[1 December 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
DFA deserve to be huge. After all, all the label has done is become the source for very nearly all the greatest American indie dance music that’s come out in the first half of this decade. While bands such as Franz Ferdinand and The Killers have at long last succeeded in bringing the funk-fueled strains of postpunk rock to the mainstream, The DFA continue to operate on the fringes, releasing single after brilliant single to almost universal praise every time out, but although the DFA cult has been steadily growing since 2002, there hasn’t been that one huge knockout of a commercial hit. Despite attempts by desperate American pop stars to collaborate with DFA (Janet Jackson’s request was refused, and Britney Spears’s session lasted a day before it was shelved for good), The DFA remain fervently, steadfastly independent.
Both the name of the coolest label in New York City, and the name of the hippest production duo in America today, DFA is the brainchild of Manhattanites James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy. Murphy, a former punk rock drummer, and Goldsworthy, whose work with U.N.K.L.E. many people are familiar with, are to dancepunk as Lil Jon is to crunk, as Boards of Canada are to IDM. Without these two guys, American indie music would be bland beyond belief. Who else could take such a middling-sounding bunch of glorified Cure fans as The Rapture and put together the instant classic single “House of Jealous Lovers”, and not only that, but make it a club hit to boot? By combining elements of seminal early 80s postpunk bands Public Image, Ltd. (whose “Death Disco” remains a massive influence) and Gang of Four, with the great extended dance breaks of New Order and The Stone Roses, melding it all together with monstrous disco beats (not to mention healthy use of the old, reliable cowbell), Murphy and Goldsworthy have developed one of the most inimitable sounds in music today, one that is always simultaneously catchy and avant-garde, constantly surprises listeners, and most importantly, gets those indie rock fans to quit sulking and dance their collective arses off.
Following the great 2003 collection, DFA Compilation #1, which was a modest, yet superb sampling of the label’s best music at the time, including the aforementioned “House of Jealous Lovers”, as well as tracks by Black Dice, The Juan MacLean, and Murphy’s project LCD Soundsystem, The DFA had bigger things in mind when assembling DFA Compilation #2. Much bigger. Comprised of singles, remixes, B-sides, and previously unreleased material, the resulting three-disc release is a veritable feast, over three hours’ worth of the most contagious grooves you’ll hear all year.
If you’re looking for instant gratification, go right to disc two of the compilation, plunk it in the CD player, press play, and bask in the electro glory that is LCD Soundsystem’s masterful single “Yeah (Crass Version)”. Light years better than the deliciously snarky “Losing My Edge” (which appeared on the first compilation), “Yeah” is easily one of the best singles of 2004, a nine and a half minute funk jam that begins by channeling the steady, propulsive breakbeat and smooth bassline of The Trammps’ classic “Disco Inferno”. “Everybody’s talking about it/Nobody’s getting it done,” the vocal track declares, as Murphy and Goldsworthy ostentatiously take it upon themselves to get things done, as the song slowly evolves from a disco homage to a bombastic, acid-tinged synth crescendo that threatens to bleed your ears, climaxing in an insane cowbell workout that would make Christopher Walken rejoice. It’s a far cry from the rock/dance fusion of The Rature, but it’s also a refreshing change, and reassuring that The DFA are bent on going beyond the limits of dancepunk.
The rest of the disc isn’t too shabby, either. Early ‘80s percussion auteurs Liquid Liquid reunite for a new recording of their song “Bellhead”, a track that bursts with so much vitality, that it’s easy to forget that there are no thrumming basslines, nor any angular slashes of guitar, only the slightest hint of synth underneath it all. Japanese outfit J.O.Y. contribute the charmingly weird “Sunplus”, featuring none other than Boredoms singer Yoshimi P-We, who provides a Bjork-esque feel to the proceedings. The lengthy “El Monte”, from Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom (two thirds of the trio Black Leotard Front), is surprisingly sedate, with pulsating, minimal ambient synth lines that rarely waver from the simple arrangement, while The Rapture’s fun “Sister Saviour (DFA Dub)” tones down the guitars from the original track, echoing the simple synth/dance beats of early 80s New Order. Meanwhile, LCD Soundsystem rear their cheeky heads once again with the fabulous early B-side “Beat Connection”, and Black Dice contribute a fascinating remix of “Endless Happiness”, the original version of which appearing on DFA Compilation #!.
The set’s other two CDs prove to be just as enjoyable. Black Leotard Front’s “Casual Friday”, which kicks off disc one, is an ebullient, cheeky piece of electrofunk, highlighted by the repeated refrain of, “Bonjour, bonjour, comment allez vous.” Recorded back in 2002, “Get Up/Say What”, by the defunct group Pixeltan, provides the most intense dance beat on the collection, made all the more furious by a wavering synth bass line, while the DFA remix of “Sunplus” transforms the original J.O.Y. track into something completely different, a much more taut fusion of rock and funk. Disc three, on the other hand, is a masterfully put together DJ mix disc that, when not unveiling previously unheard tracks such as The Juan MacLean’s gorgeous disco track “Give Me Every Little Thing”, meshes several of the previous two discs’ best selections brilliantly. At one point, an edit from The Rapture’s “Echoes” morphs seamlessly into Liquid Liquid’s “Bellhead”, and “Sunplus” wriggles into “El Monte”. And what better way to conclude the compilation with an LCD Soundsystem mix, which, after a snippet from a dub mix of “On Repeat”, becomes an ingenious mash-up of “Yeah (Crass)” and “Beat Connection”, the two tracks dueling to the euphoric conclusion.
The DFA is obviously starting to distance themselves from the dancepunk trend they helped create, as “Yeah” clearly indicates, but Compilation #2 still rocks and grooves with the best of their early releases. Whether producing an artist, releasing someone’s work, or remixing an existing track, when The DFA is involved in a new project, the question isn’t if it’s good or bad, it’s, “How great will it be?” Their star continues to steadily rise, as new projects are always in the offing (including the debut LCD Soundsystem full-length, which has already leaked on the net), and while mainstream audiences have not yet caught on, it surely must be a matter of time now. A perfect snapshot of a label at the top of its game, this is one of the year’s most essential collections.