Monday, March 28, 2011

You Were There: The Complete LCD Soundsystem

March 28, 2011

You Were There: The Complete LCD Soundsystem


A-side of the DFA single "Movement"; 2004
From the album LCD Soundsystem; 2005
Written by James Murphy
James Murphy: vocals, guitar, percussion, programming, synthesizer, drums
Tyler Pope: bass
Rock's Next Big Thing in the early 2000s, at least in the eyes of the media, was... rock. The Vines, the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Hives graced magazine covers. In February 2003, Justin Timberlake could be seen wearing an MC5 T-shirt on the cover of Vibe; Jennifer Aniston wore one on an episode of "Friends". Rock, it seemed, was back.
James Murphy, naturally, was unimpressed. But rather than just complain like a typical curmudgeon (you know the type-- the ones who say "nonplussed" when they mean "unimpressed"), he decided to show them his idea of how garage-rock should really be done. "I was getting bored of all the [music press'] gabber-gabber about the new rock," he told XLR8R, in a 2005 interview with Pitchfork contributor Mark Pytlik. "I'm a huge rock fan, but wearing an MC5 shirt is not being in the MC5. For me, rock is not an outfit or a pose. I just thought, 'If I'm gonna complain about rock, I should make some.'"
In true rock spirit, Murphy wasted little time fussing over niceties. LCD Soundsystem's fourth single "was written in the shower, specifically for a show," Murphy told XLR8R. "I just really wanted a song that was a strict and silly electro song that could be done identically as a rock song, so it's basically the song twice. It was supposed to stop there, but I had fun layering ridiculous solos over it in the studio-- we ended up going with the most retarded one. That was only after we were done doing all these grandiose, really disgusting 'American Woman' triple-tracked solos."
"Movement" skewers the era's fashion-plate garage-rock twice: first by showing that buzzing synths and clapping drum machines could rock just as hard, and then by using live instruments to rock even harder in the song's thrashing second half. No wardrobe consultant required, either; Murphy appears to be self-deprecatingly describing himself when he refers to "a fat guy in a t-shirt doing all the singing." Of course, he saves plenty of sharper barbs for boring rock bands, tautologically decrying "a culture without the culture of all of the culture"-- a zinger by no means limited to its original targets.
It also helps that Murphy has a more esoteric record collection than many of the so-called new rock's practitioners. The song's stomping electronic beat recalls Suicide's "Ghost Rider", while the repeated phrase "I'm tapped-uh" appears with the exact same monotone over-pronunciation in the Fall's "Telephone Thing". ("The Fall are my Beatles," Murphy said in an old band bio. "So, rather than sound like Mick Jagger, I'd rather think about what I like and sound like Mark Smith.")
Next to "Give It Up" B-side "Tired", "Movement" stands as the most bellicose track in the self-consciously un-macho LCD Soundsystem catalog. "It's fun for me to go play with bands that are supposed to be really heavy and be heavier than them for like a minute and 14 seconds," Murphy said of "Movement" in Wire interview. The band would never record anything quite so heavy again; "There's no 'Movement', straight up," on Sound of Silver, Murphy acknowledged in Village Voice interview with Pitchfork staff writer Tom Breihan, and there wasn't one on This Is Happening, either. Rock, we hardly knew you. But for that minute and 14 seconds-- well, three minutes and four seconds, to be exact-- Murphy sure did.

"Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up"

