Playing God
The Juan Maclean: Less Than Human

despite the album’s relatively low profile and fairly above-average reviews, the quiet letdown of The Juan MacLean’s Less Than Human was perhaps the biggest musical disappointment so far this year. Juan was always the secret weapon of the DFA’s roster—not as loud and obnoxious as LCD Soundsystem, as hyped as The Rapture or as experimental as Black Dice, he (that being John MacLean, of Six-Finger Satellite) nevertheless contributed some of the best singles to pass the label’s inspection, which managed to mine the history of electronic music without sounding retroactive and maintaining his extremely distinct personality. No two singles of his were alike, either—Juan/John moved from electro-funk to mutant disco to ambient house without missing a beat, still keeping the quality at the highest level of consistency.

Naturally, for those of us that were paying attention, the release of Juan’s debut album was a definite cause for excitement. However, despite (as the reviews ably noted) being a highly above-average album, Less Than Human did an extremely poor job of fulfilling the full-length potential all his listeners knew he had. Sticking mainly to the sound cultivated on his DFA Comp #2 tracks “I Robot “and “Less Than Human” (the latter of which, oddly, does not appear on the album), sounding essentially like a mid-90s Warp album of moody, IDM-influenced, not very dance-friendly house. As anyone who listened to his first few singles knew, Juan could kick out the fucking JAMS, but on Less Than Human, he seemed too concerned with maintaining the album’s melancholy vibe than playing into the diversity of which he was so apparently capable. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—as a mood record, Less Than Human is totally impeccable—but it is disappointing for those of us expecting a slam dunk of a DFA debut, like an Echoes or LCD Soundsystem without all the hype.

So here I have cobbled together what my vision of the debut should have been, a work that stretches from his ’01 debut single “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” to his latest, ‘05’s “Tito’s Way”. Think of it as a sort of Juan MacLean: The Early Years. And let’s hope the albums in his later years are a bit more fruitful.

01. “I Robot” (from The DFA Compilation #2)
We start it off with a low-key number, the first indication of Juan’s growing fondness for glitchy, up-tempo yet non-energetic, melancholy dance. This one gargles and sputters like the best tracks on Incunabula, and works as a nice introduction to the world of MacLean.

02. “You Can’t Have it Both Ways” (’02 Single)
But an introduction is all “I Robot” is, a lead-in to this monster track, perhaps Juan’s finest to date. A whirring, undulating behemoth, this live nine-minute epic of thrilling underground disco instantly washes away “I Robot”s melancholy and immediately reminds of the diversity that is Juan’s strong suit. Vocals are provided by future first lady of discopunk Nancy Whang (of LCD Soundsystem and “This is the Excuse” fame). The two minutes or so this track takes just to wind down are indicative of what a rush is provided by the first six or seven—one of the DFA’s crowning achievements.

03. “Dance Hall Modulator Dub” (from The DFA Compilation #2)
The extreme tension of YCHIBW is eased off, though not too much, by this near-novelty from the second DFA comp. The title, surprisingly, isn’t a total red herring, with the song’s sharp beat finding a sort of halfway point between Aphex Twin and Wiley. It’s pretty slight, but enjoyable filler nonetheless.

04. “Shining Skinned Friend” (album track)
And so the real meat of the album begins. SSF is one of a few of Less Than Human’s up-tempo tracks, but the production is too thick and the hooks too minimal and melancholic for any energy to really penetrate. Still, it is an enjoyable head-bopper and with the next couple of tracks, helps form the core of my new edit.

05. “Dance With Me” (Single Version)
I’m actually not really positive where the version I have of this song comes from, but it’s pared down from the merciless fourteen-minute album version to a far more palatable five minutes. It’s by far the most moving thing on the original album, with the “don’t you wanna / dance with me” coos conveying a shocking amount of nostalgia and disappointment for such a Get The Party Started sort of sentiment.

06. “Tito’s Way (Lindstrom & Prins Thomas Remix) (from “Tito’s Way” 12”)
The original “Tito’s Way” was the only really explosive thing on Less Than Human, but for some reason it still failed to stick out. This eleven-minute re-cut by underground dance sensations Lindstrom & Prins Thomas takes the sort of predictable DFA format of the original and generously makes the song expansive, turning it from slight lead single to towering album centerpiece.

07. “Love is in the Air” (album track)
More pleasant filler, though if Juan had made this track a bit longer (it runs under three minutes), it could have been a slice of euphoric melancholy on par with “Dance With Me”. As it stands, though, it’s just a nice stopgap.

08. “Crush the Liberation” (album track)
Like “Shining Skinned Friend,” a near-disco dance track virtually devoid of heat. Still, very pleasant, and a nice set-up for the next track.

09. “By the Time I Get to Venus” (’01 Single)
Juan’s debut effort, and if not among his most original or interesting, certainly one of his funkiest. The dirrrty electro-grind of “Venus” provides a spike desperately needed in the original Human, and does a great job of adding some dark energy to the album just before its close.

10. “Give Me Every Little Thing” (album track)
One of Less Than Human’s most unforgivable errors was burying this gem in the middle of the album. The Juan MacLean fan’s normal single of choice, it immediately buries the growling menace of “Venus” for the album’s blissful conclusion. Once you hear that unforgettable opening hook, nothing else matters, and it’s really the only way to round out Juan’s debut album.

By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2005-09-12
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