Various Artists, Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984

Joe Muggs

By Joe Muggs

on 06.01.12 in Reviews

This thoroughly bizarre compilation proves you don’t need to get metaphysical, mystical or deep into quantum physics to get the feeling you’re being given a glimpse into another world. Listening to Personal Space is like witnessing a crack opening up in an alternate pop-culture universe in real time. It is, essentially, a collection of home recordings by “artists” never heard of before or since, making use of the most very basic drum machines and keyboards to record skewed and sometimes-deranged takes on soul music.

Outsider art in the truest sense

It suggests a world in which the more outré electronic experiments of Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone became the template for a whole new style, where instead of growing slicker in the hands of big producers and labels in the late-’70s, soul went DIY, growing rawer and weirder and turning into some way-out-there counterpart to punk. Every track on Personal Space uses chords, riffs and rhythms you’re accustomed to hearing couched in big, glossy production, but completely confounds your expectations with wonky playing, off-kilter lyrics and lower-than-lo-fi mixes. They’re sometimes jarring, but the sense of individual visions laid down in isolation with none of the ironing-out of kinks that comes with professional recording makes them compelling.

Some show quite a degree of musical skill behind the distortion and tape hiss. U.S. Aries’s shamelessly smutty “Are You Ready to Come,” for example, boasts a powerful low-slung boogie, with tidy piano licks, stacked vocal harmonies and ingenious production effects. The Makers’ reggae-influenced “Don’t Challenge Me” has some brilliantly funky bleeps rattling around its central rhythm and a sultry, androgynous vocal. The gloriously named Starship Commander Woo Woo creates something that sounds like Kraftwerk teaming up with John Williams on the epic “Master Ship (Excerpt)” (the mind boggles at what its six minutes could be an excerpt from).

A good half of the collection, though, is far freakier — outsider art in the truest sense. Deborah Elliot’s “Shortest Lady” is warped no-wave funk, working along its own internal logic. “My Bleeding Wound” by The New Year is frankly not a million miles from Throbbing Gristle, and I’m really not sure I want to know its story. This is not a freak show, though: Every track here is a testament to desire to create for its own sake, and Personal Space is a glorious document of a hypothetical musical era.