DFA greats the Juan MacLean sound out of their element on their new album, a collection of stripped down pop and '70s rock-flavored electro.
The Juan MacLean have always fostered a great love for early electronic styles, and they've shown it over the years through their complex arrangements of disco, house, and electropop that somehow manage to sound neither dated nor trite. For an electronic artist, timelessness is a precious gift, especially considering that the definitive sound of any given era is directly related to the available technology at the time, but the Juan MacLean have that gift, even if they don't always show it off. However, on the duo's latest album, In a Dream, they've taken a less nuanced approach to their homage to pop music's past, a choice which fails not only their music, but even the music they've chosen to emulate.
Look no further than "A Place Called Space" (the album opener), a startlingly earnest tribute to progressive rock that gets things off on entirely the wrong foot. It begins normally enough, with shimmering pads, arpeggiated synths, and a four-on-the-floor beat, but then enter the dramatic power chords, and the song takes on an ugly new shape.One searing guitar solo and two unconvincing vocal performances later, the song feels flashy a little cheap, particularly because it simply doesn't suit the artist. John MacLean's and Nancy Whang's stark, deadpan vocal deliveries are far more suited to electro and disco styles than the grandiose, melodramatic realm of progressive rock where only the most overblown and flamboyant vocalists truly thrive; they don't sound comfortable here.
This gambit, as it turns out, proves only to be the first of many on the album where the Juan MacLean ask themselves if they can pull off certain styles of classic rock and pop music. They deserve credit for going for it, but most of the album's tracks aren't as filled out as "A Place Called Space", and as In a Dream wears on, it becomes evident how half-baked and tedious their experiment is, even to themselves.
The focus of the Juan MacLean's music (and dance music in general) has always been rhythm and groove, but here they seem restless to escape that mold, offering a set of straightforward pop music instead. Occasionally the funk reappears, as on "Running Back to You", which features a bass line that exists halfway between "Another One Bites the Dust" and Hall & Oates, but the rudimentary song construction betrays the complexity of some of the Juan MacLean's earlier compositions, and rather than coming off as refined or minimalist, it just feels plain. Like Daft Punk's back-to-basics approach on Random Access Memories, the Juan MacLean appear eager to turn their backs on contemporary music, opting instead to pay tribute to their favorite styles from the '70s and '80s, but in doing so they come dangerously close to retreading tired clichés rather than revitalizing or honoring the past. They clearly want to find a link between classic and modern pop music, but all they end up with is dance music stripped of character.
Too many interesting electronic artists have decided to embark upon what can only be described as a classic rock revival. This is a band that can get away with making disco and '80s pop feel novel and exciting -- they're really rocking the boat by going after progressive rock, as well. More than anything, the Juan MacLean have made the mistake of emulating the past rather than updating it, a shame considering that they've proven time and time again that they can be interesting pop songwriters when they want to be. There are flashes of that strength here, with the lively, complex "Here I Am", the catchy single "A Simple Design", and the exuberant 10-minute album closer "The Sun Will Never Set on Our Love", an opus that in many ways achieves some of the goals that much of the album fails to reach (it even has some more subtle, tasteful nods to prog-rock, but they unfortunately go down much harder after "A Place Called Space").
Essentially what the Juan MacLean have here is a straightforward pop album, but as with the worst pop albums, the amount of filler overwhelms the killer. For an artist whose creative spirit has burned so brightly in the past, it's more than a little disappointing.