(Editor’s Note: James Cavicchia last contributed to us in ’09, writing about MJ, and I’m delighted to have him as a regular contributor now, beginning with this review of the new “Personal Space” compilation, curated by Dante Carfagna and released jointly by Chocolate Industries and the Numero Group. I have a review of this same album coming out on NPR in a week or so. –O.W.)

All selections below from Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984.

“Shouldn’t real freedom include freedom from memory?” – Geoffrey O’Brien

Shouldn’t the personal be able to exist outside of the historical? Shouldn’t the individual expression be allowed to be truly the work of the individual? Why should the actualization of a singular vision require so many others? Why should sonic mass and its legitimizing effect upon the occupation of the popular ear be denied the single musician? Why must “full-sounding” music come with the expense of strings, horns, choruses? Why must the black musician in particular be required to ensure that his work leaves at least a breadcrumb trail between it and The Blues, or The Church, or Jazz, or The Cause? Must there always be all these walls to get around, all these people to pay, all these ghosts to answer to?

At the spine of this astounding collection is the ostensibly unburdening effect of affordable studio technology—synthesizers, drum machines, high-quality recording—as manifested in private soul music from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties. The irony is that while the empowerment provided by these machines of ahistorical and unindebted process does indeed allow for the expression of a more truly individual sensibility and the creation of a more intimate atmosphere, from this reduced reliance on humans comes also a reduced invocation of them. There is the inescapable sense that without the technology we would never have been able to hear such personal work, but that this same hand of technology has created within the work an alienating distance.

And every song here is to some extent a response to this central friction. The artists feed themselves into the milk teeth of a coming science to seek and find ease, velocity, and control, but they also find isolation, appetite, and a certain chill. Faced with this paradox, they dig out, sink in, or wormhole through.

At the zero point of the struggle are those records where it sounds like the artist just showed up and did what they would have done anyway—with or without computers—and let the chips fall and the tape roll. Guitar Red transmits typically spacious blues picking, trying to thread his presence through the sporadic gaps in a mounting wave of synth-thickened squall, but he’s soon Brunswicked by his gear, getting his own head above water only in moments. Jerry (J.G.) Green comes to “I Finally Found The Love I Need” with the classically styled soul vocal he’d made his bones on—a fiery, tenacious oath to at-long-last love—and sees it pushed past romance, past devotion, past even obsession, and into complete dystopia by a ceaseless minor-key throb of keyboard doom and programmed drums that steam and spit. Could this possibly be the song he wanted to make? And compelling in its utter obliviousness is Key & Cleary’s “I’m A Man,” an earnest and insistent declaration of human triumphalism that sees no problem in chugging along on little more than drum machine ricky-tick and some sort of extruded bass-tone polymer. It is the disorienting sound of John Henry testifying while backed by a steam hammer.

Of course one of the hidden costs of the compositional power and convenience of these electronics is their inherent sterility and mercilessness. The foundation that comes so quick and full from behind the buttons is an airless and unwavering one, and throws into much starker relief the human flaw, the fumbled nuance, the half-baked conception. A warm, measured, professional vocal like that in T. Dyson’s “It’s All Over” can saddle the technology and come out sounding like a commercially viable record, where something like Steve Elliot’s zodiac-oiled “One More Time”, something that might have seemed less frontal and more convincingly seductive in a more organic and forgiving musical context, here against this spotless and windswept backing sees its pinched vocals and shaky back-up singing writhing uncomfortably exposed and aware, like a live animal pinned to a board.

There are records on here that are able to locate some symbiosis and reach a mutual peace with their machines–Spontaneous Overthrow’s incantatory “All About Money” recognizes with unsettling and sinister ease computer music’s repetition and hypnosis as a logical projection of human monomania (is this news made better or worse by the fact that it’s delivered with such a resinous twinkle?); Starship Commander Woo Woo’s “Master Ship” (released, if my math is right, about six years after Funkadelic’s “Atmosphere” and about three years after Yellow Magic Orchestra) goes dizzy off the architectural potential of the modular synth, just building and rebuilding and shortcutting his way to a majesty as true as it is homemade—but the ones that captivate the most are the couple that reject any kind of contented balance between the soul and the wire and instead present the struggle at its most extreme realizations.

At one end is The Makers’ “Don’t Challenge Me.” This is the complete surrender–a record that vanishes into tomorrow even as you listen to it. There is a willful abandonment of the human and a full embrace of the electronic, everything processed and pixelated into an alluring unidentifiability that magnetizes like nothing else. Elliptical lyrics keep the song a secret, Jo Ann’s machine-cooled low-register vocals make even the gender of the thing slippery, and apart from a stray drum fill and occasional eruptions of what sounds like heavily effected saxophone (or is that a melodica?), none of the instrumentation is readily recognizable from under the studio treatments. The distinction between the individual and the technological is entirely dissolved, and the absorption of the personal and the understood into the alien and the advanced becomes total. A slow kiss from a future both succulent and metallic.

At the other end is The New Year’s “My Bleeding Wound.” Whatever the truth of its origins—b-side filler or joke or both or neither—the sound it captures is terrifying. It is a crazed and frayed dismantling of the technology that birthed it. The track consists of one man’s improvisations on bass, guitar, and vocals, each recorded on its own track and then all run over one another. The bass drags through in lumpy chain-link, a piercing guitar figure lacerates endlessly, the vocal drawls a stream of bromides—“I’m a man” “Do what you do” “My love is true”—pausing only to scream its pleas for “Ecstasy! Ecstasy! Ecstasy!”, and everything is reverbed past the edge of sanity, occasionally splintering between the claws of some kind of galactic pedal effect. And even though it is the work of a single person, an autonomous creation, beholden to not another, it still manages to sound trapped, insane at the very fact of its own existence. This warped, bloody thing is not just a man getting in over his head on some new studio gear, not just a man balking at the pressure of a future for which he may not be prepared; this is a man trying to not be devoured by his own skeleton, recoiling at the realization of his own new capabilities.

Many years ago, I read an interview with Charles Wright where he talked about the personal importance of his ongoing attempts at staying abreast of whatever music production techniques were current, about having spent several of his “lost years” during the eighties experimenting with synthesized and programmed rhythms. He said that one day he went to his cardiologist and was informed that his heart had developed an alarming mass of extra muscle, that the years and years of spending hour after hour day after day listening to a drum machine had forced his heart out of its natural beat and lead it to deform itself in adjustment to the brute will of technology. Wright, fearing for his life, abandoned this line of musical exploration immediately.

The records collected here can be seen as the hearts of those who didn’t. As the liner notes lament, so little of this deeply affecting and forward-looking music ever saw release, and so little of what did ever found any kind of audience. In the canopic jars of these recordings, however, they are preserved and sealed—as they once were in small studios, home studios, basement studios, bedroom studios, plugged in at the kitchen table with oversized ornamental teak forks and spoons hanging on the wall, wherever, any place with four walls and an outlet and where no one else can hear—and their misshapen forms are allowed to move into the future by themselves, of themselves, insulated from external sensibilities, protected from the imperatives of history, and because theirs is a thread that was never taken up, protected from memory. In this, they are free. –James Cavicchia

All selections above from Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984.