Do the ‘bot

Pub date June 3, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


It’s a flagship band on America’s taste-makingest dance music label, but the Juan Maclean’s second full-length of peerless pop disco, The Future Will Come (DFA) is a low-stakes affair. In contrast to the orbit of expectations around the Field’s recently released Yesterday and Today (ANTI-/Kompakt), there isn’t the sense that it should — or can — be read as a measure of the group’s artistic viability.

Which is not to say that Future hasn’t undergone intense scrutiny. Last year’s monster of a teaser single, the 12-minute "Happy House," weathered pages of heated message board discussion among sample spotters, who pointed out that the group lifted the track’s driving two-chord piano vamp from Dubtribe Sound System’s decade-old "Do It Now."

"It was pretty funny," John (a.k.a. Juan) MacLean says by phone, as he and his bandmates drive through Georgia. "Someone was accusing me of ripping someone off in a style of music that has been almost entirely sample-dependent."

Although it has taken on a massive life outside of Future, "Happy House" shows what TJM is capable of: namely, superb pop that uses dance music’s production techniques and structures. This elusive combination was hinted at on its debut, 2005’s Less Than Human (Astralwerks). Now vocals have a more prominent role. Songs such as "One Day" feature a back-and-forth between MacLean and LCD Soundsystem member Nancy Whang that recalls Dare-era Human League.

"We paid a lot more attention to how we were doing [vocals], stylistically," says MacLean, "On the first album it was more like we laid vocals on top of instrumental songs." With Future, the studio effects that masked MacLean’s voice are removed to reveal even colder circuitry. Like Brian Eno or Gary Numan, his tone is both affected and affectless. At times, it’s also goofy unto distraction. Then again, a line like "I’ll be here after midnight, wearing my beleaguered frown" isn’t angling for verisimilitude.

Future also pares down some of the trickier production flourishes that made Less Than Human feel a little insular, if satisfying in its complexity. MacLean describes the process as "nowhere near as difficult" as it was on Human. "This one has so much live playing on it that it’s been a pretty straightforward transition," he says.

The conciliatory quality at the base of Future‘s sound is cleanly framed and well-articulated in a manner that rebuts the tongue-in-cheek prohibition of TJM’s early single "You Can’t Have It Both Ways." The sequencing, for example, places the longer club tracks ("The Simple Life," "Tonight," and "Happy House") squarely at the beginning, middle, and end, spaced out by pop-length songs. MacLean has a history with structure and discipline as aesthetic strategies — from his earliest releases with Six Finger Satellite, he’s consistently taken cues from Kraftwerk over, say, Creedence.

The Juan MacLean makes music that’s uncomplicatedly likeable, even as the group emphasizes robot drama, traditionally not an easy sell with American audiences. "It’s easier to be crazy and out-there and experimental," MacLean says. "The pop music world is more difficult to navigate." Future puts that difficulty across to the listener with "Human Disaster," which sounds like a piano ballad with every other chord taken out. If I could get past just how bummed out MacLean sounds, I might hear it as a rebuke to listeners looking for recognizable emotion.

The album’s title track, on the other hand, plays as straight-up satire, and comes close to calling trust-funders out by name. It’s hard to tell brilliant and clumsy apart as Maclean pronounces "Your life in the city is a paid vacation /Your suicide note was a part of your thesis" over a hopped-up conga loop. "In New York, you find yourself surrounded by people who just talk a lot about doing things without ever getting them done — types that don’t have to live all that desperately," MacLean explains.

This is an assuringly human sentiment. On Future, class antagonism and Teutonic robots might be shunted aside by listeners in favor of values like emotional immediacy, personal agency, and dubiously coded ideals of authenticity and originality. Ultimately the Juan MacLean’s latest serves to emphasize that DFA is a label based on fandom committed to communicating the pleasure of listening. It gives us a glimpse of its maker’s canon, and a host of new thrills.


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