The growth of producer/musician James Murphy as documented by his activities via the DFA label has been impressive. Initially, his group LCD Soundsystem was just one of a hot handful of names under the DFA umbrella dedicated to combining dance music aesthetics with a punk/experimental edge. All that worked out surprisingly well, with Murphy and partner Tim Goldsworthy becoming in demand remix specialists, tackling tunes from sources diverse as The Blues Explosion, The Chemical Brothers and Justin Timberlake. Along the way, LCD slowly kept gathering momentum, getting nominated for Grammys while expanding the scale of the group’s sound. I use the word group loosely; Murphy is the creative force behind the LCD moniker, and the Top Ten charting THIS IS HAPPENING finds him attaining a consistently high standard. Utilizing a smart set of influences is a huge part of his success, but songwriting has also come to play an increasingly important role. THIS IS features a handful of cuts that display a maturing pop sensibility married to Murphy’s sonic attack. “All I Want” features the sort of anthemic melancholia that’s reminiscent of and a worthy successor to Bowie’s “Heroes”, and “I Can Change” feels like what might’ve happened had Vince Clarke replaced Gary Numan in The Tubeway Army. Lotsa soaring high notes and boing-boing robotics, ya dig? Other parts of the record fuse this popishness to Murphy’s now well-established off-the-cuff quirk with fine results. Album opener “Dance Yrself Clean” is the best example of this savvy combination, feeling like an early version of Depeche Mode that honed their chops not in England but in the dank New York clubs of the early ‘80s. And those who love the making it all up as he goes along mouthy quality from the earlier records have nothing to worry about. “You Wanted a Hit” and “Pow Pow” continue the development of LCD’s more extemporaneous side, with the later displaying sonic touches of the youngish New Order until the arrival of a down and dirty bass-line seamlessly shifts the focus to percolating techno-funk throb, and all the while Murphy’s talking and talking. While it’s nice to name check the influences (amongst other elements, Eno is a major implicit presence, there are touches of Kraftwerk’s techno-pop period, and the cover photo is obviously inspired by artist Robert Longo), what’s more important is how these reference points are assembled. As a 40-year old dude, Murphy heard a whole lot of his inspiration as it happened, and he’s had a whole lot of time to reflect on just how to integrate those elements. The punkish vibe of LCD (and DFA in general) has nothing to do with snarly snotty posing and everything to do with reverence for a period in the punk chronology where Suicide were considered as legitimate an example of the form as The Ramones. Experimentation as one part of a well-balanced diet. Another major factor in the success of the sound lies in the avoidance of the use of computer software. Murphy has a stated preference for analog sound (the synths he uses are the kind you play, not program), and that really makes a difference, since a longstanding aspect of LCD’s success is the sort of clinical iciness that has inspired black-clad pale-skinned boys and girls to mope around for roughly three decades. Underneath that icy quality however is warmth provided by the instrumentation. This mix of cold/hot goes all the way back to Cabaret Voltaire and The Normal’s “TVOD”/”Warm Leatherette”, and it’s a big reason why Depeche Mode and New Order still resonate with people born after those band’s formative years. On THIS IS HAPPENING James Murphy has set his personal bar extremely high, with nary a dud or a tangible dip in quality, and it’ll be interesting to see if he continues to mine this fertile territory or lights out in a different direction.
Lucky for us, since the dawn of recorded sound, history has handed us a steadily growing resource of music that can reasonably be described with the admittedly somewhat overused term “great”. Additionally, there exist a much smaller number of aural documents that sit at the highest level of esteem, what some would call essential listening and others might bestow as the absolute crème de la crème. The previous two sentences are a loquacious way of saying that there are records and then THERE ARE RECORDS: James Brown’s LIVE AT THE APOLLO is an example of the caps font variety. I’ll state the case and make it plain. This 1962 LP is almost certainly the greatest live recording of all time. Now, to expand a bit- the music found on this brief slab of vinyl is a rare glimpse of raw artistry distilled into a perfectly calibrated performance, where Brown, then at an early peak in his long career as a groundbreaking R&B bandleader par excellence, engaged in a glorious give-and-take/tug-of-war with his crack band The Famous Flames, their collective effort inspiring a feverish dialogue with a theater filled to capacity with passionate fans. It’s the personification of hard soul, and the ability of the band to navigate a varied terrain of raucous crowd movers/slow burners honed down to their very essence has lost none of its brilliance. Naturally, Brown presides over this dynamic showcase with faultless urgency and precision. Never is there any doubt that James is the crucial element of the show, and it’s his relentlessness, his joy, his anguish, his pleading that truly elevates the recording of this performance (just one of a weeklong engagement) to legendary status. The centerpiece of the record is “Lost Someone”, which takes up over a third of the album’s running time. Brown swings into a mode of extended gospel testifying before gradually shifting into a bout of call and response with the increasingly overwrought audience as the band sagely simmers and accents the proceedings, and then quickly, with an emphatic shout out of “Please Please Please”, the direction shifts into a medley of tunes that instead of feeling underwhelming or cheap (as medleys so often do), actually attains an aura of sensible grandeur. It’s almost as if playing the songs in their entirety would’ve caused The Apollo to spin into orbit from sheer euphoria. In the annals of soul music, there are two guys who basically invented it, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, and then two other guys who took that impetus and ran with it full steam into the 1960s, Otis Redding and James Brown (we’ll discuss the girls another time). All four of these names deserve a monument at least the size of Rushmore. But it was Brown who seized upon the essence of this most communicative of pop music forms and boiled it down to a simple equation. Lungs + sweat + groove x (crowd) = Star Time. Are you ready for Star Time?