How Thee Madkatt Courtship's ‘By Dawns Early Light’ draped a blanket of despair across the dancefloor
It may not be the flashiest entry in Felix Da Houscat’s discography, but this 1994 LP is one of his best. In the latest edition of our Solid Gold series, Ben Cardew dives into the mysterious melancholy of 'By Dawns Early Light'
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.
If ‘Wet Wednesday’ conveys sadness, then the album’s title track feels more like a plea for redemption. The song, first released on the ‘Thee Madkatt Courtship EP’ in 1993, has something in common with the Wild Pitch style of house music that DJ Pierre was developing at the time, with its simple, repetitive bassline, high-pitched synth drone, thundering kick and percussive vocal cutup. But once again, Felix takes a style of music intended for dance euphoria and drains it of any joy, the hypnotic and rather cerebral intensity of the music taking the listener down and into themselves rather than up and into the world, thanks to the dejected synth patterns and Palmer’s gorgeously desolate vocal, in which he pleads for someone to “free my soul / lift me up” like a man right at the end of his emotional tether.
‘Tha Mental Blowout’ has a similar melancholic intensity, its synth lines writhing like a pit of snakes, while ‘Panic 60466’ feels like a lab technician trying to re-make a Green Velvet jack track as quietly as possible, complete with a strangely apologetic 303 burble. ‘Lovetraxx 1990,’ which rounds off the album’s first half in an elegant rush of pianos and battling drum lines, is another moment of gorgeous uncertainty; the track features a buried, rather amorphous vocal hook, as if someone is singing a love song in the adjacent room, simultaneously soothing and unobtainable.
After 40 minutes of head-spinning — yet oddly cool — intensity, the album tails off in its second half, as if both artist and listener have been drained by the emotional force they have expended. ‘Who? Tha’ Critics’ is impressively angry, and ‘Da Mindfuck (Noo World Destruction Mix)’ is a hypnotic mind scramble, but the album’s four closing tracks largely settle into the kind of scuba-deep dancefloor grooves that Felix would master on his 1995 release, ‘Metropolis Present Day? Thee Album.’
Landing back on familiar territory almost comes as a relief, like the sun rising after a perilously stormy night. House and techno often walk the line between euphoria and sadness; ‘By Dawns Early Light’ seems to muddy the line itself, using the language of euphoria — the repetition and builds, the tough drum lines — to create something that is entirely contrary in mood and all the more desperate for it.
For all its brilliance, you would struggle to call ‘By Dawns Early Light’ a particularly influential album. The album is so distinctive in its mood, and so enigmatic, that few people other than Felix himself have tried to emulate its quiet sonic force. Those looking for music that comes close to ‘By Dawns Early Light’ are best advised to visit the other two albums that Felix released under the Thee Madkatt Courtship moniker: 1995’s ‘Alone In The Dark’ (and in particular the superbly heartbreaking ‘Wait For The Sun’) and ‘I Know Electrikboy’ (credited to Maddkatt Courtship III), an album that provided a near-hit with the stirring ‘My Life Muzik.’
Don’t wander too far away. Felix might have got bigger, tougher and more commercially successful on his later releases, but ‘By Dawns Early Light’ is his masterpiece, a moment of singular, uncanny genius that will see you through the darkest nights and the wettest of Wednesdays alike.