From the album LCD Soundsystem; 2005
Written by James Murphy
Produced by the DFA
James Murphy: all instruments
After a handful of successful singles, Murphy set out to make sure the first disc of LCD Soundsystem's debut album felt like just that-- an album. "I wanted to make it album-y, meaning different tracks and different track lengths," he told The Wire. Nailed perfectly in an old band bio as "gently psychedelic and angelically sung," "Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up" definitely fits the bill. (Maybe too perfectly: Murphy later realized the songs on LCD Soundsystem were overly disparate; "I had been too precious about it," he told Earplug.)
"Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up" originates from a remarkable case of hard luck and, eventually, serendipity. "For about two and a half years I didn't have a home, so I lived in the studio," Murphy told XLR8R. "We were working on the Rapture record, and I would stay up at night and play the piano in the elevator, 'cause that's where the piano is. You could ride the elevator down to the basement and get lots of echo because it's open-topped or you could ride it up top and it's not that echo-y. I just wrote this song for myself at night; I write songs all the time and don't release them. We had recorded a song called 'Open Up Your Heart' for the Rapture LP and we worked really hard on the drum sound, bass sound, and vocal sound, and I was really excited about the way they sounded. So after they left at midnight, I made this song."
After finishing the song, Murphy says he noticed the descending guitar line's striking resemblance to "Dear Prudence", from the Beatles' White Album. "I thought it was funny and did a George Harrison guitar solo and then did a Paul McCartney bit-- it was like putting a big X through something that you've drawn," Murphy told XLR8R. "I had it on CD for friends, like, 'Here, this is what I made yesterday,' and Tim [Goldsworthy] was kind of insistent; he said it was cowardly not to put it out. I realized it would be a good challenge to see if I could make an album that it fits on, so that became another challenge."
By this point, the fact that an LCD Soundsystem song would bear similarities to another record should not have been unexpected. "I'm a bit of a Zelig," Murphy told London's Guardian in 2004. "I've always been a good imitator. I love music. But I'm just not that original." Nevertheless, it's still a pleasant surprise that he would borrow from a tune sung by John Lennon, particularly considering Rolling Stone once quoted Murphy-- out of context, to be fair-- as declaring, "John Lennon was an idiot!" In any event, "Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up" is hardly a straight Beatles rip. Its descending chord progression also hearkens back to "Ten Years Gone", from Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. The airily intoned lyrics-- dazed, confused, and horny-- are unsparing in their depiction of a narrator in weary denial about his dying relationship. Here was a man in need of a snooze button.

"New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down"

From the album Sound of Silver; 2007
Written by James Murphy, Pat Mahoney, and Tyler Pope
James Murphy: vocals, guitar, synthesizer
Justin Chearno: guitar
David Gold: viola
Amy Kimball: violin
Pat Mahoney: drums, percussion
Lorenza Ponce: violin
Tyler Pope: bass, guitar
Jane Scarpantoni: cello
Morgan Wiley: piano
New York City has always held a particular fascination for Murphy, a small-town kid who grew up about an hour south in Princeton Junction, N.J. Many of his biggest influences left their mark there: from the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol's Factory scene in the late 60s, to the disco heyday of Paradise Garage along with the punk and, later, post-punk bands at CBGB's in the late 70s, to the after-hours eclecticism at Danceteria in the early 80s, and on through to hip-hop's late-80s "golden age." Murphy always feels like he missed the city at its peak, he told The Guardian. "During my favorite era of music, I was too young or non-existent," he said. "When I look at 1968 to 74, watching everything getting turned upside down, and record companies run by weirdos, and genuinely strange music becoming hits..."
More than the music has changed. During the mid-70s, New York City came perilously close to bankruptcy. By the turn of the millennium, the city had transformed into a very different place: safer and wealthier, yes, but lacking the outlaw mystique from those years of cheap rent, rampant crime, and smoldering tenements. CBGB's became a high-end fashion boutique.
Murphy moved to New York City as a teenager in 1989, so he has enough perspective to appreciate what the city offers while also lamenting what he missed. "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down", then, is a brutally honest love song to the five boroughs, where "the boring collect-- I mean all disrespect" but "please don't change a thing." Over cabaret-style piano that builds to a glam-rock guitar crescendo, Murphy lists off his romantic object's every flaw and then decides, in the manner of tender balladeers from Billy Joel to Bruno Mars, she's perfect just the way she is. The resemblance to sentimental pop fluff is no accident. "With 'New York, I Love You,' I simply wanted to write a love song, but I hate love songs, so I wrote one to the city," Murphy told Earplug.
He elaborated further on his Gotham love affair in an interview with The Village Voice. "I think it's a really diverse, weird country filled with lots of weird people, but New York's the place where weird people have some actual power," he said. "And that's why I love it. It's the place where you can piss and moan, but you're never going to hear 'love it or leave it' here because being patriotic doesn't mean being retarded. It's just an irrelevance. I love New York. I super love New York. It is expensive and it is retarded and filled with assholes, and so's everywhere else. I just wouldn't live anyplace else. I don't see the need to make New York seem like it doesn't have things which make me want to shoot myself in the fucking face as a way of explaining that I love it. I don't see the point. I love it. It's my home."
As a subversion of a traditional love ballad by a New York artist known for edgier work, "New York, I Love You" can be seen as a descendant of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day", a shaky-voiced cabaret-style number that Murphy once called "maybe" his favorite song of all-time. A couple of years earlier, Murphy said, "It's kinda soul-crushing in a way to go listen to 'Perfect Day' and say, 'I'm gonna go write a song like that,' and it'll be fucking horrible by comparison." It's also impossible to escape the legacy of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York", another piano-based cabaret number that looks at the transplant culture of the city that never sleeps. There's a difference, though: If Murphy couldn't make it here, he wouldn't want to make it anywhere else.
Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in fall 2008, New York City has changed again, as the bubble that fueled some of the past decade's gentrification finally burst, if only for a few minutes. Other notable songs have gone on to take a critical look at the city, from Julian Casablancas' alienated 2009 solo cut "Ludlow St." to Gil Scott-Heron's harrowing "New York Is Killing Me". During live performances, LCD Soundsystem has been known to close "New York, I Love You" by quoting Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind", a choice that underscores the celebratory intentions beneath Murphy's deeply ambivalent power ballad. This is a song for anyone who persists in believing a glorious myth despite knowing full well the reality is far more mundane.
As different as "New York, I Love You" is from the album it concludes, it fits in seamlessly alongside "All My Friends" when it comes to its underlying theme. "I'll tell you the best thing [Allen] Ginsberg did for me," John Cale, speaking alongside Murphy, told The Guardian. "He came over to La Monte [Young]'s when we were rehearsing and I'd been in New York for like three months. I was very green. Very few people could understand what I was saying because I had a really thick Welsh accent. The first thing he said to me was, 'Have you got any friends?' And it was just like bam! All the air went out of me. He said, 'In New York the hardest thing is to find friends. You have to go out and physically hold on to them.' I remember that."

