Saturday, 5 March 2011

Artist Top Tens: LCD Soundsystem

Welcome to Artist Top Tens, a feature I'm thinking of doing regularly, where I get a chance to go all nerdy over some of my favourite artists of the past and choose ten songs that I enjoy the most, and give the best idea of what they're all about and have to offer.

Having recently announced their farewell I thought the first artist I ought to cover in this new feature is James Murphy's dance punk juggernaut LCD Soundsystem. James Murphy is an ace musician, producer, and co-founder of the mighty DFA Records, and with his musical outlet LCD Soundsystem they changed the way music and it's associated cultures of the new millenium are percieved. The band's three studio albums: LCD Soundsystem (2005), Sound of Silver (2007), and This Is Happening (2010) show the sharpness of Murphy's social awareness, musical knowledge, wit, humour and taste, each one an essential piece of 21st Century cultural history and the western condition, and drawing on virtually all the great art rock, post punk and New Wave musicians to exemplify these observations. Here are the top ten songs (imo), in order of release:

"Losing My Edge" (from LCD Soundsystem, single released July 2002)

This is one of those songs, the ones that could be analysed and discussed endlessly, however we still have nine to go. And the song has been talked about by others in lengthy detail elsewhere, especially in 2002, when LCD decided it would become their first single. It could be said to mark either the birth or death of hipster culture, depending on your viewpoint; it at least took on the issue in new and interesting ways, not only in song form, but more noticeably from a lyrical viewpoint. Murphy, himself constantly mentioning his awareness of his age in interviews, parodies the aged rocker by playing the aged indie kid, proudly reminiscing on his ever-so-slightly invented past: e.g. "I was there when Captain Beefheart started up his first band. I told him, 'Don't do it that way. You'll never make a dime.'". Cut to the end, where he ends up pushing his love of obscure retro bands in the way music is often talked about even today, by unleashing a fury of name-dropping and referencing, warning his younger peers just how foolish they can seem to the outside world. Oh, and the music’s quality too.

"Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" (from LCD Soundsystem, single released February 2005)

It’s three years since you put out your first single, and since then you’ve released several more to equal or near-equal acclaim, showing yourself to be amongst the most capable in your field, and building the anticipation for your debut album to near dizzying levels. So you compile your already successful tracks into some kind of order, with maybe one or two gems you’ve been saving just for the occasion, right? Well, not LCD. Their self-titled album came with not one but two CD’s: Disc One being an entirely new album of material, with the singles compiled on the second disc. The first track of the new record, the gleefully titled "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" remains one of the bands’ most instantly recognisable and successful, reaching #1 on the British Dance Chart and earning them a Grammy nomination. The song’s name and video explain really all there is to know: the lifestyle of house parties for the indie generation, playing on the joke that Daft Punk is the only dance music they ever listen to. But now that’s no longer true (if it ever was), they listen to LCD Soundsystem too…

"Tribulations" (from LCD Soundsystem, single released September 2005)

One of the first LCD songs to deal with interpersonal relationships which are addressed so well on the latter two albums, James Murphy adopts the warm, synthetic approach for "Tribulations", which is less reliant on music of the past and more in keeping with the present day, 2005 sound LCD helped shape. The immediate club appeal of the warm, bassy synths, crisp, electronic beats and layered guitars are down to the song’s much sleeker production and mix, that contemporaries Yeah Yeah Yeahs wouldn’t manage until much later. Not to say Murphy isn’t great at producing of course, rather he often prefers a more haggard, rough-and-ready way. It works in the song’s favour lyrically also. Instead of hurling abuse at his addressee he calmly sneers from the moral high ground, perfectly aware of having being treated like an object. He also blames himself with clever double-edged swords such as "everybody makes mistakes/but it’s always mine that keep on sticking". His voice carries his passion which raises as the song approaches it’s end. The video is also fantastic.

"Someone Great" (from Sound of Silver, single released October 2007)

The second LCD LP, Sound of Silver, was sleeker and more mature than LCD Soundsystem, with Murphy leaving the influences at home and concentrating on providing a great modern album. The softest LCD track, Someone Great is one of two great explorations of human emotion on the album, though it’s meaning is purposefully vague: is it about death, or a failed relationship, or something else? Murphy attempts to grasp his emotions, focusing on details such as the weather to reassert himself. But it’s not too long before he’s back in his state of regret, guilt and woe, repeating the words "and it keeps coming till the day it stops". This is more of a sit-down listen to be totally appreciated, the loss of structure is represented by the loss of non-electronic instruments, save for a childlike glockenspiel, but by the end the song is fully realised and complete, and Murphy learns to accept "that someone great is gone".

"New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down" (from Sound of Silver)

"New York" is the track that closes Sound of Silver. Initially it starts as a simple piano ballad, but on closer listen subdued electronics underneath build tension, often making firework-like sounds.  The rest of the band soon turn up, one by one, as Murphy describes his dualistic relationship with the city, crystallised in the line "But you’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown". Eventually the song crescendos as distorted guitars and drums crash, and Murphy wails over them. This "after the show" type of closing track sounds somewhere between Lou Reed’s "Goodnight Ladies" from Transformer, and "Bring It On Home" from Led Zeppelin II and is hardly an original idea, but it’s fury and uniqueness within LCD's canon make it stand out.

