double disc, which was released on king of Euro-cheese Paul Oakenfold's Perfecto label. She opens both featured sets with brooding ambient mixes and then slides right into uninterrupted stretches of sinister, druggy chest-thumpers, most of which lack vocals. Agent 001's "Bubble Bath" cut, for instance, builds on a deceptively calm piano phrase before splashing down in an acrid, buzzing kick drum. Uneasiness and a feeling of entropy permeate the discs, with the drum tracks numerous times drowning altogether under an eerie synthesizer washout.

By the fourth number of the first disc, she's already flirting with a bad trip -- a woman on Rhythm Unlimited's "Reflections" intones over and over, "My friend is losing his mind . . . and there are so many things I could tell him, but he is . . . the mirror reflection of me." Compare that to the refrain from an electroclash song by Yellow Note, which features a girl giggling about loving you only "when I'm naked, drunk and horny." Collins seems to be operating from a pre-code orange mentality, when paranoia was as cool as a novelty bracelet. Now that people are living in the orange, they're embracing cheekiness as the remedy.

To Collins' credit, she eschews any overplayed club anthems on Perfecto and doesn't abuse the simplistic build-up, crash-down pacing technique favored by many trance DJs. Instead, she allows the tension to ebb and flow irregularly, as dictated by the songs she selects. For example, "Spite," a stripped-down and airy track by Avedon and Stig, rubs up against a song of a different feel, the beefier, celebratory "I Just Can't Get Enough" by Transformer 2.

Her set covers a lot of ground. Yet the topography is fairly flat -- it's all trance. Again, a little eclecticism would be timely. A recent advent in club culture is the mash-up, a track composed by smushing two incongruous songs together, like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious." None of this spirit of playfulness or heterogeneity is apparent in Collins' mix, which is curious considering the ragtag outfit she's wearing on the cover, with its sassy asymmetrical tank top and throwback rocker leather armband. That seems like it would be worth at least one Human League-era reference.

This is not to say that Collins isn't a respected DJ or that she doesn't deserve to be. It's that what she does especially well -- seamlessly mixing dark, soaring trance records together -- has a certain time and place. Except for the dance music diehards who still club four nights a week, that time was 4 a.m. on a Saturday night in 2000, and the place was some long-lost illegal desert rave. Partying like it's 1999 gets wearisome after five or so years.

And there still is a good number of such zealots, which is why Collins won best DJ at the 2003 DanceStar Awards, the fairly well respected dance industry award ceremony held in Miami Beach during the Winter Music Conference. She's also on a Coke commercial and is one of the main subjects in an upcoming documentary about female DJs called Girl. Just the fact that her mix is on Oakenfold's label means her name still has the power to move units, since our pal Paul is known for spot-on marketing judgment.

Collins, then, is not totally irrelevant at this point, but she might soon be if she fails to evolve with the times. Electronica is no longer the media darling it once was, and club promoters nationwide are reporting sagging attendances. If an artist like Collins is to continue attracting new fans, she's going to have to ease up on the hardline doom and gloom and shake things up a bit. How about a guitar riff now and again? Or a song that makes you smile?

The Chemical Brothers once described trance as the art of making kids rush on their Ecstasy pills. As the purity of those pills declined precipitously over the years, so, too, has the joy evaporated out of trance. What's left is the empty high of cocaine, which is the club drug of choice now. The '80s, though, were about more than powder and a glammy dress code. Let's hope Collins sees beyond the stylish veneer of this latest old-school fascination to the decade's more endearing aspects, like its lighthearted swagger and spirit of invention.

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Darren Keast