I’ve been listening to a lot of electronic music lately. It’s something I go back to often.
And this got me thinking how far music made with computers and with synthesizers, as opposed to guitar, has really come. Because synth music is often associated with the cold, unfeeling or overly abstract (Eno’s Ambient work, Kraftwerk), with vapid, hedonistic dance (Giorgio Moroder’s seminal disco such as “I Need ” with Donna Summer), with pop smaltz (Wham!), or misery/fear (Industrial, the Cure, Depeche Mode, horror movie soundtracks), it has rarely satisfied contemplative types. Up until recently it was hard to find electronic music with the same universal depth or intelligent soul as, say, a Built to Spill record. Or the political anger of a Gang of Four record.
But in the last few years that has changed significantly, as synth-based music has become as varied in genre, as prolific, and with as much “indie” appeal as music made with drums, bass, and guitars.
I –and every other music snob/dork who gets a little turned on by a Moog– chock this up to the very important and LONG overdue marriage of punk and disco. This is a movement which happened in the marginal underground in the 70’s/very early 80’s (Joy Division in the UK, Suicide in New York, early industrial throughout Europe, the German “krautrockers”). But it only solidified itself above ground in the last few years.
The recent advent of disco punk on college and then into mainstream radio has spawned a lot of shit (The Killers????). Btu some of it is really, really good, much of which we have to thank James Muprhy, aka LCD Soundsystem. No one has done more to marry indie rock to dance music, imbuing it with intelligence, emotion, wit, and cultural critique. Not merely has Murphy put out some stellar singles (“Yeah,” “Losing my Edge”) and two fantastic albums (the recent Sound of Silverand self titled from 2005), but he is the co-founder of DFA records. Founded less than ten years ago, DFA has in that short time put the “disco punk” sound on the map with bands like the Rapture, Black Dice, and Hot Chip (to name a few). If you go to a downtown bar on a Friday night in New York or anywhere “edgy” in a major American city, you’ll hear a DFA track.
Murphy was once—and I like to believe still is—quite humble. I met Murphy briefly at the Tribeca Grand in 2004. Unlike The Rapture dudes who fit the “hipster” image, or any those guys with bad asymmetrical haircuts in bands like Adult or VHS or Beta, Murphy was really normal and actually kind of dorky looking. He looked, well, like an aging skater. Not at all what one associates with “disco” but also the kind of guy that has the best record collection this side of Berlin. He was also very sweet.
The thing about Murphy’s own music, as LCD Soundsystem, is that it is lyrically astute. His early single “Losing my Edge” is not merely a great dance track, but brilliant tongue-in-cheek. These lyrics—declared in his atonal and nasal voice—reference what’s it like to be an aging hipster whose ideas are now being used by kids from a new generation. He name checks all the dance music phenomenons of the last 30 years, from Can (“I was there/ At the first Can show/ In Cologne”) to the Ibiza trance scene “I woke up on a beach/Naked/ In Ibi-tha…”and yeah, he even mimics the Barcelona accent) to playing “Daft Punk to the rock kids” (“I played it a CBGB’s. Everyone thought it was craaazy.”). He satirizes these early hipsters who claim to be a guy who “was there” and “had everything before everyone.” These association claims are hilarious for those who are in the know—“I was there in 1974/the first Suicide practices/in a loft in New York City/I was working the organ sounds.” Murphy then goes into a rap of sort, naming off all the cool musicians who he has in his record collection, which is the main weapon of the dj—“The Germs…Joy Division…Rahim and Eric B….the Slits…the Soft Cell, The Sonics (repeat).” The irony is that he fully acknowledges that he only has this claim to fame by owning their records (not actually making the music).
“Losing Me Edge” by LCD Soundsystem
Not only is this song a satirical feast, it also playfully apes the seminal Le Tigre track “Hot Topic,” released a few years earlier. “Hot Topic” is a rollicking feminista! disco. It names off a load of Women’s Studies heros against a simple but infectious dance beat. Murphy’s “Losing My Edge” is, at least to my musical mind, a reconstructuring of Le Tigre’s feminist anthem. He uses the EXACT same structure (with slightly fancier equipment) and reconfigures the shout out style to articulate his own ode to all the people who made him cool. Whereas Le Tigre is totally sincere, Murphy uses the same structure to show how such sincerity can made null by coolness’s painfully short shelf life.
“Hot Topic” by Le Tigre, live 2005
“Losing my Edge” was released back in 2002. It was only the beginning of Murphy’s fantastic post DJ life. “Someone Great”, off his latest album The Sound of Silver, is beyond satire and back to a sincerity, a very adult sincerity. It’s about losing someone you love and what it’s like to find that out suddenly. It has moved me beyond any other dance track and possibly any other track at all this last year—and I’m not alone. A few months back I sat in my apartment with a friend and in the midst of a deep conversation about loss, I said, “Hey, do you know that LCD Soundsystem song?” And she knew exactly what I meant before I even said the name. She looked in my eyes and said, “That is the most truthful song I’ve ever heard about loosing someone.” And it is.
As I deal with yet another loss in my life, I keep coming back to it. “The worst is the lovely weather/I’m stunned it’s not raining.” These lyrics are perpetuated by a steady beat and the lyrical refrain “And it keeps coming/and it keeps coming/till the day it stops.” It articulates all the fear, pain, and questioning you feel when someone you think is great is no longer on earth.
Dance music is not just about feeling the beat. It can also be about feeling your life–from the political to the sardonic to the very tragic.
“Someone Great” LCD Soundsystem