"All My Friends" (from Sound of Silver, single released May 2007)

The second "sit-down-and-think dance" track if you followed me from earlier, "All My Friends" immediately follows "Someone Great" on Sound of Silver, bridging a highly emotional centrepiece for the album. The themes of the song include the humdrum of everyday life, isolation, coming of age, and failure for the real world to meet ones expectations. The messy opening piano chords carry the song way past the seven minute mark: an imperfect, incessant drone which is the basis for the linear track. The drama makes way for an empathetic guitar solo but the real focus is on Murphy as the music video shows: even as the camera zooms out to reveal the band, Murphy remains it’s focus. The song has found itself covered by Franz Ferdinand and no less than the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, however try as they might neither can surpass James Murphy’s original. There are as many great quotable lyrics here as there are on "Losing My Edge" and in many ways the song readdresses the issues found there, namely separation from an unsympathetic world. For me the best line here has to be the last, "If I could see all my friends tonight", with it’s obscurity of meaning and definition. Like the piano this choice may be mundane in it’s predictability but remains one of the few constants of this list.

"Drunk Girls" (from This Is Happening, single released May 2010)

 James Murphy announced at the start of last year that the third LCD record, This Is Happening, would likely be the band’s last, but that disheartening  statement carried a silver lining in the dropping of the first single "Drunk Girls", which followed in the footsteps of the previous two first album singles "Daft Punk" and "North American Scum" in being fun, anarchic and simple in structure and subject. The two syllable hook is "borrowed" from the Velvet Underground’s "White Light/White Heat" (a recurring theme of the album, more on that later), and it’s surprising how this chugging rhythm hasn’t been revived sooner. The one-note piano remains to drive the point home even further. My favourite lyric this time (again out of many) is "Drunk girls know love is an astronaut, it comes back but it’s never the same". The madness and hilarity are exemplified by the brilliant music video directed by Spike Jonze, who seems to think owning the band with pandas is the best way of expressing Murphy’s  intentions. Which it like, totally is.

"Dance Yrself Clean" (from This Is Happening)

It took me a while to get around to listening to This Is Happening for whatever reason, but from the moment I pressed play I was completely blown away by this track. "Dance Yrself Clean" opens the album over nine minutes which seem to pass by like a radio hit. Odd handclaps and percussion and analog synthesizer sounds alongside Murphy’s calm vocal only build on the excitement. He knows you know it’s a build to something bigger, and just past the 3 minute mark it delivers, with addition of more driven moog parts, acoustic drums, soaring vocal, and most importantly volume (my perceptions of it being a purposefully low mix were more than a little off the mark). I’m not aware of any song this is emulating, except for maybe a slight Talking Heads vibe, but that may only be in the vocal. It seems to be more retrospective of a time rather than a piece, the album certainly sounded more eighties than it’s predecessor. A change for the band then, and one that served them well.

"I Can Change" (from This Is Happening, single released July 2010)

"I can change, I can change, I can change, I can change," James Murphy protests, being the one on his knees for once. And he almost breaks your heart when he follows it up with "If it helps you fall in love". "I Can Change" is less of an ode to 80’s synthpop more than it is a fully-fledged 6-minute slice of it, sounding buoyant and unashamed in it’s intent. For someone who writes many of his songs about growing up and becoming old, James Murphy shows an unusual naivety as he makes that untellable promise. Despite the apparent sophistication someone may appear to have, they will always fall back on their old lines as a defence mechanism behind closed doors. It sounds as if Murphy’s said those three words time and again, which makes the song more tragic. Despite this the song becomes an anthem for those who’ve tried their hardest to hold onto someone, much like the song which shares it’s twinkling chorus, and could viably prelude, Blondie’s "Heart Of Glass".

"All I Want" (from This Is Happening)

 If you try to establish a moral from LCD’s first single (and first song on this list) "Losing My Edge", you may come to the conclusion that modern day musicians ought to stop relying on emulating the musicians of the past and instead attempt to create something original. Yet "All I Want" doesn’t just subtly hint at an old gem, it’s virtually an entire reworking of that gem. Which is a courageous move in itself, until you discover said gem turns out to be David Bowie’s "Heroes" , which is a song more timid musicians would consider too sacred to attempt. But this isn’t the only case of such on This Is Happening: we’ve already found the tune behind “Drunk Girls”, but it’s also safe to say that "Home" does a little more than just reference the Talking Heads’ "Naive Melody" ; and hey doesn’t "Somebody’s Calling Me" remind you a little of Iggy Pop’s "Nightclubbing"? Has James Murphy gone back on his word and hoped no-one would notice? Well of course not, LCD are back in social commentary mode again, making This Is Happening perhaps the biggest statement of confusion of the modern times in recent music. “All I Want” is far less than heroic: the chorus’s "All I want is your pity/All I want are your bitter tears" gives Bowie’s original a whole new perspective, especially when Murphy’s voice is lost amongst the screeching slide guitar and sour analog synths, along with his plea "Take me hooome!". Just what that means anymore in this context is anyone’s guess.

Final Comments: LCD Soundsystem really were one of the key bands and true observers of pop culture, and will undoubtedly be remembered as a part of the culture they documented and helped to shape. It’s unknown what the future holds for James Murphy, but my thoughts and hopes are that he will remain as a key figure of DFA Records, and go on to produce for those bands that he has expressed working with, namely Arcade Fire and Spoon. Having read just earlier today that Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has expressed interest in working with him the future could hold some really interesting music; likewise if Murphy decides to start another project. Even if he hangs up his gloves for good, we’ll still have been fortunate to have experienced the best part of ten years with such a great creative force. And I really did manage to write a whole LCD article without using the word cowbell.

Which songs are your favourite LCD Soundsystem tunes? Have I missed anything?

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