Hostility toward disco is often hostility toward large groups, like the directed pain of standing on the fringes of a party while everyone else is having fun. And it speaks to the poles of style, as well: On one side we have loner-type music, with its implications of authenticity and felt emotion, and on the other we find bands like Chic, capable of sweeping statements about the merits of a good time. Problems arise when we consider the nooks and crannies of each category. How does Arthur Russell thrive in both, or, more important, under whose aesthetic framework can Nick Drake and Aaron Lewis of Staind coexist? To answer simply, the pleasures of “public” and “private” music are effectively and fluidly interchangeable, especially as more people embrace a so-called eclectic sensibility.
Toying with this wobbly dynamic, Todd Osborn (under the moniker Osborne) explores freaky disco music from the cold and sometimes alienating vantage point of deep house. Of course he’s not the first to splice party tunes with a barren electro throb, but he does make a good case in point: an Ypsilanti, Mich., native and consummate hobbyist, Osborn typifies the workshop mentality of the contemporary solo producer. On Hovercrafting, the follow-up EP to last year’s self-titled full-length, Osborn brings this one-man party band phenomenon to the fore, offering up humorous and inspired headphones-or-dance-floor interpretations of “Disco Sucks”-era hedonism.
The opening track, “Wait a Minute,” gets a disproportionate amount of attention, appearing in three different forms on the less than 30-minute EP. Like Osborne standout “16th Stage,” “Wait a Minute” starts off with an analog synth line that might as well be sampled, or maybe actually is. The pastiche thickens as vocoder ramblings, rubber band bass, and chopped-up funk guitar fill out the stereo field. However, as if to taunt the fatal perfectionism of old-school disco, the track is defined by precisely syncopated electronic drum patterns that no human could adequately replicate.
Oddly enough, Osborn either strokes his genre impulse or else throws it away altogether over the rest of Hovercrafting. On “Fire” he goes for the middle-of-the-night, everyone’s-already-dancing momentum piece and succeeds. Here the dense rhythmic interplay is the hook, each part contribute to something greater and very catchy. But on “The Count” the soundtrack-to-a-video-montage-of-beautiful-people-covered-in-glitter fantasy vanishes and is replaced by minimal house. With its rigid beat and bleeps and peculiar lack of melody, the track is much less distinct than the others; it’s either Osborn saying, “Look at how far we’ve come,” or posing a cautionary tale about compositional restraint, or a little of both.
The Arto Mwambe remix of “Wait a Minute,” included here as the second track, reconciles Osborn’s divided approach. With big drums and digital strings, and the original vocoder part severed into a muffled synth-brass line, Mwambe subverts the euphoria of the source material and shows how easily retro dance music can be made newish sounding, as in from the last decade or so.
And to return to my initial point about music traversing the boundary between isolation and group think, let me leave you with an image that stuck with me as I listened to this EP over and over again: Todd Osborn, former Air Force cadet and engineer of an actual, honest-to-goodness hovercraft, alone in front of his computer in a small town in southern Michigan.