Hercules and Love Affair were the primary attention-wrestlers from the DFA stable in 2008, releasing what was easily one of the year’s most lovable and lovingly crafted records. “Blind” was perhaps THE disco throwback single of the year, and a tough track for anyone to challenge. Had the critical confetti tossed (or, if you prefer, cocaine sneezed Woody Allen-style) for that song not completely obscured everyone’s vision so quickly, more people might’ve noticed that other big DFA 12″: The Juan MacLean’s unstoppable “Happy House”.
As good as “Blind” was, “Happy House” might’ve actually been even better. It was an endorphin-mainlining twelve-plus minutes of blast-off bliss. Taking the euphoric insistence of golden age house, fusing it with Nancy Whang’s ebullient vocals, and then giving you an MDMA rainbow high five, “Happy House” is the perfect example of an artist-defining moment the way “Born Slippy” was for Underworld or, more recently, the way “Losing My Edge” was for LCD Soundsystem. (I know some might argue that “Give Me Every Little Thing” already did this trick for The MacLean five years ago, but…no. Not on this level.)
Herein lies what has been John MacLean’s biggest challenge since the debut LP: how does one get out from under James Murphy’s shadow? LCD have certainly been on the receiving end of more relative critical and commercial adulation, but The Juan MacLean have never been far behind. Less Than Human was, in many ways, a more consistent record than LCD Soundsystem, but it was also less genre-inclusive, lacking Murphy’s knack for fusing together two dozen disparate musical influences into one cohesive booty mover. Less Than Human required a deeper appreciation of straight-up dance music, while Murphy held his bear arms open for all kinds of niche dwellers. And lots of people who don’t know how to dance at all. He even wrote Beatle-biting ballads.
Four years have passed since Human, hipster-ironic(?) appreciation of all things rave has presumably already reached its’ apex (again?), Balearic disco has been on an upswing, LCD Soundsystem released a great follow-up, and The Juan MacLean finally have a new album. The question in my mind leading up to this release was: “Can John MacLean sustain the quality of ‘Happy House’ across an entire LP’s worth of grooves?” The simplified answer is “no”, but it’s also not an entirely transparent answer.
“The Simple Life” is a staggeringly good opener, coming across the speakers like the cynical, darkened reply to the wistful bounce of “Happy House”. The disco elasticity is tautly pulled over a nearly nine minute expanse that feels like perpetual lift-off. It also reminds me of the much-missed Out Hud at their most focused.
The title track initially seems a bit slight and too heavy-handed in its’ Murphy-isms. After a few listens the charms shine through and I realized how fun it is to hear a synth part seemingly stolen from the sound bank of Rick Wright, circa “Wish You Were Here”, placed into a dance track.
“One Day” is a fantastic male/female tug-of-war that features some of the best cheesy fake strings you are likely to hear this year. This is like “Don’t You Want Me” if The Human League were into writing straight-up house bangers. However, when it abruptly cuts off at just past the four minute mark you’re left with the realization that The Juan MacLean’s best tunes are owed the decency of being stretched to the breaking point in the same way that New Order’s 12″ mixes nearly always bested their truncated album counterparts.
The Juan MacLean are at their best when they give the compositions room to breathe, which isn’t always possible within the context of a ten track album. So the minor quibbles I have with this record actually have little to do with the songs themselves, but with the very format they are presented in; a problem which has always been the bane of a genre that sounds best when pressed onto one side of a 12″ slab of vinyl. In the end, MacLean has still somehow managed to make an excellent full-length album, one that will warrant countless spins from anyone willing to give their bodies to dance music.