On Twitter last week, the writer Rich Juzwiak posted this: “There is shit on the Juan MacLean album that sounds like soulful house if they removed the soul and left the corpse singing.” Rich meant that as a dismissal of the album, but it also gets at what I like about it. The new In A Dream is the Juan Maclean’s first album since the former LCD Soundsystem member Nancy Whang joined John MacLean and turned the former solo project into a duo, and her influence on the album is profound. Whang was always, quite obviously, the coolest motherfucker onstage at LCD Soundsystem shows, and her unflappable, seen-it-all demeanor comes through in her vocals. On In A Dream, her voice is flatter and less impressed than I’ve ever heard it. And so the album works as a grand experiment. Whang, at this point, is the latest in a grand lineage of dead-eyed, hardass downtown New York singer ladies; she’s joined a tradition that includes Nico and Kim Gordon and, like, everyone in Luscious Jackson. And In A Dream is what happens when you throw a singer like that into a genre of music famous for its ferociously demonstrative gospel-trained singers. It’s an album of contrasts, a musical equivalent to Icy-Hot.
The Juan Maclean has been a DFA standby since DFA became a thing, but it was never a dance-punk project. In fact, the only thing explicitly punk about it was John MacLean’s background in the synth-addled Providence noisemaker crew Six Finger Satellite. Even in the Juan Maclean’s early days, MacLean seemed eager to put his scuzz-roar days behind him; the Juan Maclean was the project he put together after kicking hard drugs and spending a while teaching, generally getting his life together. And its early records were a warm, joyous pastiche of old Chicago house, as heard through the perspective of a veteran music nerd who was still learning new things. In A Dream is only the third Juan Maclean album in over a decade; MacLean has habitually used many of his best tracks on 12″ singles. Live, playing with a band, MacLean could sound hard and physical. But on those records, he gives off a convert’s zeal for blissed-out synth lines and amniotic synthetic bass. Tracks often edged past 10 minutes, and MacLean never seemed too interested in things like verses and choruses. And that’s why the addition of Whang on In A Dream is so refreshing. Whang completely changes the whole dynamic, and suddenly, the Juan Maclean is making something resembling pop music.
Whang has been a MacLean collaborator for years, and she co-wrote almost all of the last Juan Maclean album, 2009’s The Future Will Come. But even on a single as recent as “Get Down (With My Love),” which came out earlier this year, she felt less like a member of a group and more like a guest, one whose vocals glided over the track rather than leading it. On In A Dream, though, she’s the focal point, and even the mix of the album seems determined to stay out of her way. Musically, In A Dream feels less like house and more like synthpop (though, of course, it’s ultimately both). And even when MacLean goes into full 10-minute zone-out mode, as on closing track “The Sun Will Never Set On Our Love,” the songs feel arranged to be Whang showcases, the bleeps and thumps fading away enough to let Whang project breezy cool everywhere. It works. Whang’s dead-fish charisma is a powerful force. She’s not a better singer, in any way, than old-school house-diva belters like Adeva or Ultra Naté, but her flat tough-chick affect has a gravity of its own. There are a few moments where MacLean takes the mic, something he’s sporadically done since the beginning of the problem. And MacLean isn’t a bad singer; on a nostaliga-dazed song like “Love Stops Here,” he hits all the right emotional notes. But every time he sings on In A Dream, I find myself idly wishing it was Whang singing instead. Her voice demands attention in a way that not many do.
Musically, In A Dream is more varied and omnivorous than anything else the Juan Maclean has done before. There’s plenty of old-school house in the drum-thumps and synth-streaks. Maclean and Whang are audiophiles in the James Murphy mold, so every single sound on the album has been burnished to perfection. But this time around, some of the sounds are new. Opener “A Place Called Space” has wigged-out prog-rock guitars and a deathlessly confident Italo-disco build. (It’s hopelessly indebted to Giorgio Moroder, but that’s not exactly a complaint, you know?) “Love Stops Here” is warm-hearted sad-bastard new wave in the New Order/OMD mold. “A Simple Design” comes closer to roller-disco than I’d ever imagined these two coming. But even as the sounds venture to new places, the whole thing holds together thanks to something Whang has brought to the group: Force of personality. As it turns out, that’s exactly what the Juan Maclean needed.
Other albums of note out today:
• Shellac’s long-awaited but under-publicized return Dude Incredible (which, full disclosure, I haven’t heard, since I’m pretty sure no advances went out).
• My Brightest Diamond’s operatic art-pop opus This Is My Hand.
• Lia Ices’ spacey, chilled-out Ices.
• Fiona Apple collaborator Blake Mills’ expertly produced folk-rocker Heigh Ho.
• She Keeps Bees’ Sharon Van Etten-aided slow-burner Eight Houses.
• Engineers’ Ulrich Schnauss-produced blissout Always Returning.
• Glass Ghost’s tricky, guest-heavy indie-popper LYFE.
• So Cow’s snarky garage-rocker The Long Con.
• Superdrag side project the Lees Of Memory’s shoegaze LP Sisyphus Says.
• Piers’ canny self-titled indie-pop debut.
• BRONCHO’s hooky garage rock party Just Hip Enough To Be Woman.
• Mumblr’s visceral ’90s-style punker Full Of Snakes.
• Ides Of Gemini’s prettified doom tsunami Old World New Wave.
• Cannibal Corpse’s old-school death metal ripper A Skeletal Domain.
• The Springsteen tribute album Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute To Born In The U.S.A.
• Moonface’s City Wrecker EP.
• Myrkur’s self-titled EP.