The Juan MacLean

Less Than Human

(DFA; 2005)

By Amir Nezar | 10 October 2007

It’s difficult not to think of a certain duo when considering the title of The Juan MacLean’s debut --– and of the dancefloor-sized hole left by Human After All’s belly flop.

Less than Human is, on my haphazard count, the fourth of its ilk to try and fill the hole, and the fourth of its ilk to fail. And, like a couple of its peers, it suffers less from a lack of competence than a general lack of inspiring tracks and the consistency of swiss cheese.

It’s hard to tell whether DFA’s latest records are really disappointing, or merely contextually stale. Dancepunk is as dead as any genre gets (through the fault of so many of DFA’s imitators, in no small part), and DFA’s strong attachment to house-based rock or rock-based house –--- whatever --- leaves many of their artists somewhat in the cold. Now that cleverly-produced indie house variations have already finished their novelty-lives, nothing less than a truly special effort --- composition- and energy-wise --- is going to really make this musical niche interesting again. If it seems like I just have it out for DFA (given my semi-skewering of LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut), just consider: how much have you listened to Echoes in the past year, and how special does LCD Soundsystem sound now? Do you even remember which band made Echoes? Hell, I loved that album when it first came out.

When it --- or let’s just say “he” --- is firing on all cylinders, The Juan MacLean --- or let’s just call him John Maclean --- is pretty damned impressive. “Give Me Every Little Thing” is downright inspiring, sporting the kind of bass-line that so many other dancepunk, DFA, and just plain house acts forget to throw in to make their beats interesting. Throw in a nice bit of variation within its phrasing, dabbling in differentiated synth work, and pure driving energy, and you’ve got a great track. “Tito’s Way” rollicks about on the excellent percussive bounce that makes the backbone of this kind of indie house, and trades in enough layering, complexity, and melodic interest to give the song some meat. And “My Time is Running Out,” almost prophetically-named, is worked up with downtempo structuring and development almost worthy of Royksopp.

But much of Less than Human, even its better material, suffers from the problem that so deeply plagued LCD Soundsystem’s debut: plenty of production cleverness that acts as a hefty dressing for tracks that are, at base, mostly insubstantial. “Crush the Liberation” recycles initially clever ideas through a sieve of solid production until they eventually grow impotent. The brief durations of “Ad 2003” and “In the Afternoon” are complemented by similarly lean sets of ideas that work atmospherically, but tire on repeated listens precisely because they don’t build to anything to keep the body pumping.

And of course there’s the almost-signature endlessly building track that never quite finds its satisfying climax --- “Dance With Me,” repeats loops with minimal tweaking and gentle intensification, and spends so long doing it that it becomes more filler than killer (fourteen minutes of it, in fact, making for a substantial album length-extender).

So Less Than Human turns out to be slightly more than Human After All in overall substance, but hardly more ambitious in scope. What’s worse, it follows the pattern of so many DFA albums: a long, long wait --- thanks to solid singles --- that results in what has become inevitable disappointment. If there’s life to be milked out of this hard-pressed genre of dance music, the drops of satisfaction from the effort and the waiting seem to be precious few, and nearly sour for their rarity.