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Growing Together

The Juan MacLean's newest expands the boundaries of DFA even further

Sebastian Mylnarski

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 3/18/2009

As much as his production work, the sweaty live shows of his band LCD Soundsystem, or his canny knack for finding cool acts to showcase on his label, DFA Records, James Murphy's great knack is building an aura around the whole thing. When new DFA product enters the fan pipeline, it may not always be a major event--Free Blood's lukewarm debut, for instance, is proof of that. But DFA records mark their moments more frequently than most, and among a wider audience than most. There may be no point in continuing to bemoan the never-ending Balkanization of musical taste beyond the likes of Miley Cyrus, Inc., but it nevertheless feels significant that DFA has a relatively broad appeal to dance music and indie-rock fans alike--as well as potentially, slowly but surely going . . . sorta . . . pop. It's not hard to imagine LCD or last year's DFA breakout, Hercules and Love Affair, nudging their way to the fore similarly to the way the Cure and Depeche Mode did two decades ago, by growing the cult until it becomes mainstream by default.

That's an observation, not an attempt to put a conjectural business plan into any of these artists' mouths, and the same goes for the Juan MacLean, who have just released the very strong second album The Future Will Come (DFA). The story is well known: John MacLean had spent the '90s with Six Finger Satellite, for whom James Murphy had done sound; when Murphy and DFA partner Tim Goldsworthy set up their label, MacLean was invited to contribute, which he did under a half-baked pseudonym. The Juan MacLean's first album, Less Than Human (2005), wasn't fully baked either, but it moved pretty well anyway, especially on the streamlined "Give Me Every Little Thing" and the sardonic, bounding "Tito's Way." Most of the album was co-produced by DFA, and its basic sound--cowbells conked in dead rooms, live bass with gristle on it, an unpredictable mesh of live and programmed drums, synths leaned on with knowing laziness--was a little looser, more party-hearty, than LCD's wound-tight disco punk.

That looseness was writ large last February, when MacLean issued a monster 12-inch titled "Happy House"--the two B-side mixes, by Lee Douglas and Prince Language, are equal to the 12-minute original. As the title indicates, "Happy House" is MacLean's riff on the ultra-upbeat, gospel-rooted deep house of the early '90s, as well as later tracks such as Dubtribe Sound System's "Do It Now" (2001)--unabashed sunshine disco, albeit with the gushing emotionalism tempered by carefully chosen words: "You are . . . excellent," vocalist Nancy Whang exults during the chorus, the pause as important as the words: She's spilling herself emotionally, but still wants to keep things as level and smart as she can.

That's the tension that The Future Will Come works out for most of its hour-long running time, and it pays off beautifully all over the album. For one thing, it's not a house album--more like synth-pop, very much along the lines of the Human League, Yaz, and earlier Depeche Mode. Yet while the album is very song-oriented, it also still comes across as the work of someone who thinks in terms of tracks more than songs--who thinks sonics first. So the grooves of The Future Will Come fully trounce Less Than Human's. But what stands out even more is the songwriting.

Partly, that's down to the singing. MacLean is a pretty featureless vocalist, which works well with robot-disco. Nancy Whang is sort of the DFA in-house female vocalist; she's appeared on recordings by LCD, MacLean, and Black Leotard Front, as well as Belgium's Soulwax (who are on PIAS, not DFA). Whang has a clear, unshowy timbre; one reason "Happy House" still sounds so fresh a year after release is because the person singing it is less a diva than someone singing along to the car radio who happens to hit every note with a quiet but real gusto.

Whang can be more deadpan when the occasion calls for it: "The Simple Life," the opening track of Future, is a swift, simply programmed bed of synth that calls for something a little more above-it-all. "One Day" goes the opposite direction: Whang and MacLean trade taut but urgent lines in very "Don't You Want Me" fashion, but the sound is closer to late-'80s Chicago house crossed with the same period's Latin freestyle: medium-pitched, blippy keyboard bass, two-finger synth string lines, elastic, high-pitched vocal lines. MacLean's and Whang's contrasting (dour/peppy) styles make "No Time" into something that might have fit onto a prime Talking Heads record alongside its dense, percussive keyboard lines; the next cut, "Accusations," evokes the second, contemplative half of Remain in Light.

If that makes Future sound dense with aural allusions, well, OK, it is--how else to hear "One Day" hit a peak when Whang's lolling chorus melody is followed by crude orchestral "hits," which bring equally to mind new jack swing and early rave? But this isn't an album you listen to in a spot-the-resemblance manner (unless you're trying to describe it in print). Like LCD's Sound of Silver and Hercules and Love Affair, it's both an encapsulation of the DFA sound and a demonstration of just how unexpectedly universal that sound has become.

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