While his art has yet to penetrate mainstream consciousness, in certain niche and cult circles James Murphy has already attained 'legendary' status, a pop culture icon whose exploits, both musical and otherwise, have only served to compound his mythic stature.
Murphy runs his own record label, DFA, an underground outfit that hasn't spawned much in the way of lucrative acts but occupies a place of certain distinction amongst music geeks and those in the know. Furthermore, in addition to his own output Murphy's honed his craft as a producer whose services have been sought after and coveted by a plethora of rock artists running the gamut from hyper-obscure bohemians to full-fledged celebrities eager to boost their indie cred.
Part of Murphy's allure is the popular conviction that, had he wanted to, he could have transcended his indie roots and established himself as a bona fide celebrity, be it through his music or otherwise (Murphy apparently declined an offer to write for Seinfeld). Whether or not that's true is certainly debatable, but it's evident that Murphy has reveled in his underground mystique, establishing an uber-hip persona that's enabled him to grow further in the eyes of a few than he ever could have in the eyes of many.
The first notable single released on the DFA label was the Murphy-penned Losing My Edge, a track that embodies both LCD Soundsystem's greatest assets and worst excesses.
The song is a scathing indictment of self-important, trend-hopping music geeks, a mass of techno beats and name-dropping that ultimately depicts Murphy as both a rock and roll connoisseur and a self-deprecating, self-aware music guru. The track is certainly heavy-handed, spelling out its theme then repeating it endlessly throughout the course of the number, but it's still informed by a certain intelligence and offbeat charm that helps compensate for a rudimentary electronica melody that's as gratingly repetitive as the song's satirical elements.
The single instantly elevated the band to the upper echelons of indie hipness, but it wasn't until several years later that LCD Soundsystem released their full-length debut, an eponymous outing that picks up right where Losing My Edge left off.
Fortunately the songs on the album aren't always as reliant on edgy lyrics to distinguish themselves as Losing My Edge had been; Tribulations, for example, boasts a fantastic electronica melody that suffers from none of the musical simplicity or rampant repetitiveness of the infamous single.
It's apparent throughout that James Murphy is a true rock aficionado, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the form that casts him as a borderline music historian. This isn't only made manifest in his smug namedropping and lyrical allusions, however, as the album features a number of transparent tributes to his multitude of influences.
Thus Never As Tired As When I'm Waking Up is an obvious Beatles homage, Great Release recalls early Brian Eno solo fare and numerous nods to The Fall appear, from Movement to On Repeat.
These knowing winks never come across as rip-offs or acts of plagiarism, but rather acknowledgements of the artists that influenced Murphy, and he acquits himself admirably in his efforts to recreate the magic of the individuals that had inspired him. While he never betters his predecessors he certainly never embarrasses himself, and if anything emulating these artists helps cover up for his own inadequacies.
Despite these impersonations the album still sports only a modicum of diversity, with electronica dominating the bulk of the set. Furthermore, the album is regrettably erratic, with a fair share of material that could be said to constitute filler. Even the superior tracks are often overlong and self-indulgent, with too few ideas to animate songs with such bloated runtimes.
The package includes two discs, both the album proper and a collection of the band's early singles, and while one would assume that the latter would be the superior of the two, as it's composed of the group's early highlights and therefore should include less gratuitous padding, it's actually the first disc that I'm partial to. That's certainly a good sign, as it signifies that the band's noticeably progressed since their early days, evolving into a superior rock outfit.
Thus LCD Soundsystem's self-titled debut is a solid if frustrating listen, featuring a fair share of strong melodies interspersed with generic, lackluster electronica. Some judicious editing of the longer tracks and a better filler-to-strong-track ratio could have immeasurably augmented the overall experience, but as it stands it's simply far too flawed an album to give an unreserved recommendation to. It's still quite entertaining on the whole, and certainly betrays a healthy level of promise, but a paucity of catchy melodies (that aren't repeated endlessly) and the grating effect of nearly perpetual hip posturing from Murphy mar the overall package and prevent it from reaching its full potential.
