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Leon Vynehall - DJ-Kicks Music Album Reviews

The British house producer’s contribution to the longstanding series offers a broad cross-section of his tastes, mostly letting his selections, and not his mixing, do the heavy lifting.

In this bountiful age for DJ mixes, where even the most avid fan struggles to keep up with the digital deluge that falls upon Soundcloud daily, the DJ-Kicks name still stands for something. The venerable mix series is now onto its 67th edition: It’s a run that stretches back to 1995 and has come to be seen as both an arbiter of taste and a sign that an electronic act has arrived. Putting your name to a DJ-Kicks is still a big deal in 2019, even as over-familiarity has robbed the DJ mix of its currency.

Leon Vynehall sits well within these hallowed surroundings. His most recent album, 2018’s Nothing Is Still, marked a significant development in both profile and sound for the British producer, shifting his deep-house style to incorporate traces of modern classical and ambient music. That restlessness suits the series, which has never been as closely allied to the dancefloor as many mix franchises. With that in mind, Vynehall says, “To me, compiling a DJ-Kicks is a significant statement of intent and representation, so with that in mind, I thought more about the selection than the mix.”

Vynehall has certainly dug deep: the 26-track mix includes previously unreleased songs from UK bass musician Ploy, rising house producer Peach, and Pavilion, alongside a handful of tracks that make their official digital debut. The best known of those, by some distance, is Richard D. James’ impish “Children Talking,” from AFX’s 1995 EP Hangable Auto Bulb, while the fiercely open-minded tracklist takes in everything from dancehall to footwork, passing by Mancunian street soul and classical piano. The house sound for which Vynehall is known doesn’t get a look in until track 17, Crinan’s wonderfully spring-loaded and loose-limbed “Kilimanjaro,” and then only hangs around for another 15 minutes before giving way to warped drum ’n’ bass.

A well-paced, thoughtful running order facilitates these potentially difficult transitions. One of the most enlightening things about DJ-Kicks is the way the British producer joins the dots between different eras of music. Bourbonese Qualk's clank-ridden and angsty 1980s industrial number “Moving Forward” flows effortlessly into Shamos’ 2017 lo-fi electro track “Nuws,” while Etch’s modern drum ’n’ bass oddity “Unsung Hero of Irrelevance” combines beautifully with Mirage’s fearsome 1990s jungle roller “Deep Rage.”

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Vynehall is trying a little bit too hard to impress. At times, DJ-Kicks comes across like an overworked aux cable in somebody’s living room—you want to tell the DJ to slow down a little with the relentless genre switching, lest the party be done and dusted by 10pm. The range is impressive but there’s something vaguely unsatisfying about the depth of it all, or rather the lack thereof: a couple of d’n’b tracks is enough to pique your interest in Vynehall’s love of the genre without coming close to quenching your thirst.

The traditional mix-album format doesn’t really help. Cramming 26 tracks into the length of a CD means we only get to hear about three minutes of each song, which would be understandable if Vynehall mixed them up inventively. But with the focus firmly on selection, his mixes tend to be brief, functional transitions that seem in awe of their source material. The digital release, which includes full-length downloads of all 26 tracks as well as the original mix—a format also adopted by Fabric’s new mix series—probably serves listeners better.

That might sound perverse for a mix series whose name promises turntablist thrills. But DJ-Kicks has long given reign to both dedicated DJs (Nina Kraviz, Seth Troxler) and artists who are better known as producers than disc jockeys (Nicolette, Erlend Øye), with frequently brilliant results. Vynehall’s mix sits firmly within the latter territory: more selector sensation than DJ spotlight, but still an impressive showcase of the producer’s ear.

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