It’s unusual for a new DJ mix to feel like a cultural watershed. Arriving in the contagious chaos of 2020, Avalon Emerson’s contribution to the long-running DJ-Kicks series can’t help but mark a turning point for a scene that lies in tatters.
After five years as one of Berlin’s busiest DJs, in January Emerson escaped to LA for six months or so. The lifestyle had made her exhausted from touring, anxious about carbon emissions and yearning for some quiet. The pandemic hit just as she was finalising the DJ-Kicks mix, which opens and closes with a break-up song. So is this goodbye?
“Everyone thinks there will be this day when people go back and crack a beer and everyone will be ecstatic,” the Arizona-born DJ told The Face recently, “but that’s never going to happen.” Even if there’s a vaccine, she added, “it just seems over.” OK, doomer! Emerson’s fatalism is no doubt shared by more of us than would say so out loud, but it’s pretty sobering to hear one of techno’s best-loved DJs calling time on the party. So this particular DJ-Kicks is going to feel a little strange; funereal even. Fortunately this is the good kind of wake – the proper rowdy kind, everyone arm-in-arm and increasingly shit-faced and sentimental.
Transitioning from the dancefloor allows Emerson to be even more herself, engaging in a poppier mode that’s in keeping with her own love of artists like Lorde and Lana. On DJ-Kicks, her own tracks (Rotting Hills and Poodle Power), covers and remixes (including the sad songs that bookend the mix) underscore her ear for flamboyant synths and melodic maximalism.
We’re going out with a bang. She hams up the synthpop side of the Magnetic Fields’ Long Forgotten Fairytale, a dark love story from indie chronicler of heartbreak Stephen Merritt, as she sings along in a disjointed karaoke style (think Kim Wilde via Sky Ferreira); later, she reworks popera singer Austra to accentuate the catchiness of Anywayz, rather than grafting the hook on a dull techno chassis.
Such a pop-derived aesthetic makes sense for an artist who discovered dance music in the blog house era; the mix nods to the skinny-tied days with Detroit punks The Dirtbombs and their cover of proto-techno classic Sharevari, and an edit of extant dance-punks !!! by disco sleazeballs Rub N Tug. The early ’00s are well represented across the mix, in fact – notes of French touch, gnarly electro and disco breaks connect fun-times tracks by Sound Stream, Little Mike, Lady B and DJ Sense, who wedges a thudding bassline under a chipmunked S.O.S. Band sample on Finest.
Emerson’s DJ style tends towards the eclectic and quirky, zig-zagging between genres rather than tunnelling deep into the zone. That approach can lose steam over a marathon set, but limited to the length of a CD, she excels, making deft connections between synthesiser pop milestones from the distant past (Tranceonic, the ’70s beginnings of electropop pioneers Yello) and the present day (post-SOPHIE hyperpop from NUXXE-signed producer Oklou).
In the final seconds the stage is left to Austra, singing acapella: “We’ll figure it out /But what if we don’t /And the world keeps turning anyways?” It’s a lyric about a break-up, but the sentiment scales up all too effectively. Emerson’s recent music video captures the DJ-turned-songwriter on a road trip across the American West. Camera in hand and eyes ahead, even as she sings about a past-life lover, it’s as if the world she came from has faded away, a forgotten fairytale already.