LIKE ENGLAND'S ROUGH Trade in the late '70s, Cologne's Kompakt is a shop, a distributor, and right now probably the best record label in the world. Since 1998, they've reunited ascetic German dancemusik with such formerly verboten affects as dewy-eyed melody and overemotionalism, while going deeper than deep house, shinier than tech-house, and woozier and more swoon-worthy than most ambient. Last year, they released two of the greatest electronic dance mix CDs in the history of the universe, Michael Mayer's Immer and Triple R's Friends (featuring Jeff Samuel's "Double Yum"see story, left). This may be the reason the label's latest compilations swerve sideways rather than take giant steps forward.
Schaffelfieber 2 ("Shuffle Fever 2") is the second Kompakt kompilation devoted to "shuffle-tech," a rhythm somewhere between a waltz and Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Pt. 2)." Infinitely better than the first Schaffelfieber, this is the first time producers have deigned to combine ear-pleasing textures with the slip-start of the sh-sh-sh-shuffle. Highlights include T. Raumschmiere's "Dream Baby Mix" of Komeit's "3 Hours," which sounds like trip-hop played on a couple of music boxes. The Orb's "Cool Harbour" (yes, that Orb) sounds just like its name, complete with sea-breeze spritz. And Mikkel Metal's "Hemper" is petrified house, mottled with moss.
Tobias Thomas' Smallville seems in love with the very idea of the mix CD, as in the kind you throw together for a friend to clue them in to what you've been digging lately. So instead of a flawlessly beat-matched journey by DJthe disc's first 10 minutes are completely drumlessyou get a scratchy, sometimes sloppily blended collection of songs united by mood (a sort of late-night "back to mine" comedown) as much as anything. From near silence, Dntel's processed acoustic guitar bleeds into Kings of Convenience frontman Erlend Oye muttering a bleak little song over Kaito's beatless trance, and once the beats kick in, the record covers ground as diverse as Farben's internal-organs glitch and the disco stomp of Dust Sucker's "Mandate My Ass." Utterly beguiling and strangely comforting, this is the house mix as pen-pal letter.
Outside of Kompakt's little fiefdom, micro-house is a tad hegemonic right now: Too many pro forma tracks, titles, record sleeves, even producer names. Like another back-to-basics maneuver, micro-house created a playing field as wide open as post-punk's 1978, one that can now incorporate almost anything (disco, '80s new romanticism, electro, industrial, R&B, even emo). Which is all the more reason to treasure Kompakt: Where some labels and producers are content to perpetually trace a musty old dub-techno template, even their odd little branches bear juicy fruit.