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The Juan Maclean adds a Human touch 

Wednesday, Jun 3 2009

John MacLean identifies with androids. Discussing the 1982 cult film Blade Runner, he admits that its artfully overcast tone has influenced the work of his group, the Juan MacLean. The concept of submerged humanity crops up often in his electronically augmented compositions and in telling song titles like "I Robot."

But with the release of the Juan MacLean's sophomore full-length, The Future Will Come, the composer takes partial leave of the replicant revolution to become one with the Human League — as in the Sheffield, England, synth-pop outfit behind the 1981 hit "Don't You Want Me." Though still anchoring the beat to a Teutonic metronome, MacLean's band sounds more humanized in a series of expressive overdubs and call-and-response vocals. Trading verses with longtime LCD Soundsystem and Juan MacLean affiliate Nancy Whang, MacLean has opened up his recording project to "hearing both sides, instead of it being an internal dialogue," he explains.

During postproduction, MacLean and Whang researched the history of electronic pop duets, and kept hitting on one act in particular. "The only real example we could find was the Human League" circa 1981's Dare, MacLean says. "I was always more into their early stuff, like 'Being Boiled,' along with Gary Numan, New Order's Power, Corruption & Lies era, and Upstairs at Eric's by Yaz. So I had some rediscovering to do."

Indeed, the burbling Juan MacLean track "No Time" doesn't hide its tonal homage to 1979's severe "Being Boiled," as interpreted by someone with a penchant for analog synths, acid house, and Kraftwerk-via-Detroit techno. The monotone singsong "duets" sit over uncluttered, slowly modulating orchestration.

The Future Will Come isn't as stark as early Human League, nor as over-the-top as Yaz' synthetic soul, but the Juan MacLean manages creatively minimal pop hooks that hide more barbs than bubblegum. The lyrics are filled with soured relationships and disassociated fantasies, kept civil by Italo-disco strings and stroboscopic arpeggios. Titles like "Human Disaster" and disenchanted narratives like that of "One Day" are more about breaking up than making up. "A New Bot" is detached to the point of exclaiming, "He's no man/He is just a machine." As a bonus, the album closes with 2008's plinky single, "Happy House," a 13-minute throwback to Frankie Knuckles' Chicago club heyday. It's an emotional palate cleanser, but sounds like a transmission from a wholly different set of circuitry — one more geared for ecstasy than alienation.

MacLean has little difficulty delving into the 1980s mentality. He surrounds himself with the sounds of robofunk both on tour as a DJ and at his home, which is overrun by records and enough equipment to be an analog synth museum. But he isn't really the android with which he claims to empathize. He professes to be an unrepentant knob turner who avoids modern software's automation whenever possible. He has also worked with his live band for the past year to record a disc that harks back to a more melodic era, rather than feeding into the current trend of unrelenting electro bangers.

For The Future Will Come, MacLean wanted to build up rhythm without feeling too locked down. So he took demos of the songs to a studio outside Woodstock, New York, where for a month his live band — DFA Records associates Eric Broucek, Jerry Fuchs, Nick Millhiser, and Alex Frankel — took the parts, replayed them live, and added Krautrock-influenced variations. The result is an album of economic rhythm that is equal parts nervous energy and brooding resolve, and one whose gradual dialogue shows that while struggling with issues of identity, even androids can use some company.

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Tony Ware


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