Jana Rush: Painful Enlightenment review – an electronic visionary

Few music genres have generated as much invention and perspiration in recent years as footwork, the Chicago-born dance style where pumping tempos of house are ratcheted up as if by a sadistic personal trainer to the point where they seem to stutter and gasp for air. The chopped samples and snapping percussion of rap add structure back into the mix, though the cornea-detaching bass threatens to undo it all again.

Only the most nimble and athletic dancers can truly keep up with this aural pandemonium, making the style popular among showboating dance crews. The extremity also endears it to the gothic chinstrokers of the avant-electronic scene, meaning that your average footwork event is likely to contain both the most and least awkward people you can imagine. Chicago heroes such as RP Boo and the late DJ Rashad went global and released landmark LPs in the early 2010s, and the curation of UK label Planet Mu has helped to keep the scene healthy outside the midwest (as well as Painful Enlightenment, it also released DJ Manny’s excellent Signals in My Head last month). At a time when the big pianos and vocal lines of Chicago house are used by lazy producers to signify euphoria rather than actually generate it, footwork is a reminder of how progressive and emotionally rich dance music can be. And with her second album, Jana Rush pushes it further than ever before.

Beginning in the late 90s, the Chicago producer’s career has progressed in fits and starts alongside university education and then work as, variously, a chemical engineer, medical technician and firefighter. Throughout, she struggled with self-worth: “I was ashamed of being me, I just didn’t love myself,” she explained in the Wire magazine this month. Painful Enlightenment, then, is a psychological interrogation – arguably closer to sound art than house, but still brutally funky.

The masterpiece track is Suicidal Ideation, nine minutes of nightmarish sound portraying a mind at war with itself and its surroundings. Over clanks, whirrs and a footwork bassline, there are the kind of yelps of pain and dismay emitted by a video game character on touching a pool of lava, and a certain famous rapper ordering you to “bow down on both”: imagine the manic pop-art creations of Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami etched by Goya. Its fade out, suggesting that this melee is eternal and a veil is merely being drawn over it, is a disturbing final touch.

One of its repeating samples is a moan of female sexual pleasure, but of the most actorly and pornographic kind: a suggestion that true pleasure and release is always out of reach. On another stunningly good track, Spot, there are more samples from pornography, and here the satisfaction sounds much more real – though the slow, unreadable piano chords could suggest sadness as well as arousal, and porn is of course full of unreliable narrators.

So sex can be a form of work, and it’s that sense of physical and emotional labour all happening at once that gives Rush’s album its terrifying charge. The descriptor “industrial techno” is often applied to dance music that evokes machinery, but factories rarely work to its four-four pulse. Rush’s tracks Disorientation and Intergalactic Battle are more accurate, with robotic processes that periodically shift gear and only briefly settle: an evocation both of real industry and of a multitasking mind performing its hustle.

Disturbed is the most obviously footwork track here and an instant genre classic, but it is still rich in terrible human feeling. It takes the type of yearning romantic entreaty made by Chicago house vocalists such as Jamie Principle and turns it into an emotional emergency, with a Loleatta Holloway-style holler repeated until it sounds as if she’s grabbing a former lover by the lapels, hair all over the place: “I need you! I need you!”

But with its rhythmic freedom, this album can be said to be just as much a strain of Chicago’s politically minded, emancipated jazz music as it is its dance tracks, and Rush makes that explicit with some of her sampling. Moanin’ opens the album with a looped wail of sax as if played via superhuman circular breathing, evoking the bawdy bacchanals of the swing era, while the jazz guitar on the title track is like a glitching simulation of a smoke-filled dive bar. Mynd Fuc is free jazz done on software. An obvious comparison is labelmate Jlin, another midwestern producer who realised the potential for footwork to speak deeper truths, but her waltz times and Asian influences make her quite different from Rush, whose work is more abstracted, minimal and firmly rooted in her city.

“The harshness of the sounds and frequencies are an interpretation of my aggression as well as my pursuit of empowerment,” Rush has said. Painful Enlightenment is a troubling, visionary album that speaks more accurately about anxiety, depression and overwork than songwriting can because it does so through form itself. As Rush’s comment suggests, that act of creation means she has been – and we can be – a victor in those fights.

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