[25 April 2010]
With James Murphy’s “DFA”, “dance punk” and “disco funk” seared to his name, you might not expect John MacLean (aka the Juan MacLean) to ever go “straight house” on us. But he has, and he has chosen his contribution to !K7’s DJ-Kicks series in which to do it. Cast against MacLean’s previous and emphatic nods to Krautrock, Human League and Gary Numan, it’s no wonder this latest outing has been something of a cause celebre in the blogosphere.
I’ve always found it difficult to review DJ mixes as you are essentially evaluating someone’s stream of consciousness. In the case of MacLean’s DJ-Kicks installment, this is doubly so: the entire album was mixed live with nothing but two turntables, a couple of filters and a tape delay. So what do you look for in a dance compilation, especially one with no discernible theme (MacLean’s is not “Latin” house, for instance)? And how do you appraise something from the comfort of your living-room when it’s meant for the club? A mix that may not work for the solitary listener may get crowds going when played live. Also, when you’re listening intently through your headphones, you’re bound to net details of tracks that are lost on the inebriated merry-maker or even the person playing it for background noise. And at the end of the day, this may not matter an ounce to the tracks’ effectiveness. So how much of your critique matters?
As much as the task of reviewing dance compilations seems nigh on impossible, even absurd; there are obvious qualities a ‘good’ mix ought to have. This includes whether it contains anthems that provide the shots in the arm to a mix that can be over an hour long. The tracks with less hit potential ought to sustain the momentum ratcheted up by those anthems. There ought to be some ebb and flow to the mix’s dynamics and tones. Perhaps there might be a balance between old and classic tracks for interest. Most importantly and obviously, the mix ought to communicate personality.
Juan MacLean DJ-Kicks certainly has its anthems, which span deep house, minimal techno, and trance all the way back 1988. MacLean courteously edges us toward the rift created by his departure from dance punk with a barely-there soporific snippet of his 2009 rug-cutting “Happy House”, followed by fellow DFA-signee Still Going’s “Spaghetti Circus”. The latter is a feverish slice of rollicking disco at its most familiar, with comedic/musical performer Reggie Watts’s cheeky, sexed-up Marvin Gaye tenor providing ample grease for the wheels. Its pomposity is seconded by Italian DJ Gee Day’s “Like a Child”, which features a squelchy bass motif and a echoing miasma of disembodied female vocals. Meanwhile, its disco underpinnings are picked up by Giom’s “I Know You Were Right”. Manuel Sahagun’s wedge of ‘90s deep house in “Pieces of Me” is exhilarating for its melodic intelligence, changing dynamic landscape, keyboard drives and synth gurgles. Then there is MacLean’s “Feel So Good”, a track specially crafted for the compilation. Since its March release, it has been a fountain of excitement due mostly to its drum loop courtesy of the late DFA drummer Jerry Fuchs, and LCD Soundsystem/Juan vocalist Nancy Whang. It was certainly made to be an anthem, what with Whang’s passive-aggressive contribution, a blueprint teetering on pop, clanging synths and a relentless bassline.
Seventy-two minutes is quite a long time to sustain a crowd’s elation, and without energy levels aloft, this listener found it difficult to judge whether this job is executed by in-between songs such as Theo Parrish’s remix of Rick Wilhite’s “Get On Up” and the trance of Berlin DJ Florian Meindel’s “Here Today Gone Tomorrow”. The former is a standard deep house groove punctuated by bursts of female vox and a jazzy keyboard motif; it therefore seems more at home as Muzak for a swish bar. Meanwhile the latter is defined by the vocal: “House-seasonal-race-creed” (or some such) repeatedly churned for five minutes straight. The effect might be hypnotic to the uninhibited, but I couldn’t say the same as an earnest reviewer.
Even without the benefit of dance-floor play, it is apparent that MacLean’s choice of revisiting Detroit may not meet with universal applause. Certainly some listeners recalling MacLean’s salad days as a guitar-wielder in the electro-post-punk band Six Finger Satellite (which also once included the production work of James Murphy of DFA fame) will be impressed by his latest display of production versatility and encyclopaedic knowledge of dance music. However, where previous albums Less Than Human (2005) and The Future Will Come (2009) made clear as day MacLean’s ability to co-opt diverse source material into a coherent and refreshing vision of electro dance-punk, this compilation says little about MacLean as a unique artist. There’s just very little on here we haven’t heard before. From interviews, MacLean himself admitted that his approach to this project was steeped in a significant amount of disconcertion at the relevance of the DJ mix in a world where everyone is his own DJ. And, unfortunately for him, house compilations are a dime a dozen.
Moreover, as a series rooted in electronic music’s stupendous eclecticism, the DJ-Kicks series would have welcomed a dose of MacLean’s new-raving ways to stand alongside the trip hop of Terranova, the downtempo of Kid Loco and the geek electro-pop of Hot Chip. If MacLean wanted to delve into a history lesson on house music, why did he use this occasion to indulge his whim? Isn’t a fraction of the point of the DJ-Kicks series to enable artists to fossilize their unique thumbprint for posterity?