It's truly mystifying that a man heralded as the apotheosis of hipness, James Murphy, could collaborate with Nike, the epitome of mainstream conformity and mass-market consumerism, and emerge with his uber-cool reputation fully intact, unscathed by allegations of 'selling out' or, as his legendary first single would suggest, 'losing his edge.'
Part of this bewildering phenomenon can likely be attributed to the ambitious, experimental character of this undertaking, a factor that could potentially dispel the stigma of working for patrician executives and money-grubbing suits. In this regard a unique enough project could repel images of legions of brain-dead youths parading around with the ubiquitous swoosh-tika branded on every article of their clothing, while a chance for Murphy to flex his creative muscle could eliminate tableaus of child-workers toiling in sweat-shops from the minds of his fan-base.
Nevertheless, even with all of these credible explanations there's no getting around the fact that hip music guru James Murphy and a major conglomerate like Nike make for strange bedfellows, so it's no surprise that the resultant collaboration is a vastly different product from anything that the founder of the DFA label had ever worked on over the course of his storied career.
45:33 was part of an ongoing project managed by Nike and I-tunes, a series of promotional tracks that emphasized the athletic image that seemingly all such companies strive for. In Murphy's case he was commissioned to compose and perform the ultimate soundtrack for a jogger, an athletic symphony intended to be fully compatible with any runner's morning workout.
Obviously given Murphy's character the album doesn't sound like any kind of workout soundtrack that one could imagine, but I would hesitate before dismissing it as a joke or a parody; while one's initial impression of the score doesn't make it seem especially conducive to a sweaty jog, closer inspection reveals that, even with its plethora of eccentric touches and idiosyncratic flourishes, from a structural standpoint the soundtrack has been meticulously fashioned to correspond to the appropriate phases of a traditional workout, complete with the obligatory rises and falls inherent to properly executing such strenuous activities.
Thus the suite features insistent disco beats to drive a jogger forward, accompanied by the requisite soothing ambient textures to better facilitate the cooling down process. These may be unorthodox representations of these tried and true athletic procedures, but this doesn't dilute or compromise their effectiveness, even in such an unusual context.
Having established that the album could feasibly employed to good effect by a jogger, the inevitable question is whether or not 45:33 can be enjoyed simply as music, independent of any athletic applications. This is indeed a tricky question, but ultimately I feel that the music is sufficiently well-written and developed that, at the very least, it can function well as good background music. This may be damning with faint praise, but the fact of the matter is that the album was never designed for an attentive listener to fully process and analyze on a regular basis, and it's unfair to subject 45:33 to those inappropriate standards.
What is important is that, rather than toss off a few repetitive, primitive techno beats and accept his paycheck from the evil empire, James Murphy truly devoted himself to this project, penning some truly impressive and hypnotic soundscapes.
The entire suite has a certain disco flavor (which shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who's been exposed to LCD Soundsystem's previous output), and it's most assuredly used to good effect, evading the tasteless excesses that have earned the genre the enmity of myriad highly vocal detractors. In addition to being a strong songwriter and an incredibly versatile multi-instrumentalist, Murphy has an acute grasp of the electronica scene, and thus he deftly conjures stunning and addictive grooves that, while far too repetitive for a close listen, make for an ideal sonic backdrop, be it for jogging or any other pursuit that wouldn't be marred by getting your adrenaline running.
It took quite some time for the 45:33 disco symphony to be released on CD, but to compensate for the long wait three bonus tracks have been added to this initial printing. It would have been ideal for the trio to be more song-oriented, so as to better balance the album, but for the most part these tracks conform to the repetitive instrumental mold that the rest of the disc adheres to.
Fortunately these bonus tracks are quite accomplished in their own right. Freak Out/Starry Eyes is a surreal two-parter with some intriguing musical ideas, North American Scum sounds somewhat reminiscent of perennial Murphy favorites The Fall in their techno mode and Hippie Priest Bum-Out (which, given its title, I would have assumed would be the one of the three to pay homage to Mark E. Smith and company) is par for the course for the album but still suitably entertaining.
Thus 45:33 is a unique idea that actually manages to pay off in the long run, an experimental endeavor that James Murphy clearly took quite seriously and accordingly gave his all to. It's obviously not comparable to LCD Soundsystem's debut, as it's not quite an album in the proper sense, but it's still a worthwhile recording, even if it doesn't necessarily stand up to an attentive listen.
