With LCD Soundsystem now in the past-tense for the past three years, there has now been plenty of breathing room for the DFA label’s other stars to really shine without living in the shadow of the their flagship band. That being said, I started this review by talking about LCD Soundsystem.
But seriously, the label itself is a Goliath of excellent dance music, and right behind LCD and the Rapture has always been the long-form synthpop greatness of the Juan MacLean, who have always made a great argument for DFA’s deeper cut artists. The JM of course has always had the benefit of boasting LCD’s Nancy Whang, but MacLean has always acted as a less cerebral foil to James Murphy’s game changing project. Murphy wanted you to dance while pondering post-millennium anxiety and the insecurities of aging. Juan MacLean is far less interested in being educational, which is not a dig in the slightest to LCD, but sometimes a guiltless embrace of smart dance grooves is great too.
In a Dream largely delivers on doing just that. The songs here are engaging, sexy, and totally addictive. Much like LCD, MacLean and Whang have made a career out of absorbing dance music’s past without carbon copying it outright. In a Dream takes in Ibiza house, liquid ‘80s funk, new wave, and Giorgio Morodor and cleverly melds them all in all in a 2014 record that rarely sounds like a mere throwback.
That being said, the album’s opening track “A Place Called Space” is the only problem the record has (and it’s a minor one). Everyone from Kavinsky to Todd Terje has done the Miami Vice/Knight Rider type thing for the past five years – the kind of track with the helicopter blade synths and wailing ‘80s guitar. It’s not an outright unpleasant track, but it’s eight minutes that feel more like waiting for action then getting it.
After that though, it’s non-stop delights. “You Were a Runaway” is a late night Ital Disco drive; “Here I Am” is slick runway music for people more interested in the motion of bodies than the fashion sense; “Running Back to You” is bassy Boogie Nights hot tub music. After “Space” the album never risks becoming dance music wall paper – every song is a different idea and groove that all sit neatly next to each other. On “I’ve Waited So Long,” MacLean’s synths form a strobe effect under Whang’s voice which are later joined by a wandering hook similar to Fleetwood Mac’s “Seven Wonders,” an oft-used sample, but one that I’m unlikely to get sick of hearing any time soon.
The album’s biggest accomplishments though are neatly stashed towards in its front and back end. On “Love Stops Here,” which will likely get the most LCD comparisons than any other song on this album, MacLean starts humbly with a steady beat and synth arpeggio. Fluffy cloud synths gently join his ominous lead vocal which eventually gives way to Peter Hook-style lead bass and a choir of Nancy Whang “do do do-do-do-do”s, which bring the song into the skies for a graceful ending. Later on, the album’s true centerpiece comes in with “A Simple Design,” a track that again starts small but then eventually builds to a climax that simply rides a sweet spot into hypnotic ecstasy. In a Dream is not a crazy party-down record but in many ways, it’s better party music than records that are. This is great party music for that moment when everything is starting to just take off in the night which is a high you’ll be chasing for the rest of the night after the record finishes.