Simply by association, John Maclean (or Juan, if you will) is certifiably hip. He’s a veteran of chrome-clanging spazz punks Six Finger Satellite. And he currently takes residence on DFA Records, home to LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture, two names, when dropped, guarantee at least some degree of instant cred. Maclean, however, isn’t quite as well-known just yet, making you seem even hipper should you happen to mention his name at a loft party. Nonetheless, his indie rock pedigree might not necessarily be enough to impress some. Less Than Human, however, is.
For the past couple years, Maclean built up a reputation among the club-hopping hipsters as a fine purveyor of disco-punk twelve-inches. But unlike his pal James Murphy in LCD Soundsystem, he has chosen a colder, much more robotic path to follow. Though both producers have a lot in common, including a record label, Maclean’s carries a much heavier Kraftwerk influence, straight down to the vocodered voices, analog keyboard melodies and distance from anything remotely “warm.” Not that there’s anything bad about that at all. In fact, Maclean isn’t trying to fool anyone. The album is titled Less Than Human if you didn’t notice.
Okay, so maybe it’s ironic. There’s no shortage of live instrumentation — drums, bass, human voices — but it all has a fine veneer of shiny metal, as in the, appropriately titled “Shining Skinned Friend,” a kind of ChikChikChik / Kraftwerk hybrid that ends up somewhere in Ladytron territory. “Give Me Every Little Thing” and “Tito’s Way” fall more in line with LCD Soundsystem’s post-punk dance party, funky bass and heavy percussion driving both ass-shaking songs. The similarities on “Give,” actually, can be somewhat attributed to LCD’s Murphy, as he does provide guest vocals. Nancy Whang does the majority of the other singing on the album, though she, herself, sounds far from organic. “My Time is Running Out,” for instance, is an odd, Teutonic-flavored ambient piece with her android vocals hovering just above the surface.
“Love is in the Air,” an instrumental track, is old-school electro, with a high-pitched synth providing the lead instead of any live vocals. “Crush the Liberation,” meanwhile, is funky and dark, with occasional “ows” sampled, sounding something like Prince’s falsetto wail. And closer “Dance With Me” opens with some Eno-like waves of ambient synth, before abruptly transforming into a, surprisingly, warm sounding electro-pop tune, albeit one spiked with Whang’s mechanical vocals again.
What makes Less Than Human interesting is that it neither delves into artsy dissonance nor tongue-in-cheek silliness. It’s danceable, a little bit sexy, but mostly a whole lot of fun. Kudos to the DFA again for bringing us another album’s worth of innovative dance music. Kudos to Astralwerks for giving it the proper release it deserves. And lastly, kudos to John Maclean for staying one step ahead of the machines, without letting on that he’s not one of them.
Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express
Ladytron – Light & Magic
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.