LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening

[DFA/Parlophone]


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There was a moment in the middle of the last decade when it looked like James Murphy might table being an indie rock star and focus on being the world’s ultimate dance music juggernaut. Both his 2006 LCD Soundsystem project 45:33 and his 2007 FabricLive compilation with LCD drummer Pat Mahoney quickly emerged as disco classics — with no “nu-” qualification necessary. And as important as it was for the Pitchfork set, LCD Soundsystem’s second album, Sound of Silver, felt great in the way that so much of the decade’s best dance music sounded great: Rather than spewing out the sum total of his rather massive backlog of influences, Murphy internalized them and emerged from the studio with an inarguably contemporary dance sound. Throughout all of this, his label, DFA, was evolving from a hothouse of handclap-laden no-wave revivalism to a major player in house and disco. His cred in the indie rock scene seemed more like overflow from the wealth of it he was amassing in the clubs, at least judging by the top of his CV.

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When the details of Murphy’s next LCD Soundsystem album began emerging some months ago, I wondered if he’d actually continue his high-profile dialogue with the dance music scene. Because despite all the Special Disco Version DJ sets and essential 45:33 remix 12″s, there’s a part of the music world that doesn’t care at all (or at least not all that much) about any of these overtures. The dance act LCD Soundsystem also enjoys life as the indie rock act LCD Soundsystem, and plenty of people who wouldn’t dream of dropping $20 to get into the Bunker (let alone download a Beats in Space episode) love the shit out of him. Dance music fans are unbelievably fickle, and craft is often lost in the shuffle of what feels like billions of new releases every week. If you make an album that leaves a hardcore contingent scratching and shrugging its collective head and shoulders, have you really sustained that great of a loss?

Sound of Silver proved you could have it both ways (see “Someone Great,” one of the decade’s great indie rock jams that was also one of the decade’s best dance pop tunes); This Is Happening proves that the situation may have been untenable. The latest LCD Soundsystem album is, objectively speaking, good, though certainly not a bona fide classic like its predecessor. But when I listen to it as a DJ, or just as a guy who roots for dance music most of the time, I hear Murphy disengaging. Part of the problem is that his influences don’t sound nearly as cloaked this time out. When I hear “Drunk Girls, “All I Want,” and “I Can Change,” I hear a whole lot of pre-ambient Brian Eno (and the records Eno produced for David Bowie) but not nearly enough James Murphy. He might be one of the only guys around with the production budget and know-how necessary to reproduce those textures, but this glammed-up side of LCD Soundsystem feels cheap and put-on, and it honestly sounds like a bit of a detour. Two of the more recognizably dance-minded LCD cuts on offer, “One Touch” (which owes a debt, somewhat surprisingly, to Leave Luck to Heaven-era Matthew Dear) and “Pow Pow,” would not have been highlights of the last album, but they suffice for dance floor fare here. As I listen through to this album, I can’t ignore the appeal of all the warm, room-sized synthesizers and driving ‘70s rhythms, but as someone who appreciated a particular strain in James Murphy’s music, I find it all much less appealing than I’d like.

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It’s hardly scientific proof, but a conversation I had recently about LCD Soundsystem with a dance-disinterested friend made me wonder if it was precisely that strain that brought Murphy an audience that doesn’t know Trax from Tresor. My friend commented that LCD songs bring a kind of heartfelt feeling to electronics she just doesn’t get from most of what’s in my record bag, not realizing that longing and loneliness and uncertainty powered New York dance floors in the ‘70s as much as spiked punch and Quaaludes. It’s a part of dance music’s DNA that music history has (until recently) pretty much trampled over, and James Murphy’s done quite a lot to amplify that quality for those out of the loop. It’s not surprising, then, that “Dance Yrself Clean” — a lengthy, surprisingly quiet burner as difficult to pin down emotionally as stylistically — has emerged as practically everyone’s favorite regardless of musical allegiances. Short on obvious reference points and subtly funky as hell, it’s so obviously the best track on the album that I almost can’t imagine slotting it first. “Dance Yrself Clean,” like all the best LCD Soundsystem material, exists on a continuum of great dance music without really retracing anyone’s steps. And it might just be enough to keep the music world Murphy crossed over from salivating for more.

Dave  on June 22, 2010 at 12:12 PM

“Short on obvious reference points and subtly funky as hell, it’s so obviously the best track on the album that I almost can’t imagine slotting it first.”

Could not have said it better.

nate  on June 22, 2010 at 2:36 PM

“Short on obvious reference points and subtly funky as hell, it’s so obviously the best track on the album that I almost can’t imagine slotting it first.”

Short, but there’s at least this one:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpT1YdEXAgc

modyfier  on June 22, 2010 at 6:06 PM

for a little more, he was on fresh air yesterday. podcast here: http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=13&prgDate=06-21-2010

Joe  on June 23, 2010 at 3:36 AM

This is exactly how I feel about it too!

Jordan Rothlein  on June 23, 2010 at 7:39 AM

@nate: Holy crap, dude! Thanks for the enlightening link.

andrew  on June 28, 2010 at 5:43 AM

Here is a link to a post about the LCD/Pool comparison:
http://plaguehouse.blogspot.com/2010/04/lcd-soundsystem-and-wages-of-sin.html

If The Pool is uncredited then Murphy needs to right that wrong and move on.

