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The Juan Maclean adds a Human touch 

Wednesday, Jun 3 2009
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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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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
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    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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