"Dance Yrself Clean"

From the album This Is Happening; 2010
Written by James Murphy
Produced by the DFA
Clean hands. Clean dishes. Clean coal. From purging the body of drugs to ridding a troubled relationship of emotional baggage, getting "clean" can have an awful lot of connotations. For LCD Soundsystem, the first track album-buyers would hear after Sound of Silver marks, at the very least, a clean break. Following the songs about growing older and losing touch with loved ones that dominated the previous LP, "Dance Yrself Clean" serves as a jarring introduction to a whole new set of themes, calling on listeners to revel in paranoia and neurosis. That sense of conflict extends to the music, which starts softly before jacking up the volume about three minutes in, sending anyone who had turned up the volume scrambling to dial it back down again. "I wanted to do these romantic songs where you're sort of blind to what's going on-- you're like the ignorant narrator," Murphy said of the album's desperate, yearning tone in an A.V. Club interview.
So, three years after Sound of Silver, where are your friends tonight? Over a simple two-chord vamp with conga drums, scattered percussion, and a chirping keyboard riff, Murphy suggests they might be jerks-- "present company excepted," of course. Then thick synth tones burst from the speakers, accompanied by live drums, and Murphy's voice rises to meet them, at one point toughing out probably the longest sung note in the entire LCD discography. Though packed with some of Murphy's sharpest one-liners, "Dance Yrself Clean" proves a deceptively elusive song, with unexplained mentions of "a string of divorces," a coldly glowing basement, and deconstructed Marxism. But the overall effect is of a narrator willing himself-- and, almost definitely, an embattled partner-- to party their worries away. "It's the end of an era, it's true," Murphy sings, surely referring to more than the end of this iteration of LCD Soundsystem.
"Dance Yrself Clean" is elusive in other ways, too. The song was absent from the This Is Happening tour until a triumphant appearance in Montclair, N.J. on Sept. 23, 2010. "I made a conscious decision not to play too much of the new stuff in the early part of the tour," Murphy had said in April at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg, according to Brooklyn Vegan. "I remember being a kid taking the train two hours just to hear 'This Charming Man' only to get 'Panic'." What's more, the liner notes offer few clues as to who plays what on the album version. A video posted online shows Murphy drumming and hunching in front of a screen, preoccupied with completing This Is Happening. "Making a record for me always brings about a really deep, panicky depression," he says in the video. "Add the pressure of 'This has to happen, it has to happen now.' Except that it's just a fucking record." The power of "Dance Yrself Clean" lies in the pessimistically conveyed hope that a "fucking record"-- or at least dancing to it-- can be redemptive.

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