Release Date: Sep 16, 2014
Record label: DFA
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
The Juan MacLean is back on the dance music grid with In A Dream, their first full-length album release in five years. John MacLean and LCD Soundsystem's Nancy Whang make up the duo, and they make one seriously dynamic team. In A Dream explores the best of both their worlds; MacLean's post-punk hardcore roots mixed with a deep understanding of disco and Whang's dance-punk, indie background complement each other well.
It's been nine years since The Juan Maclean's debut album and 12 since the eerie, acidic electro of their debut single, By The Time I Get To Venus. With their third album, In A Dream, it's becoming increasingly clear that The Juan Maclean are in it for the long haul. Always rounded out by a rotating cast of players—this time including their touring drummer Jim Orso, Alex Frankel of Holy Ghost! and Midnight Magic's keyboardist Morgan Wiley—the group is still centered around its core duo: John Maclean and Nancy Whang.Maclean has spoken in interviews about wanting to hone his songwriting into more traditional pop formats, following the sprawling, kraut-indebted house of his debut album, Less Than Human.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. The Juan Maclean is the project of John Maclean, a Rhode Islander who produces fantastic electronic music for the New York dance-punk label DFA Records. Five years ago the group (featuring Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem) released the wonderful The Future Will Come, a sprawling disco-funk odyssey that drew influences from The Human League and other such British new wave artists as well as taking inspiration from the Detroit techno scene.
In 2014, dance music is arguably more popular than ever. With the house revival led by Disclosure and the wildly successful euphoric Ibiza pop of Calvin Harris, not to mention the US’ wholesale embrace of what they have termed EDM, electronic music artists are finding more and more opportunities for exposure and success. John Maclean, aka The Juan Maclean, isn’t happy though.
During a five-year break between albums, the Juan MacLean's John MacLean kept himself busy with remixes, DJ'ing, and working on his Peach Melba side project, while partner Nancy Whang's dance card was filled by LCD Soundsystem duties as well as guesting on roughly half the dance-pop records released during that span. When they reconvened to work on the JM's third album, 2014's In a Dream, they brought something a little different to their approach. Along with the trance-inducing neo-disco, left-field house, and dance-punk influences, this time out there is a very strong debt to various kinds of '80s electronic music that goes a little deeper than the Moroder they love so much.
DFA Records stalwarts the Juan MacLean (Juan MacLean and frequent collaborator Nancy Whang) open their first proper long-player in five years with A Place Called Space - a proggy, Moroderesque epic with a dramatic introduction that turns wistfully reflective as outer space becomes a metaphor for inner emotional emptiness. It's a good primer for what's to come: studiously produced synth jams infused with melancholic New Romanticism and mixed with rock 'n' roll bombast. Best known for club singles like Happy House, MacLean has always been more house-/techno-oriented than his disco-obsessed DFA labelmates, and In A Dream plays like dance music for fans of prog rock.
In a Dream is a strange beast—The Juan MacLean has been on DFA since some of the New York label's earliest days, and yet their newest release feels almost like the sudden, indelible debut of a talented new artist. This is rooted in the fact that The Juan MacLean is now a duo, with LCD Soundsystem-alumna Nancy Whang joining John MacLean as a full-time member and in many ways his new frontwoman. Though Whang had guested on plenty of Juan MacLean tracks in the past, her more sustained presence seems to have contributed to a version of The Juan MacLean that the project perhaps always wanted to be.
The DFA throne has been up for the taking since James Murphy stepped down from the top perch. The Rapture split up, Holy Ghost! failed to step up by revisiting 2005 indie with their fizzy second album, 2013’s Dynamics, Shit Robot released a fantastic album earlier this year, We Got A Love, while Factory Floor were pre-occupied making a new kind of electro that pretends to be techno by dismissing the big room sounds of the former and fusing it with a kind of Berghain influenced sweat pit minimalism. All good, but none of them reaching that infamous ‘hit’ status.
Juan MacLean represents something of an archetype DFA artist: a reformed indie rocker who immersed himself in synth gadgetry and surrendered to the groove. He typifies the behind-the-scenes, slave-to-the-music vibe from which so much dance music springs, and like any great dance artist, Maclean's best work has come via his singles ("Happy House", "You Are My Destiny"). If James Murphy was the quarterback of the DFA roster, then Maclean was the president of the AV club.
John MacLean, core of the evolving dance-punk project The Juan Maclean, has changed a lot due to various influences and big circumstantial changes. His post-hardcore band Six Finger Satellite broke up. He went back to school and taught English. He maintained a close friendship with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, whose influence eventually pushed MacLean back into the world of music, specifically dance-punk.
It’s been more than a decade now since former Six Finger Satellite guitarist John MacLean, at the urging of his friend James Murphy, began releasing singles on a small label Murphy had started called DFA Records. Even if you had somehow predicted DFA’s evolution into the cultural juggernaut it is today, it’s unlikely you would have pegged the man behind the electro-funk kitsch of “By the Time I Get to Venus” to have 12 years and counting of staying power. But here he is, joined by fellow DFA veterans Nancy Whang and Nick Milhiser under the Juan MacLean moniker, with In a Dream, the project’s first proper album in five years.
Disco as interpreted by the guitar and keys player from Six Finger Satellite has sometimes been a slightly grungy affair. Cloying sleep aids tugged at the little black number and threatened to turn it into a nightshirt. When it works though, as at times here, the musicality of years in an accomplished band lifts kicking heels to float off and chug in lucid nodland to endless Giorgio Moroder riffs.
The Juan MacLean have always fostered a great love for early electronic styles, and they’ve shown it over the years through their complex arrangements of disco, house, and electropop that somehow manage to sound neither dated nor trite. For an electronic artist, timelessness is a precious gift, especially considering that the definitive sound of any given era is directly related to the available technology at the time, but the Juan MacLean have that gift, even if they don’t always show it off. However, on the duo’s latest album, In a Dream, they’ve taken a less nuanced approach to their homage to pop music’s past, a choice which fails not only their music, but even the music they’ve chosen to emulate.
The press release announcing In A Dream suggested an alternate title for The Juan MacLean’s third proper album: “The Nancy Show.” It was playing up the contributions of Nancy Whang, one half of The Juan MacLean—along with the band’s namesake John MacLean—and a former LCD Soundsystem member. She’s been working with MacLean since the very beginning, often sharing vocal duties and trading verses. On the duo’s latest outing, though, Whang is front and center, right down to her glamour shot on the album cover (where the only trace of MacLean is an obsidian mannequin head that kinda looks like him).
Given the emotional warmth, comparative looseness and less programmed feel of this third album by The Juan Maclean, the title of the act's first LP from 2005, Less Than Human, becomes somewhat interesting. That album, without much of the playful disco-funk that defined second album The Future Will Come and now In A Dream, today sounds almost brutal in its druggy, abrasive dance music. Perhaps songwriter John Maclean has profoundly changed, as his increasingly sweet use of melody, lyrics that often err towards syrupy, and rhythms that extract the most ecstatic aspects of Chicago house and jettison its moodier elements, ensure In A Dream sounds unflinchingly human.
The Juan MacLean – In A Dream (DFA)Beyond the overlapping personnel and history, The Juan MacLean and LCD Soundsystem share a stance with regards to pop. They love it. And they love it without irony, despite their long background in indie. Both projects have reveled in accessibility, yet stay just hip and curatorial enough to keep listeners feeling in the know.