Having temporarily appeased his need for experimental side-projects (and with a lack of major conglomerates seeking to recruit him for cross-promotional enterprises), James Murphy finally produced the true sequel to his much lauded first effort that his fan-base had been clamoring for, the spiritual and structural successor to LCD Soundsystem's eponymous debut.
Sequel may not be an apt term, however, as only a modicum of progression has transpired since the band's first outing. Calling Sound Of Silver a rehash is an overly strong and derisive accusation, and would do an injustice to an album filled with new, original melodies, but the fact of the matter is that, from a stylistic perspective, there's a transparent and undeniable resemblance to the group's first endeavor.
There is, however, one pivotal factor that differentiates the band's sophomore effort from their self-titled release, namely that Sound Of Silver is a far more consistent product than LCD Soundsystem's debut, thus eliminating one of major grievances that I'd had with that promising but erratic opus.
This isn't to say that Sound Of Silver is devoid of filler, as the title track qualifies for this dubious distinction. The song is easily the album's weakest cut, complete with grating, endlessly repeated spoken vocals that become something akin to an interminable, never ending mantra, accompanied by desultory music that never truly resolves itself into anything of substance or value.
Aside from this mediocre anomaly, however, the remainder of the album is quite strong; it may be woefully reminiscent of the group's first project in the style department, but it manages to take this style further than their impressive but flawed debut ever had, and with greater consistency to boot.
As always Murphy's musical influences play a key role in determining the nature of his material. Thus the opener, Get Innocuous!, recalls Kraftwerk circa The Man-Machine, while as always Fall tributes abound throughout the album.
This tendency to honor his predecessors, however, doesn't change the fact that it's Murphy's tremendous songwriting acumen that makes the tracks work. While his influences may shape his compositions they'd still be hollow shells were it not for Murphy's impressive facility for generating catchy melodies.
North American Scum has improved dramatically since its appearance as a bonus track on 45:33. The final version of the track has been fleshed out considerably more since its rough initial conception, coming across more as a fully realized song than a patchy collection of raw, unfocused musical ideas.
Elsewhere Someone Great lifts its music from part of 45:33, utilizing one of the suite's myriad melodies to great effect. Despite ostensibly being a segment of a greater whole torn away from its original context, the tune never feels fragmented or incomplete, and it's adroitly merged with new vocals that transfigure a passage of a hypnotic symphony into a brilliant rock song and one of the few genuinely moving moments in James Murphy's catalogue.
Tracks like All My Friends and Watch The Tapes also stand out as highlights, but nearly the entire album is worthwhile, with but the solitary exception that I'd previously alluded to. Murphy's mastery of electronica and his affinity for an esoteric brand of techno and disco ensure an enjoyable experience, and he's still able to surprise the listener with songs like New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down that have no analogs in the rest of his oeuvre.
Thus Sound Of Silver is a tremendously entertaining experience, as well as LCD Soundsystem's finest accomplishment at this point in their careers. As always nearly every 'sound' on the album can be attributed to Murphy himself, yet it's clear that he always invests the utmost effort into every sonic flourish on the entire CD, never taking the easy way out or growing complacent with his abilities.
While James Murphy's musical endeavors have transcended genre and form, encompassing a vast array of sonic styles and modalities, one thing that the uber-hip guru of DFA has never been known as is 'earnest.' On the contrary, a thick membrane of sardonic aloofness seems to coat nearly all of his musical visions, as he wards off personable intimacy with a perpetual aura of ironic detachment.
That's why one's initial exposure to the Greenberg soundtrack can come as something of a shock. Having shed the trappings of LCD Soundsystem for all but a single track, Murphy reinvents himself for his first official solo album, and the results most certainly prove unpredictable.
The ever eclectic Murphy tries his hand at a number of styles throughout the soundtrack, but the most striking tracks are invariably those that depict him in a more open, sincere mode.
Given Murphy's novice status when it comes to outwardly emotional songwriting, there are the inevitable misfires. People, for example, marks a convergence of the human and the artificial, and in the process manages to dilute both.
