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The most annoying thing about James Murphy isn’t that he got signed to a major. Or that his handlers over at Capitol allowed the 34-year-old New Yorker, who’s best known as 50 percent of the party-throwing, record-producing, indie-label-running team DFA, to release a double album of material by his one-man band, LCD Soundsystem. It’s that the guy can actually belt it out when he tries.
About three minutes into “On Repeat,” the sixth track on the new LCD Soundsystem, Murphy’s reedy, younger-than-its-years voice takes off: “Don’t tell nobody what/What you really want,” he wails. “Because/They could tell everybody else what you really want.” Murphy’s performance is hardly diva-impressive, mind you, but it does manage to make the drum-machine-tethered track convey some real urgency. More important, he sounds as if he actually cares.
When you’re trying to make a funk-punk that, as Murphy has said, “DJs would actually play,” that counts for a lot. (How else to explain the improbable rise of Franz Ferdinand?) But it’s not an approach our man is used to taking. Witness LCD’s 2002 debut, a 12-inch single called “Losing My Edge,” which was about as detached-sounding as anything intended for the dance floor can be. Not that it mattered all that much: Strip away the disaffected indie-dude vocals and the Zelig-as-scenester narrative—“I was there in 1968/I was there at the first Can show in Cologne/…I was there in 1974/At the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City/I was working on the organ sounds”—and you were left with the purest of Ralf-and-Florian–esque electro beats. In other words, it was disco, plain and simple.
Many of LCD’s initial efforts were so orthodox-groovy, in fact, that Murphy, a multi-instrumentalist previously known, if at all, for his drumming with indie-rock acts Pony and Speedking, started getting job offers from the likes of Janet Jackson, Craig David, and Britney Spears. He turned them down, naturally—a decision that probably had less to do with snobbery than lack of shared experience: As evidenced by “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” Soundsystem’s infectious opening track, Murphy may have become obsessed with dance music, but he’s not willing to pitch his punk past.
On “Losing My Edge” (included, along with all of LCD’s early efforts, on Disc 2 of Soundsystem), Murphy mocked mutable hipsters who, at first whiff of electronica’s ascendancy, sold their guitars for turntables—only to do a reverse trade later on. Of course, he might be accused of doing the same, especially on “Daft Punk,” a fantasy-themed, six-stringy number that seems to have more to do with his past than his present. The song jabs at listeners with knifelike guitar, spirit-of-’77 bass, and a trademark-infringing Mark E. Smith vocal tic: “I’ll show you the ropes, kid, show you the ropes-uh.” But so be it: The hand-clap-powered beat has way more boogie-oogie-oogie in it than anything by Murphy’s revivalist peers, “Take Me Out” included.
“Movement,” the best Fall song Pavement never wrote, is scrappier still, its synth squiggles fighting it out with some nearly garage-punk guitar. And older songs such as “Beat Connection” and “Yeah (Crass Version)” exemplify Murphy’s raison de groove while making his debt to the Studio 54 era explicit: On both, Murphy floats minimalist vocal mantras down steady streams of hi-hat-snappin’, conga-slappin’ rhythm. But Soundsystem, let’s face it, is mostly about moving bodies without sacrificing indie cred. There’s intent—in this case, the electric combination of dance music and punk—and then there’s content—what’s actually on the record. And the former will go only so far once the drugs have worn off, the party is over, and the disco ball has been put away.
In an October 2004 interview with the Guardian, Murphy not too reluctantly owned up to his own trend-hopping tendencies: “I’ve always been a good imitator. I love music. But I’m just not that original.” Obvious cherry-picking—or homage, if one is feeling generous—is evident throughout Soundsystem. On “Too Much Love,” Murphy sets a time-signature-defying This Heat vocal line to a cascading Liquid Liquid drum break. On “Tribulations,” the wobbly synth riff, two-string guitar solo, and cryptic chorus (“Get your payments from the nation/For your trials and tribulations”) evoke New Order at its dance-poppiest. And Murphy’s most blatant imitation, closing track “Great Release,” takes Tiger Mountain by flattery, strategically mashing up that hipster touchstone into a slow jam of echo-laden piano chords, sonar-blip rhythms, and Eno-chameleonic crooning.
New music is always going to build on the old. But there’s a sense of hedging here, a sense that Murphy wants each and every one of his sounds preapproved by history. As catchy and as funky as LCD Soundsystem sometimes is, nothing about it says, This is LCD, dammit, and could be only LCD. Some of that can be chalked up to the album’s thoroughly digested and regurgitated influences, but those might be forgiven if it weren’t for Murphy’s resolutely undistinguished vocal presence. When he isn’t aping someone else’s mannerisms, he’s making damn sure he doesn’t reveal any of his own. His slack, half-spoken approach worked well on “Losing My Edge,” where hipster sang-froid suited the yarn, but spread across a whole album, that kind of wink-wink vocalizing wears thin. After all, the DJ is supposed to be laughing with us, not at us.
Murphy may lack originality, but he’s not lazy: If the guy steals a postpunk riff or spiels when he should be singing, it’s his way of making disco palatable for folks who have the Stooges and Black Sabbath and Killing Joke on their iPods. And LCD Soundsystem can’t be faulted for a funk deficiency or an inability to find the pocket. But the album is still the sound of splitting the difference: It’s not, as Murphy might’ve hoped, uncompromisingly good dance music and uncompromisingly good punk rock. It’s something so in-between that it’s neither.CP