Mood II Swing Strictly Mood II Swing
John Ciafone and Lem Springsteen's iconic house-music production work gets its long-overdue props.
The primal power of Chicago and the techno textures of Detroit have never waned in their importance—they’re ever-present wherever real-deal house music is aired, either in original form or as obvious inspiration. But the contributions of that other great American house city, New York (and neighboring New Jersey) seems to have gone under appreciated since the likes of Masters at Work, Todd Terry and Armand Van Helden ruled the roost in the 1990s. (Perhaps only the persistent and prolific Kerri Chandler has kept pace.) But with the acquisition of the fundamental NYC label Strictly Rhythm and the recent release of another Masters at Work retrospective, the U.K.’s Defected Records seems to be single-handedly trying to redress the situation, offering a much overdue respect to Gotham’s house sound. Defected’s latest effort is this career-spanning compilation of originals and remixes from Mood II Swing, the studio-based duo of John Ciafone and Lem Springsteen, a duo which held as much sway on ’90s dancefloors as any of the aforementioned titans.
At the time of their release, most of these tracks would have been checked by any DJ worth their salt. So broad was Ciafone and Springsteen’s range of styles that you could never tell, until the needle hit the groove, whether they would be delivering a sing-along anthem capable of uniting the club or an underground classic of limitless, timeless worth. In many instances, they seemed to accomplish both on the same release thanks to the countless dub mixes they issued, many of which are included on the new compilation.
Picking up where Nu Groove Records left off, Mood II Swing emerged in 1992 and were soon remixing the likes of Barbara Tucker, Loni Clark and the aforementioned Masters at Work for the Nervous label. The first stand-alone classic came in the form of 1994’s “Closer” on King Street, two mixes of which can be found here—including, crucially, the saxophone-lead Swing II Mood dub. Their credentials were cemented just a year later with the benchmark release of a four-track EP on Music For Your Ears, a subsidiary of DJ Duke‘s Power Music. It is truly sorrowful that none of those tracks are to be found here and, nor are Ciafone and Springsteen’s stand-out remixes for Crustation and Smoke City—only licensing difficulties might account for the absence. Less understandable omissions are perhaps the dub mix of “Searchin‘,” featuring Loni Clark on vocals, and the extended original version of “Free” by Ultra Naté: The former was a unique offbeat excursion by the duo, very much in the same vein as the first two Nuyorican Soul tracks and a huge influence on the U.K.’s broken-beat sound; while the latter was Mood II Swing’s biggest worldwide hit. The superb original of “Searchin‘,” an atypically musician-helmed high point in their career, is thankfully included. But the choice of dub mix of “Free” over the full vocal is frankly baffling, if this compilation was intended to reach new fans as well as existing ones or be as definitive as it purports.
Having said that, there is a wealth of amazing music to be enjoyed here, including original productions such as “Do It Your Way” (which samples the Montana Orchestra), “Nafara” and “Slippery Track“. That last track, like several supposedly joint releases, bears heavy hallmarks of Ciafone’s distinct studio hand, comparable to some of his superb solo material. At times he can sound industrial, psychedelic and raw—more akin to Basic Channel productions (such as on his “Living In Ecstasy” dub or the Chiapet tracks) than the smooth finery of bona-fide Mood II Swing collaborations. The beyond-special drum programming displayed in those tracks—plus the warm, electronic basslines and faultless overall production sound that makes Mood II Swing so unique—is nonetheless showcased well on this compilation through, for example, the pair’s work on Sarah Washington’s “Everything,” Kim English’s “Learn 2 Love” and BT’s “Remember.” Though imperfect, as an introduction to this beloved and refined New York studio duo, this triple-CD compilation is a must-buy release for house fans.