Other liabilities extend well beyond Murphy's new emotional palette. Murphy is widely esteemed as an aural alchemist of the highest order, not only generating rich sonic soundscapes in his own work but also producing and enhancing the material of countless other rock acts. Nevertheless, when one compares an instrumental such as Sleepy Baby to the layered atmospherics of a Brian Eno composition then Murphy comes across as an absolute amateur. This may be an unfair comparison, but when taken in this light many of Murphy's instrumentals on Greenberg simply have little to offer, shallow space filler with precious little in the way of creative ideas to animate them.
As far as instrumentals are concerned, Murphy fares far better when he eschews pseudo-ambient mood music in favor of more lighthearted genre exercises. In this regard tracks like Gente are harmless fun, as on that particular number Murphy favors irresistible exotic string arrangements and amiable handclaps over complex-yet-uneventful sonic tapestries.
What's remarkable, however, is that Greenberg is at its best when Murphy is at his most earnest and sincere. While these attitudes can be feigned and disingenuous, they still showcase a side of Murphy hitherto withheld by the DFA mastermind. This helps make what are already solid tunes all the more compelling, but it's not as if prior exposure to Murphy's oeuvre is a prerequisite for enjoying these tracks.
The disarmingly tender and nostalgic Photographs evokes memories of Ray Davies' faux-sentimentalism circa Village Green Preservation Society, a time when the rock icon, at the height of his powers, could be both sincere and sardonic at exactly the same time. These associations are by no means confined to the similarly titled People Take Pictures Of Each Other, but rather extend to the entire Kinks album; Murphy is hardly in Davies' league, but nevertheless it's impressive that he manages to imitate his better by producing music that's touching and beautiful without ever losing its edge or growing sappy.
Birthday Song maintains a similar balance, also to good effect, and while Please Don't Follow Me lacks this earnestness it's still a far cry from the trendy emotional opacity of LCD Soundsystem. If You Need A Friend is a charming sing-along, very primitive but still axiomatically enjoyable, while instrumentals like Thumbs are too short and undeveloped to amount to much.
The instrumental version of Photographs is similarly short, but in this instance its brevity is designed to make it more compact and potent, not a trick to mask a paucity of musical ideals. This inspired minimalist piano piece is by far the most moving track on the album, an emotionally wrenching composition that's eloquent in its simplicity.
As a result of Murphy's new artistic direction, the solitary LCD Soundsystem track on Greenberg feels more than a tad incongruous. Worse, by no means does it present Murphy's flagship rock group at its best, as Oh You (Christmas Blues) is a headache inducing deluge of dissonant discharge. Neither catchy nor moving, it serves little purpose save to offer a contrast between Murphy's radically different styles.
Thus Greenberg is an intriguing, if erratic, experience. Tracks like Photographs and Birthday Song are quite pleasant, but in the long run the side of Murphy that they represent may not be the side that suits him best. Those are most assuredly two solid songs, and it's interesting to discover new elements in Murphy's work, but it's hard to shake the feeling that he's only indulging in material of that nature because it fits the film. This side of Murphy may never arise again, but while it's charming it may not be a huge loss if it regresses into dormancy.
James Murphy holds a position as head of an uber-hip indie band label. He enjoys the status of being one of the most sought after producers on the contemporary rock scene. He has a reputation for being an all-around sonic guru. Yet despite these gifts, he has long remained on the fringes of popular consciousness. Even so, many feel that Murphy's been poised to conquer the world of modern music for quite some time now, hypothesizing that he's merely been biding his time to strike at precisely the right moment.
When he founded his band of one, LCD Soundsystem, many felt that that moment had come, the realization of Murphy's potential for becoming one of the driving forces in rock music. While this would obviously be a gross exaggeration, LCD Soundsystem has indeed made quite a stir with its dance-floor dominance, a hyper-kinetic mix of disco rhythms and pulsing electronica.
Admittedly very little has changed in the interim between Sound Of Silver and This Is Happening, but LCD Soundsystem's focus has never been on eclecticism, and there's really no call for a radical reinvention at this stage in the band's career. Thus more effort has been invested in polishing and refining the group's sound rather than indulging in aural revolutions or avant garde experimentalism.
