The wobbly logo of a lightning bolt that adorns every release by New York’s DFA label has been a seal of quality since its first appearance on The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” in 2002. That slab reanimated rock by taking it to the dancefloor (and vice versa) in a way that Franz Ferdinand and The Killers subsequently took to the bank.
An acronym for the Air Force cry of “Death from above!,” DFA and their jagged insignia were quickly stamped upon another 12-inch, LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.” A pissing contest that doubled as hipster name-drop and tripled as left-field classic, “Losing My Edge” showed in-house producer James Murphy to be a solo act in his own right. Considering this year’s full-length albums from Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem and his buddy Juan Maclean, that DFA bolt might not just be a logo, but a transformative shock along the lines of “Shazam!,” changing record-geek Billy Batsons into rock ’n’ roll Captain Marvels.
Take the example of Murphy, the drummer turned producer turned one-man soundsystem. A chunky, stubble-faced boy from Princeton Junction, N.J., he seemed destined for obscurity pounding in indie-rock bands like Pony and Speedking. Or engineering records for the likes of the doomed robo-grunge band Six Finger Satellite.
That is, until Murphy hooked up with English expat Tim Goldsworthy (who may be the real wizard behind DFA) and the two crafted their distinctive hybrid of techno’s shimmer and thump crossed with punk’s slash and burn. In a flash, they were rock’s cool answer (i.e., not the Matrix) in the age of super-producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes, getting remix phone calls from across the board: the Chemical Brothers, Gorillaz, Le Tigre, Nine Inch Nails, Janet Jackson and U2, the last two of which they turned down. Even the Neptunes in their N.E.R.D. guise got punk’d in the remix.
Murphy’s productions for others soon took a backseat to LCD Soundsystem, as the follow-up singles to “Losing My Edge” proved him to be more than a postmodern novelty act, reveling by turns in clipped punk, percussion-heavy slink and acid madness. LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut came out earlier this year and, in all fairness, stood little chance of eclipsing the ludicrous heights attained by the singles. Again, Murphy draws from a mental record recollection as variegated as that of the Princeton Record Exchange, with nods toward both Mark E. Smith of The Fall and techno godhead Carl Craig, striking a balance between the Gang of Four’s acerbic guitar jags and New Order’s streamlined pulse.
The album’s opening track, “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” sounds closer to American garage rock than French house, with Murphy’s playful, stuffy-nosed vocals coming across like a 10-year-old punk making absurd boasts about his coolness. Sloppy and loose on the surface, every scratch of a guitar string and tick of the drum machine is meticulous in its stitching. Murphy embodies hipster ennui among the sinewy thuds of “Movement,” elucidating his rightful place amid a ravenous subculture that feeds parasitically on other cultures rather than exerting the energy to generate its own. Growing up when, as the Minutemen put it, your favorite band could be your life, Murphy perpetually puts this gratitude and cross-referencing on display; he’s basically made the rock equivalent of another record-obsessed record from earlier this year, The Game’s Documentary.
The album is but a microcosm of Murphy’s musical heritage, reconfiguring these swatches into some giant Frankenstein: one arm post-punk guitarist, the other arm Roland synth, two cowbell hands, disco rhythm-section legs, 808 heart, record-clerk brain. A natural DJ, even on the slow crest of “Never as Tired as When I’m Waking Up,” he can’t help but mentally mash Robert Wyatt with “Dear Prudence.” In “Great Release,” the album’s finale, he beat-matches Eno’s finales from Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain. Spend too much time trainspotting the references, though, and you’ll miss that they sync as shout-along songs. And live, LCD is an all-too-rare beast, a one-man studio project that turns into a hefty and sweaty electronic-rock band.
A similar transformation overcomes John Maclean, a bald, squat teacher at an institute for young offenders in New Hampshire whom that transformative jolt of DFA electricity turns into a titanium bot raising his hands in some seedy discotheque. Not that Maclean converting himself into a robot is anything new: more than 10 years ago, his old band, Six Finger Satellite, presented themselves as Kraftwerkian man-machines to befuddled rock audiences. After their run on Sub-Pop ended, Maclean dropped out of music to focus on his other pastime: cooking up more cocaine and heroin than any of his music idols did. Only after bottoming out and cleaning up (badgered all the while by his old studio engineer Murphy) did Maclean make music again. He released a string of singles for DFA that remain far from the critical light shed on The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, mostly because Maclean sooner evokes Fire Island’s flagrantly gay hedonism than the strain of punk.
There are plenty of mirrored exteriors on Maclean’s solo debut, Less Than Human. Reflected in such polished surfaces are Giorgio Moroder’s Teutonic productions, Chic’s sleekness, Juan Atkins’ “No UFOs” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” Maclean’s “Shiny Skinned Friend” is a bizarre love triangle replete with gay AI, while mounds of gold dust swirl around the paranoid android ambience of “My Time Is Running Out.”
Such gleaming exteriors belie the laminal effect of so many mirrors: remixes of “Tito’s Way” and “Give Me Every Little Thing” alternately shook loose prog and disco, electro and Salsoul, classic acid and Detroit house. Behind the ’droid façade, subtle cracks reveal Juan’s disquiet and dread, the anxiety that’s never far from the ecstasy. The album’s closing track, “Dance With Me,” gets intoned by a cyborg sylph commanding a partner as her batteries run down. A warm piano line slowly rises off the chilly chrome, proving that Juan may be human after all.