Review: LCD Soundsystem’s “This Is Happening”

May 24, 2010 11:34am

Quite frankly, I’m not so sure I buy into the notion that LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy is the new bard of hip.  Sure, all of his albums are decent (including this one) but are they really classic?  Is he really doing something that bands like !!! and Radio 4 haven’t attempted before?  I suppose one could argue with his remixing/producing duo the DFA (with Tim Goldsworthy) Murphy has had a finger on the pulse, shaping a sector of modern dance music.  One could also look at what Murphy has done with electronic music and liken it to the punks who ruled New York in the late seventies.  Perhaps these LCD Soundsystem records are indeed classics.  We won’t really know until 15 years from now.  If kids are still revering Murphy then, then all the hype will be worth it.  Until then, the verdict is out.  Part of me seems to think that the hipster tastemakers have clung a little too hardly to Murphy.  He is worthy to some degree, but he’s no musical god.  His records are interesting but they are not quite masterpieces.  But the people who champion Murphy are the same ones who champion bands like MGMT and Vampire Weekend.  There’s a breed of tastemakers who aim to shove these bands down your throat in the name of maintaining some sort of cool cred.  Never mind if the records they champion are good.  The Dirty Projectors, for instance, are unlistenable. Phoenix used to be a good band when they had a funky side.  Check out their 2004 album, “Alphabetical,” where they sound a little like a cross between the Beta Band and N.E.RD. and compare it to “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” from last year.  The latter is downright boring in comparison.  But this hipster movement has no ear for what’s actually good.  They just want new bands to champion.  There are probably a lot of poseurs out there championing bands like Phoenix as “new.”  They’ve been together 15 years and have done four albums!  The same people who champion bands like Phoenix as the big, new crossover sensations champion James Murphy.  That same crowd, back in 2003 raved about The Rapture’s album, “Echoes,” a DFA produced collection of punk-infused disco.  To this day, I think “Echoes” is one of the most over-rated records of the last decade.  If that record was indeed the future of dance music, it’s a sad future indeed.  On his own LCD Soundsystem records, Murphy’s praise has been slightly less puzzling.  His most hyped singles, however tend in my opinion not be his best work.  I’ve always found “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” to be rather tedious and a little too engineered and pedestrian to be a true spontaneous party jam.  To some this song is downright anthemic.  From the first LCD Soundsystem record, I much prefer the groovier “Tribulations.”  Also from that first record, “Losing My Edge” has long been championed, but I find it a little too detached.  Sure, I guess it is cool in its own strange way, but it’s as if it’s aiming to be too hip for its own good.  Murphy seems set to prove his cool and he does so by namedropping in such a deadpan, mannered way.  Ironically, this track in particular is meant to lampoon the very regimented hipster culture that has openly embraced Murphy.  He mocks those in the quest for the next big sound when he says, “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.  I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars. I hear that everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody I know.”  I suppose this track is brilliant in the way that Murphy unapologetically bites the hand that feeds him and in turn gets nothing but love in return. It’s a targeted slap at hipster one-upsmanship. On his second record, “Sound of Silver,” “North American Scum” was seen as the song to hear, but I much prefer the New Order-esque groove of “Someone Great.”  There’s something to love on each one of Murphy’s records, but it’s not necessarily the big “singles.
“This Is Happening” is quite possibly Murphy’s most consistently satisfying record, but it is at times somewhat uneven, continuing the trend of its predecessors.  Opener, “Dance Yrself Clean” is easily the strongest and best tune Murphy has ever conjured and every second is worthy of its nearly nine-minute length. Murphy is still overly self aware, but he manages to get in a few smart jabs.  Like an outside observer at a party, he dryly sings, “Talking like a jerk except you are an actual jerk and living proof that sometimes friends are mean.  Present company expect it. Present company just laugh it off.  It better than it seems.”  Again, the deadpan detachment is used as a device by Murphy.  Here it works in his favor.  It helps that the song itself has a catchy tune.  The track also possesses an appealing quiet/loud/quiet dynamic.  When it takes off, it explodes, wonderfully.  “Dance Yrself Clean,” though will probably be overshadowed though by the much weaker, “Drunk Girls,” the most obviously engineered single.  It’s the weakest song on the disc and designed simply to add life to sleepy frat parties.  It’s cheap.  Like “Daft Punk Is Playing Is Playing At My House,” it comes off as a vacant track.  Although it does possess a punked-up bounce, that isn’t enough to save it from ridiculous lyrics like, “Drunk girls wait an hour to pee.”  I will say that this song is much better on the album, separated from its obnoxious music video.  (Quite possibly the most annoying piece of work the normally on point Spike Jonze has ever directed.  Are those people dressed like pandas??!!)  It’s  blatantly trashy.  Not in the good way. “One Touch” is like the cold love child of Joy Division and the Human League.  It works as a dark eighties flashback and stands as a highlight.  “All I Want” wants to be Murphy’s attempt at crowd-pleasing arena rock.  It works at first, but its guitar line after a few minutes turns it into a woozy, hypnotic mess.  If this song were remixed and shortened, it would be decent.  Murphy’s voice is too low in the mix and overwhelmed by the rest of the sound on the track.  “I Can Change” returns us to eighties nostalgia.  It’s appealing, as if Murphy spent hours studying and imitating electro-clash hits from that era.  It works.  The results lie somewhere between Kraftwerk and Peter Schilling. “You Wanted A Hit” is almost as striking at “Dance Yrself Clean.”  It takes more than three minutes for Murphy’s vocals to come in.  Before that, the song has an exquisite slow build.  It sounds like an extended remix of something that might have been on the Cure’s “Japanese Whispers” EP.  Again, like “Dance Yrself Clean,” this track clocks in at around nine minutes and makes the best use of every second.  Murphy declares, “You wanted a hit.  But maybe we don’t do hits.”  This is either a bid for more hipster cred or a potential stab at people telling him he needs to shorten his songs and aim for pop radio.  Since I’ve heard nothing about Murphy getting pressure to do the latter, I can only assume it’s an attempt to earn brownie points with the skinny-jeaned crowds in Williamsburg.  Either way, against all odds, this song works.  “Pow Pow,” on the other hand plays like a weaker “Losing My Edge.”  As an observer at a party, Murphy babbles on like a madman about what he sees “from this position.” He speaks the whole way through.  Setting up contrasting parameters he repeatedly declares that there are “advantages to both.”  All the cowbells and conga drums in the world can’t save this from being awkward, self-serving, transparent nonsense.  “Somebody’s Calling Me” is somewhat monotonous with its repetitive two note piano line.  It goes nowhere and ultimately drives to put its listeners to sleep.  The odd synths in the chorus simply annoy and don’t add anything positive to the mix.  Is this really worth nearly seven minutes of time? Luckily, Murphy ends the album at a high point.  “Home” shows him at the peak of his powers.  It’s another woozy disco trance which morphs into a quite satisfying song.  In fact, I would argue that this would make a great single as well.  It’s a party anthem for the upset and disenfranchised.  Murphy sings, “So grab your things and stumble into the night.  So we can shut the door, shut the door on terrible times.”  Great party songs should make you forget your fears and troubles.  Thus, this songs succeeds.. Yes,   Murphy is being shoved down our throats by the tastemakers.  He’s being touted as an innovator even though the jury is still out. “This Is Happening” is ultimately a good record.  Its weak spots keep it from being a great one..  I suppose it could be worse.  At least he’s not using Autotune! 

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