Throughout the album there's a clear commitment to studio slickness, and this is the arena in which James Murphy truly thrives. Despite the fact that Murphy plays each instrument himself, This Is Happening always sounds like an entire band playing in unison. This is a truly remarkable achievement, and a testament to the sonic genius of the founder of DFA.
Some may view the album's length as a severe liability, as with a mere nine tracks the runtime of This Is Happening still exceeds one hour. One must keep in mind, however, that these are not tossed off danceable nightclub fodder, but rather dance-floor epics, meticulously fashioned and brilliantly arranged by one of the foremost minds in the genre.
Protracting the length of its songs has remained a crucial part of LCD Soundsystem's musical approach since its inception, a merger of The Fall's affinity for repetition, the hypnotic loops of nightclub grooves and the gradual buildup of ambient soundscapes. When viewed from this perspective even the most judicious of editing would comes across as a cheap compromise, or even something akin to a total bastardization.
Nevertheless, this approach can certainly backfire as well. It's not merely the superior tracks that are prolonged, as the filler is similarly extended, exacerbating a mild case of inconsistency to the point where it becomes a pronounced irritation.
Thus Pow Pow, a grating track with obnoxious spoken vocals and an irksome smugness, becomes far more detrimental to the success of the album when one takes its length into account. Somebody's Calling Me also suffers from this gratuitous elongation, complete with a lethargic pace and relatively bland arrangement.
For the most part, however, song lengths aren't an issue, as Murphy provides more than enough surprises throughout each track to fully sustain one's interest. Between his ever improving songwriting, his Eno-esque mastery of production and his flair for elaborate yet accessible (and even danceable) arrangements, on This Is Happening Murphy has created dance-floor electronica of the highest order, arguably perfecting a form all too often marred by primitive arrangements, lackluster performances and chronically generic soundscapes.
Invariably the question that arises is whether or not LCD Soundsystem is more than mere dance-floor music. My opinion is that it most certainly is, but not in the manner that one would imagine. The natural assumption would be that the band achieve greater relevance when they leave their comfort zone and eschew the trappings of disco/electronica. I would fervently disagree with this assertion, however, as I believe that it's when LCD Soundsystem fully embrace the style that they've mastered, dance-floor electronica, that their material, so brilliantly conceived, becomes something more than itself. By performing their style of choice so well I feel that LCD Soundsystem transcend the limits of the genre, taking once vilified forms like disco closer to artistic validity than they've ever been before.
Aside from the aforementioned pair of misfires, This Is Happening is a highly consistent album. Tracing the band's openers from its eponymous debut to its latest effort is particularly revelatory, as when one compares Daft Punk Is Playing At My House to Dance Yrself Clean it becomes clear how far the group has come in a short amount of time. LCD Soundsystem's arrangements have not only become far more sophisticated and complex but are also more melodic and musically rewarding. While Dance Yrself Clean doesn't represent the pinnacle of that description, it's still far more clever and entertaining than the profoundly limited Daft Punk Is Playing At My House, complete with an adroitly implemented loud/soft contrast and endearingly awkward vocals.
Drunk Girls is the closest thing to a pop single that can exist on an album with the scathing song You Wanted A Hit on it, a bouncy tune with amusing lyrics and a more traditional structure than a Murphy fan would be accustomed to encountering on an LCD Soundsystem album. I would never call Drunk Girls a highlight, but it serves its purpose, though it might have proven more effective if it was positioned in the middle of the album so as to offer a respite from the endless massive electronica grooves.
Elsewhere All I Want owes a great deal to Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets as far as arrangements and production are concerned, One Touch is an infectious disco-rocker and the previously alluded to You Wanted A Hit offers an oddly catchy, accessible and rewarding melody for a song with its unique agenda.
Thus This Is Happening offers dance-floor/disco/electronica at its finest, marred only by a couple of inferior cuts (which are by no means bad). Murphy has taken the genre to new heights, somehow managing to create art in a genre dismissed as artistically barren through the sheer quality of his work. While the album lacks much in the way of departures from the status quo, like Sound Of Silver's timeless classic North American Scum, this is James Murphy doing what he does best, and the result is a nearly immaculate collection of dance-floor electronica.