The Juan MacLean, In a Dream (DFArecords, 9/16/14)
Electronic music tends to mine its past when crafting its present. “New” sounds tend to be an amalgamation of sounds that came before, perhaps presented in a new way or via novel platform; often mutated by what came in between. Dreams are, similarly, a subconscious manifestation of memories of past experiences, morphed by our current reaction to an emotional and/or physical state.
The new album by The Juan MacLean is called In a Dream, and it conjures many Ghosts of Dance Music past. As with the duo’s earlier releases – which recalled, variously, Chicago house, new wave, techno and disco – the sonic touchstones here are plentiful. A partial list of those I noted upon repeat listening include: early Madonna and mid-80s NYC new wave/dance music in general (“You Were a Runaway”); Temperamental-era Everything But the Girl (“Here I Am”, “Charlotte”); New Order (the guitar line at the 1:16 mark of “Love Stops Here”, the glassy, Technique-sounding synths in “Here I Am”); and early new wave (the intro and boy/girl response vocals of “I’ve Waited for So Long” recalls Human League). Several of the album’s highlights – the sublime “A Simple Design”, centerpiece “Love Stops Here”, “Running Back to You” and closer “The Sun Will Never Set On Our Love” – are satisfying combinations of these influences.
In fact, the album I kept coming back to while listening to In a Dream was Ministry’s much derided (by the band – I personally love it still) debut, With Sympathy. A trio of Dream’s cuts, “Running”, “Design” and “Runaway” very much recall the sound and feeling of that record, with vocalist Nancy Whang often sounding a bit like Shay Jones (backing vocalist on Sympathy’s “I Wanted to Tell Her”). “Running” takes it a step further; Sympathy synth lines welded onto a tune recalling the lush 80s R&B of labels like Tabu Records – the SOS Band meets pre-heroin Ministry! Naturellement!
The album is no mere nostalgia trip, however – it is as timely as it is timeless; taking cues from the past to shape the present. It is a beautiful marriage of lush, sweeping electronic wistfulness with darkly romantic lyrics, delivered by Whang (fantastic throughout) in a way that brings back the classic (somewhat detached) club diva. The sequencing is also spot on, with opener “Space is the Place” bookended by “The Sun Will Never Set On Our Love”. The latter – with its imperious, Vangelis(y) opening chords and titular, epic proclamation (here referring to love’s survival in the face of ecologic apocalypse, rather than empire-building) – could have been a fine centerpiece, but the ending refrain of sending love “in a rocket shape/send it out in space” provides the perfect coda to what is certainly one of this year’s best releases.
Highlights include: “Running Back to You”; “The Sun Will Never Set On Our Love”; “A Simple Design”; “Here I Am”).