The best examples of any musical genre often transcend the limitations of that genre because they are crafted with levels of skill and inspiration that lift them into the realm of musical alchemy. For an oft-overlooked but worthwhile example, consider the case of Boris Midney: this Russian-born jazz musician and arranger took his career to a new level when he began creating music for the disco boom. Though disco is often thought of as mindless fodder aimed at moving the feet and little else, he applied himself to the genre with ambition and far-ranging musical ability – and the results were often magical.
Midney’s work, which includes such mirrorball favorites as the U.S.A. European Connection albums and the disco version of Evita, retains a devoted cult in the world of dance music enthusiasts. It deserves to heard by more people and is getting a well-deserved revival on CD thanks to the efforts of the Disco Recharge reissue series on Harmless Records. Their latest Midney remaster collects material that he recorded between 1981 and 1982, most of it finding release under the studio project names Companion and Double Discovery. No matter what artist name or genre label you place on this stuff, it is pure dazzle for your ears.
The Companion album was first released by France’s Barclay Records in 1981. It’s a fascinating piece of work because it keeps one foot in disco’s lushly orchestrated past while it places the other in the genre’s minimalist, electronics-tinged future.
The opening track “This Is A Test” defines its style in just under six minutes: over a bed of slippery, constantly changing rhythms, horns and strings dart in and out of the mix as they duel with jazzy, staccato snatches of vocals that function as another instrumental texture. Synths are deployed subtly for sonic coloring and to thicken the bassline. The structure has a cut-and-paste vibe, pulling the listener in and out of its sections with rollercoaster speed. It takes a few spins to really sink in and you’ll be noticing new musical frills with each listen.
The remainder of the album follows this stylistic mandate: “Living Up To Love” is the set’s epic, arranging its simple layers with orchestral flair: jittery cymbals and chicken-scratch guitar hold down the groove as this mini-epic cruises through a variety of movements that weave in horns, flute, dreamy sax, swirls of strings and spirited, soulful male-female vocal duels. The second side is bit more mellow, anchored by the mid-tempo cruisers “Step On Out” and “I Feel Delight.” Between these two, there is a substantially pared down redux of the old Midney fave “There’s A Way” that retains the strings but shortens the tune and recasts it in the more intimate style that defines this album.
Overall, Companion has the Eurodisco-level elegance one associates with the Midney sound yet is delivered in a pared-down, focused style that gestures towards the change taking place in dance music during the early ’80s.
The Double Discovery album was a hodge podge in terms of sessionography: it combined one track designed for this “group” name with a few Midney solo tracks and padded out its running time with a few cuts from Companion. That said, the new tracks included on it are a trio of gems that found Midney delving further into the electronic era while retaining the elegance that defined his earlier work.
“Can He Find Another One” was a collaboration with legendary D.J. Jim Burgess and it’s a swoon-inducing work of disco romanticism. The backing track uses a pounding, straightforward groove as the basis for a delicate layering of keyboards, synths and strings. Unlike the material on Companion, the vocal melody is the melodic focus here and it brings a heart-tugging warmth to the lyrics’ tale of romantic yearning. The vocals are beautifully arranged, with the layers increasing to match the increasing emotional pull of the song. Said vocal melody is also built around an ingratiating vocalese hook whose percussive style will instantly imbed itself in the listener’s memory – and look out for a surprising guitar and percussive synth instrumental break.
“D-D-D-Dance” provides a fascinating contrast to the lush, poppy contours of “Can He Find Another One,” going for an almost purely electronic style that blends carefully layered synths and drum machines with some live percussion. That said, it never sounds samey or dull: indeed, Midney shows he can use synths as symphonically as he can conventional instrumentation and does the same for the vocal arrangement. The results have a dub-like quality that adds to its hypnotic pull.
“Thanks For Loving Me” returns things to old-school disco romanticism, with an almost Tin Pan Alley-esque vocal melody arranged in a lavish way. Midney throws out all the tricks here: jazzy horns, yearning strings, loping percussion to gently push it along and even a ticklish vibes hook under the chorus. It’s one of his best arrangements and Midney’s frequent songwriting collaborator Katherine Meyer tops it off with an expressive lead vocal.
As is usual with a Disco Recharge release, this 2-disc set is packed with bonuses. On the Companion disc, you get 12-inch and instrumental versions of “Step On Out” plus the 12-inch mix of “Living Up To Love.” The 12-inch version of “Step On Out is particularly noteworthy: it’s actually shorter than the album cut, tightening up the arrangement and remixing its so the drums are more prominent and dancefloor-ready. These subtle changes give it a more propulsive feel.
The disc devoted to the Double Discovery and Midney solo material offers no less than three versions of “Can He Find Another One.” The “East Side” and “West Side” versions are what made it to the original album and the major difference seems to be in how the bass line is used: it’s more prominent and thumb-popping in the “West Side” version. The third version is an instrumental mix that allows the listener to savor the intricacies of the song’s orchestral and electronic layering. There’s also a whopping five versions of “D-D-D-Dance”: in addition to the album-length cut, there’s an also an instrumental version, an alternative mix with a more vocal-intensive focus and two short “beats” versions that showcase the percussive elements of the song.
All in all, this is another impressive set from Disco Recharge and a testament to the enduring quality of Midney’s work. If your musical palate is adventurous enough to include dance fare, the genre-defying quality of this music will offer plenty of rewards.