From teenage musical prodigy to P. Diddy aide, from psychedelic techno innovator to electroclash star, Felix Da Housecat is one of the most intriguingly undefinable artists in electronic music. If you were to read some reviews of the man born Felix Stallings Jr, you might come away with the impression that he debuted with the 2001 album ‘Kittenz And Thee Glitz,’ a release that birthed the massive electroclash hit ‘Silver Screen Shower Scene’ alongside Miss Kittin.
And that would be impressive enough. Stallings, under his various guises, has released (at least) eight studio albums since then, six commercial mixes and tens of singles, as well as collaborating with P. Diddy on ‘Jack U,’ and remixing the likes of Madonna and Britney Spears. I’ve seen Felix Da Housecat, in his post-2001 pomp, DJ at an underground Berlin club, and on a vast rock festival stage — and destroy them both, tribute to his chameleonic adaptability and musical range.
And yet ‘Kittenz And Thee Glitz’ represented a second — and perhaps even a third — act in Stallings’ musical life. He’s an artist who wrote / co-produced / played keyboards on (reports vary) DJ Pierre’s classic acid house tune ‘Fantasy Girl,’ credited to Pierre’s Pfantasy Club, at the tender age of 15, before producing an embarrassing wealth of underground house and techno classics in the 1990s, all the while radiating an edge of infallible mystery.
So it is a bold claim to say that ‘By Dawns Early Light,’ one of Felix’s very first albums, released under Thee Madkatt Courtship moniker in 1994, is also his best album — or, perhaps better put, his best half album, with the immaculate first half of ‘By Dawns Early Light’ towering over a more moderate second act. It doesn’t have the hits of ‘Kittenz And Thee Glitz,’ or the brilliantly maddening ear-worm appeal of his 2003 album ‘Devin Dazzle & The Neon Fever,’ but the album takes house and techno to bold new emotional heights while bathing the sound in a strange glow, like being dumped by your partner while coming down from a powerful LSD trip, or dreaming up a heartbreak you can dance to.
‘By Dawns Early Light’ is such a fundamentally unusual album for electronic music, in both mood and tone, that it feels at times almost antithetical to the demands of the club. It’s tempting to wonder if the album is, in some way, Felix flipping off the dance music world, with its strict codes and codices. If Felix felt like an enigma to us back in the 1990s, it wasn’t just because of his bewildering array of pseudonyms — Discogs lists 24 of them, alongside a variety of alternative spellings — or the fact that he rarely talked to the press, it was because he made music that was so hauntingly different and deliciously inscrutable.
Even now, it is hard to imagine an artist who would even try to make an album as stirringly melancholic as ‘By Dawns Early Light,’ let alone fathom their motivations for doing so. This is an album of broken hearts and early mornings, lingering disappointment and depressive funk, so far from the world of boshing business techno that it becomes hard to classify this record as dance music, even as it employs the recognizable musical palette of the Detroit techno / Chicago house sound.
Take album opener ‘Wet Wednesday.’ The track revolves around the kind of circling, jazz-influenced bassline that Mr. Fingers nailed on ‘Can You Feel It?’ (to which ‘Wet Wednesday’ owes a debt of gratitude), which it combines with bobbling four-four beats, spoken-word vocals, and plaintive synth accompaniment. These are all elements you will find on numerous pieces of electronic music from the early to mid-’90s. But from there, the faint veil of normality fades.
Who calls a techno song ‘Wet Wednesday,’ for a start? The title drapes a thick, wet blanket of despair across dancefloor euphoria, an impression confirmed by the song’s vocal, which Felix intones in a voice drained of energy and hope, like a man wrapped tight in a quilt on a cold, sleepless night. The synths drip glum trails of melody across the mix, as if scared of rousing a sleeping partner, while the frequent Stallings collaborator Tyrone Palmer delivers the chorus like a nurse breaking bad news. This is club music that seems to calm, not to excite, to hush rather than hype: never has a bass drum sounded quite so contrite, or hi-hats so penitent.