All said and done, Dance Yrself Clean makes for an anthem, and Murphy evolved his inspiration into a new place with his original lyrics. Everyone I know has needed a good long dose of this song of late.

You Wanted A Hit, is the real sleeper hit though, and the NPR podcast link @modyfier posted is great.

Jordan Rothlein  on June 29, 2010 at 1:41 PM

@andrew, thanks for that link… really intelligent stuff. I agree with the blogger about Murphy “manning up” and giving the Pool a writing credit, though I don’t think Murphy will.

Murphy had this to say in a recent Pitchfork interview (http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/7812-lcd-soundsystem/) when asked about “taking… and running with” his influences:

“I’m not afraid to show my hand. I’m old. I’m not going to pretend that rock was invented by me or us. I think if you’re working with a persona-type rock vibe where you’re like, “I’m feeling it! This is who I am! We share feelings together!” then it has to have all this realness to it. And so what you can’t show is that you might have actually ripped that bassline from a Joy Division song, because then what are you real about? You know, what’s going on here? You’re not supposed to be self-conscious. You’re supposed to be lost in the rock zeitgest. But if that’s not what you’re interested in, then it’s kind of liberating. You don’t really have to worry about it. It’s not that we’re consciously trying to strike a balance, it’s just that we’re not worried about the other stuff, so you just get to make what you like.

“There’s all this anxiety that people are going to “catch” you. No one wants to get called out for being derivative or something. It’s like, we’re all making rock. No one’s reinventing the wheel over here. If anything, the balance is struck by not worrying too much about it. So I’m spending my energy trying to make a good song rather than spending my energy trying to cover my tracks.”

I agree with Murphy in the first paragraph — you’re lying to yourself if you think most of what you’re listening to is wholly original. From the straight-up dance world, you have examples like Tevo Howard, who sounds a whole lot like a living, breathing Ron Hardy edit. But we buy his records despite this; they appeal to people who know all the influences but can appreciate what he’s doing with them, how he’s beefing up the drums and tightening up the arrangements and bringing an aesthetic into the 21st century. Something does feel liberating about liking a guy even though you know a large slice of his sound didn’t originate with him. This has, of course, always been the case with LCD Soundsystem as well. At his best, he’s channeling another time, making it contemporary, reaffirming its importance.

But I’m really bothered by this sentence: “No one’s reinventing the wheel over here.” The On Both Their Houses post makes light of the “legal glass house” Public Enemy was living in by demanding a writing credit from Madonna when they themselves had done some musical pilfering. This idea that *no one* reinvents the wheel seems like a pretty large expansion of that glass house. Murphy has liberated himself from the idea that *any* sound is entirely original, that any record can be owned. He’s not only not worried about appearing original, but he’s betting that *no one* is original.

Murphy has been kind enough to pull a kind of preemptive “you’re welcome” by not shvitzing over being called out, but there’s being indebted to a painting and then there’s walking out of the gallery with it and putting it up somewhere else with your name on it with a newer, edgier title. Because that’s basically what “Dance Yrself Clean”‘s legitimacy comes down to. While Murphy brings his own sense of the epic to the track, he’s in large part lifted its compositional underpinnings. You can argue, as andrew has, for the track’s originality being saved by its lyrics; I’m inclined to agree, as they’re some of Murphy’s cryptic best. But this is very obviously not just an LCD Soundsystem song, and I think a critical part of not covering your tracks is giving specific credit where specific credit is due, not just making some blatant statement about how everyone yoinks everything from everywhere and moving on.

(Strangely, Murphy holds “Dance Yrself Clean” incredibly tight even in the liner notes, where he gives no credit beyond “written by j. murphy” for the track. With the lyrics of each track, he lists not only his personnel in the studio, but also songwriting credits of band members when applicable. Just saying.)

I’m not really all that bothered by the idea of taking elements of specific other songs and building a new(ish) song around them; The Juan Maclean’s “Happy House” ((http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QzbYWQbUmE), a massive DFA jam from a few years ago, borrows wholesale from Dubtribe Sound System’s “Do It Now” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESGmw_xBK9M), and I really enjoy both of them. I also love the Stones Throw catalog, whose liner notes are scant on information about music that is heavily sample-based. But something about “Dance Yrself Clean” feels particularly unfair, both to the Pool and to all the people who have made it their summer jam. I think there’s a really unattractive mixture of ego and cowardice in building your song directly from another song and not sharing the credit. It makes him no better than the “rock zeitgeist” dudes he disparages.

littlewhiteearbuds  on June 29, 2010 at 3:37 PM

Ba-dow! Nice analysis, Jordan.

Will C.  on July 14, 2010 at 11:59 AM

I dunno. The fact he borrowed so liberally from The Pool is surprising, but not unique – after all, “Somebody’s Calling Me” is transparently a rewrite of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.” Artists have been borrowing tracks since the beginning of rock – you hear a track, you put your own spin on it. Led Zep did it a ton, LCD is doing the same.

It’s not as if the bulk of the track is from that Pool track anyway–the pulsing synth riff, heavy dynamics, and vocals are all that the track’s about, and none of those elements are in the Pool track. Yeah, he lifts the groove wholesale, but lifting a groove and a two-chord progression isn’t the same as lifting a song.

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