A dance music confession: I never, quite, intuitively grasped what counted as House and what fell under Garage. The bumping, cut-up rhythms and vocals that begin the remixed “Dreamer” feel like garage, for example, but as Janice Robinson takes the song into its urgently blissful chorus I want to call it house – or even go more specific and say handbag house, that showy, uplifting offshoot that strutted across superclub dancefloors in the mid-90s.
These sort of divisions are the meat and drink of dance music – social markers as much as genre markers, guides to who might dance to what – and, in the case of handbag, what might be safely dismissed. Otherwise knowledgeable and thorough histories of dance music wave mid-90s house away as mere disco (as if disco was ever mere), a crowd-pleasing sideshow away from the main action. In terms of ‘progression’, perhaps that’s right. In terms of pop, it’s way off.
After all, most of what you really need to know about Livin’ Joy is in the band’s name. “Dreamer” is indeed the year’s most joyful, delightful, vivacious number one so far. But it’s not just about joy – the song’s chorus is a concentrated blurt of fierce hope, a fantasy of togetherness so intense but so impossible that Robinson takes it in double-time, like she’s trying to grab a moment – or a dream – before it vanishes. The song slinks and builds up to that point, its loping bass and keyboard figures giving Robinson space to stretch out a bit and approach lines like “Love, life and laughter is all I believe” with the lived-in relish they deserve.
It’s an old pop trick, as old as “I Feel Love” at least – the European producers adding a bit of class to their work with a jobbing American soul singer. But the men behind “Dreamer” – on a roll at the time, with Alex Party’s infectious “Don’t Give Me Your Life” to their credit – got lucky here: while never stepping outside genre boundaries, “Dreamer” is one of the great house diva vocals. It captures the thing house, and handbag house, do better than almost anything: condense all the hopes, fears, desperation, and fantasies that a dancefloor magics into being, leaving an intense hit of pop that stays in your mind long after the night ends.