Pass the Aux: Volume 1

Chicago rhythms, house music icons, ecstatic Ukrainian trance-tinged folk: the first in a new series of chain mail mixtapes.
Art by Shawn Reed

thFor all of today’s musical abundance and ultra-personalized discovery feeds, there remains no better way to discover new sounds than via a direct, enthusiastic recommendation from a trusted source. “Pass the Aux” is a new series in which a group of contributors each share a thrilling piece of recorded music—a current favorite, a longtime inspiration, or something they feel deserves more attention. We start with one writer or artist from the broader Pioneer Works community, who chooses a song, offers an annotation, and passes it off to the next selector. The process repeats, until the result is like a collaboratively curated mixtape, chainmail style—that also (you guessed it) evokes the feeling of sitting around and passing the aux cable from hand to hand.

For the inaugural installment, we reached out first to music writer Sasha Geffen, author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary (University of Texas Press, 2020). Their writing on music, gender, and technology has also appeared in Artforum, Pitchfork, The Nation, Vulture, Rolling Stone, and NPR. They teach at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.

- Liz Pelly

Sasha Geffen > selects > "Doorway" by Planningtorock

Doorway - Planningtorock

The opening minutes of Planningtorock's brilliant 2011 album W hold prismatic dimension in their simplicity. The steady bass pulse, the prickly synthesizer leads, the sideways slashes of canned strings all stir to raise Jam Rostron's words aloft on a strange, jagged pedestal. They sing in a double-tracked, pitched-down voice, triangulating even notes, dead set at a threshold. This is one of those songs that seem to radiate the sensations of transness years before their composers come out as such. In my experience, the key moment in transition happens long before the biohacking that tends to make the news. It comes when you stand at the gate for the first time, and you say, "I know my feelings," and all of a sudden the voice that comes out is your own.

→ Sasha passes the aux to Delilah Friedler, a trans writer and DJ based in Brooklyn, on occupied Indigenous lands. Her writing appears in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Mother Jones, and more.

Delilah Friedler > selects > “Where U At?” by Derrick Carter

Where U At? - Derrick Carter

Some dance music tracks invite you to revel. Others simply carry you along. And some confront you while you're cornered on the dance floor, to make you think or ask you a question while your guard is down.

On “Where U At,” house music icon Derrick Carter laments that his mind feels drained of “images of justice” and “designs of liberty.” He uses two voices (one coolly resigned, the other thunderous like the Wizard of Oz) over a hypnotic beat that opens like a trapdoor to “a secret place” in time, where we might re-evaluate our own commitments “as the war goes on and on.” The cool voice’s repeated query, “where you at?”, is both call-out and call-in: check yourself, and join me.

A friend recently played this at a Manhattan party full of shirtless gays. I imagine the second voice’s plea, “Is this all there is?”, thundering in their ears as they writhed amid flesh. Toward the track’s end, echoes of the anguished cry “There must be more!” begin to sound almost celebratory: on the dancefloor, we can find something more than the depressing world outside. Yet even the most liberatory parties end. And then: where you at?

→ Delilah passes the aux to Chicago producer and DJ Ariel Zetina, whose music draws from techno, house, punta, brukdown, and global queer club scenes.

Ariel Zetina > selects > “Buzzer” by Jdotbalance

Buzzer - Jdotbalance

This is one of the staples of my DJ sets recently. Jdotbalance is a Chicago-based producer with an amazing ear for rhythm. I love this track because, although it goes hard, the percussion creates an infectious melody, which I really champion in any electronic music production. Together the vocal sample and the beat create a perfectly dense track.

→ Ariel passes the aux to Glamour Cadaver, a Chicago DJ, model, and performer. Born and raised in the city, she was immersed in its rich musical offerings which led her to begin a career in nightlife in 2019.

Glamour Cadaver > selects > "Love Is Like A Violēnce" by Ted Milton

Love Is Like A Violēnce - Ted Milton

English poet and musician Ted Milton is best known for fronting the long-running post-punk group Blurt, but as a solo artist, he remains one of my favorite performers and mixing engineers. On “Love is Like a Violēnce,” Milton combines Kraftwerk-indebted electronics with ominous tongue-in-cheek poetry. The motorik drum programming and stabbing synthesizers make for an almost macabre departure from Blurt’s often scattered and unorthodox approach.

Milton's narration renders him a musical Vincent Price-type character, positing love as an evocative danger. On his signature instrument, alto saxophone, Milton builds a sirening solo, before spiraling out of control, out of time, into a dizzying climax. While certainly unconventional, the song's machinations are a lesson in the contrast of strict electronic meter and deliberate acoustic syncopation, while also becoming a gothic, pseudo-industrial form of disco anthem.

→ Glamour passes the aux to Chicago artist and DJ Vesolo, who blends their background in classical music with the hard electric pulse of the underground.

Vesolo > selects > “Isn't That A beauty” by Sucking Chest Wound

Isn't That A Beauty? - Sucking Chest Wound

“The hammer shatters glass, isn't that a beauty?” “We're all meant to be steel.” SCW's poem about resilience, with piano and organ focused into suspenseful yet reassuring chords: something beautiful I came across recently.

→ Vesolo passes the aux to Pavel Lebedev, a researcher, trader and music enthusiast living in Chicago, who also occasionally DJs under the alias Swan Drama.

Pavel Lebedev > selects > “Krashen Vechir” by Katya Chilly

Крашен Вечір - Катя Chilly

In one of her interviews (or maybe one of her dreams?), Ukrainian ’90s phenomenon Katya Chilly said that the primary meaning of existence is to be a “healthy cell in the body of humanity.” These words come to me when I feel depleted, defeated, angry at myself. They help me recall that we should support and hold hands tightly with those around us, and if malaise” arises, instead of feeding it inside, we should strive to weaken it, and let it pass.

I am reminded that being kind and supportive to your friends, family, community is enough, and no easy feat itself. Gradually, peace eases in… energy of the heart accumulates and the body is ready to move again. I chose Katya’s banger “Крашен Вечiр” (“Beautiful Evening”), a record that channels perfectly this mixed energy of ecstatic ’00s trance and Ukrainian folk. Her voice is breathtaking and healing. This is a celebration of music, nature and unity, and my perfect DJ set closer. ♦

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