There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Hype has to start somewhere, of course, even if the hype would have you believe it was always there. In the cases of the Rapture and the DFA, you could say it all started with 2001’s Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks, the Brooklyn-based quartet’s first EP produced by the Brooklyn-based duo. Recently transplanted from Seattle to New York, the Rapture had turned in just two previous recordings, a 1998 single and the 1999 LP Mirror, a promising mix of PiL-ish abrasive dub and Cure-inflected gloom pop. The DFA, meanwhile, had been producing LPs for a selection of little-heard bands such as BS 2000 and Zero Zero; the duo’s biggest credit was a sole Primal Scream track.
Out of the Races, however, became a career-maker for both the band and its producers: DFA-ers Tim Goldsworthy (previously of Mo’ Wax triphop group U.N.K.L.E.) and James Murphy (former drummer with Brooklyn neo-No Wave outfit Speedking) helped the Rapture discover the beat, and the beat reshaped the Rapture’s angular guitars and yelpy vocals in intriguing new ways. Drummer Vito Roccoforte mutated into a funky Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Mattie Safer played with newly commanding bounce on the bottom end, and singer-guitarist Luke Jenner found his stranglings of both his instruments quite properly pushed to the front. The result was something that could move the punk rockers’ feet at the same time it made the dance kids mosh.
Within a year, the Rapture was hearing next-big-thing whispers and being courted by the majorsand the DFA was establishing a house-brand sound and style on its own start-up label. The next year saw DFA Records release one terrific, buzz-building 12-inch single after another, including work by Black Dice, LCD Soundsystem, and Le Tigrebut none bigger than the Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers,” a genuine up-from-the-underground dance hit and as definitive a moment as any in the latest wave of New York City postpunk.
The band’s new LP, Echoes, wisely includes a version of that pumping-on-all-cylinders track, a song that at once recalls the seminal sounds of A Certain Ratio and Liquid Liquid yet is utterly, insistently, right-about-now new-sounding. The instrumentation is perpetually in motion, passing the ball from Jenner’s swinging, screeching vocals and stabbing guitar to Safer’s
bubbling-up bass to Roccoforte’s
nimble percussion. It also shows off the DFA’s now-well-known expertise in shaping a song at the mixing desk: Different instruments drop in and out and rise up and down as if they were played by jazz soloists, and the use of negative space is just about perfect.
“The Coming of Spring” takes the same stock-in-trade elementsdrunken-knife-fight guitars, urgent bass, and galloping drumsand flips the rock-dance quotient. Here Jenner’s paranoid stammer, Safer’s big, hooky bass, and Roccoforte’s roughshod riding of the cymbals follow a Joy Division-written script for tetchy exhilaration. “These obser-ma-vations/Are mah-ma-ma, mah-ma-ma/Muh-ma-ma-ma-mine,” Jenner proclaims, and his conviction is such that you’re inclined to forget all about Ian Curtis and just frickin’ believe him.
The band’s on solid ground there, but when keys and synths are reintroduced for the first time since Mirror, the results are more, well, mixed. “Olio,” for example, reinterprets a song from that album in a slicker but not much better incarnation. And “I Need Your Love” is full-on synth-pop with sax distressing, courtesy of new recruit Gabe Andruzzi, but it serves mainly to remind the listener how central Jenner’s mostly absent guitar is to the Rapture’s appeal. Of the synth-based numbers, only “Sister Savior” succeeds. Cold and bouncy where the band usually sounds hot and bothered, this sleek, hand-clap-driven bit of poison recalls the late-night loucheness of Roxy Music (or at least Duran Duran): “He was sipping from a bottle/On his forehead read the motto/’If I drink myself to death/At least I know I had a good time.’”
It’s a catchy enough tune, yet it ultimately seems a bit of a put-on. The more straightforwardly rockin’ “Love Is All” could be, too, but its joyfulness sounds more genuine than “Sister Savior”‘s schadenfreude, and as a musical change of pace, it’s a more suitable choice for the band. It won’t surprise anyone who dug the wholly Who-ish riff on Out of the Races’ “The Pop Song,” but “Love Is All” could pass for a Pete Townshend-penned number, matching a gutsy guitar lead with heart-on-sleeve declarations: “Love is all my crippled soul will ever need/And time will take a bigger part, a part of me/But your love, yeah, your love is all I need.”
That there are clear traces of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell in there as well demonstrates not only the Rapture’s MO, but also its appeal: Almost maddeningly, the band manages to sound absolutely new and fresh at the same time it pays homage to any number of classic influences. Most noticeably, Jenner is a dead fucking ringer for the Cure’s Robert Smith, especially in full-caterwaul mode. And if David Bowie hears as much of “Five Years” in the Rapture’s “Open Up Your Heart” as I do, Jenner & Co. may wind up with a lawsuit on their hands.
But the band will beat the rap for petty pilfering as long as it continues to recontextualize its influences as often and as well as it does here. Sure, “Heaven” may start off sounding like the Cure, but it ends up breaking down into a fug of drum-and-saxophone skronk. “Love Is All” rides its Who homage off into a dubby sunset, and the title track abruptly shifts from funk-punk precision to spazzcore freakout. You could attribute moves like that to the influence of Goldsworthy and Murphy, but the Rapture would sound pretty good without them, too: Despite his Smithly stylings, Jenner uses his voice well, often more for textural or rhythmic effect than anything else. And the way his distinctive guitar-playing tangles the ever-more-authoritative rhythm section offers really the best definition of the band.
As a test case for the hype, Echoes is tough to interpret: It contains both the Rapture’s best work to date and some less-than-successful experiments. The overall impression is that of a young band learning on the jobwhich, I suppose, is to the credit of everyone involved: The Rapture already got lucky. Now it’s working hard.
If the Rapture is both the DFA’s prize creation and its cash cow, Compilation #1 makes a strong case that Goldsworthy and Murphy are more interested in art than commerce. Representing six single releases from last year plus new tracks from the Rapture and Black Dice, the collection more than establishes the team’s downtown bona fides. Yes, “Jealous Lovers” is on here, but it’s one of the disc’s more conventional cuts.
The least dance-oriented of the bunch, Black Dice are a former hardcore band that, when partnered with the DFA, discovered it had a genius for beautifully dissonant sound sculpture. The musical trip of “Endless Happiness” begins with Japanese woodwinds and chimes, gets into some heavy kodo-drumming action, and then blisses out to the sound of lapping waves some 15 minutes later. Somehow, it seems perfectly paced every second of the way.
Rounding out the comp are Murphy’s own LCD Soundsystem and the Juan Maclean, led by former Six Finger Satellite member John Maclean. Both of these guys, as Murphy’s hilarious, head-bobbing “Losing My Edge” has it, “sold [their] guitars and bought turntables.”
The song can be enjoyed simply as a comedic monologue, with the refrain “I was there” becoming a punch line to increasingly ridiculous name- and scene-dropping: “I was there at the first Can show/In Cologne/…the first Suicide practices, in a loft, in New York City/I was working on the organ sounds/…when Captain Beefheart started up his first band/I told him, ‘Don’t do it that wayyou’ll never make a dime.’” But the steady-building techno beats keep taking on weight, building to a rocktronic explosion of guitars, synths, and drums and a shouted honor roll of artists known to those in the know: “This Heat, Pere Ubu…Nation of Ulysses, Mars…the Germs, Section 25…Electric Prunes, Gil Scott Heron…the Fire Engines …the Sonics…”
That Murphy knows exactly which names to dropincluding, naturally, “the Black Dice”makes the track one of the funniest dance-rock numbers you’ll hear this year. That he and Goldsworthy are making use of this knowledge to create some drop-worthy sounds of their ownwell, that’s something serious. CP
The Rapture performs at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 2, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.