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REVIEW: LCD Soundsystem Electric Lady Sessions

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BY SEAN HECK Throughout the second half of our first decade into the millenium, Brooklyn-based electronic rock outfit LCD Soundsystem breathed fresh life into the by then decaying corpse of dance-punk and attempted to fuse it cohesively with the sounds of contemporary garage rock bands and 80s post-punk bands, coming into their own and proving themselves as an entity independent of their influences along the way. After that, they disbanded—only to reunite a few years later. Since their return, they have overstayed their welcome, and seem keen on the idea of relying indefinitely on the god-tier status that they earned in the ‘00s.

With the release of their self-titled full-length debut in 2005, James Murphy and company established themselves as enthusiasts of the oscillation between heavy, energetic post-punk revival cuts and infectious, groovy dance anthems tailor-made for the introspective party animal—though such an alternation was undeniably contradictory and lacking in polish. While very promising and commendable as a standalone breakout record, LCD Soundsystem was decidedly a bit inconsistent in terms of sonic uniformity, mix, and lyrical substance.

Listeners needed not worry, however, as the aforementioned shortcomings were not present on the group’s sophomore effort. 2007’s Sound of Silver found LCD Soundsystem hitting their stride. Sound quality was more impressive, there was a more varied instrumental palette, and the record was more lyrically focused than its predecessor, exploring topics such as loss, heartbreak and aging in engaging, poignant, and heartfelt ways without sacrificing the undeniable fun, danceability and good humor that made the band famous in the first place.

On This Is Happening, James Murphy sharpened his lyrical mastery even further while continuing to bring listeners to the dance floor. Ambitious, epic, and long-winded electronic odysseys with sticky, nostalgic, 80s-influenced percussion were accompanied by lyrics rife with musings on paranoia, self-awareness, love, and fear. By then, James Murphy had taken disparate influences such as Talking Heads, Brian Eno, New Order, and Yellow Magic Orchestra and synthesized them with his own hare-brained, larger-than-life, and gripping personality into a bold electronica-rock masterpiece. This Is Happening, combined with a three-hour live album for the ages in The Long Goodbye: LCD Soundsystem Live at Madison Square Garden was meant to be the band’s final send-off before disbandment. The idea of LCD Soundsystem coming to an end after releasing just three studio albums over a mere five-year span was a small controversy in and of itself within music journalism circles and the band’s fanbase. Here was a genre-defining (and genre-resuscitating) powerhouse with a spotless discography and a laudatory reception from critics and fans alike…and they were finished. Done. No more. It seemed as though listeners would be starved evermore of the refreshingly fun, honest, and non-pretentious electronica-infused take on art rock that LCD Soundsystem offered. Many were unsatiated, while others felt that it would be best for the band to leave off in a blaze of glory after doing wonders with their influential new brand of dance music. Personally, I fall into the latter camp.

But alas, LCD Soundsystem was not finished after all. In 2017, they released their so-called “comeback album”, American Dream. Did it match up to LCD Soundsystem’s long-waiting, eager followers’ expectations? Of course it did. However, anyone who hadn’t drank the kool-aid of the James Murphy cult shared the opinion that this album was an abject disappointment. It did nothing groundbreaking whatsoever, unlike LCD Soundsystem’s previous albums. It was filled to capacity with familiar sounding tracks, and when it wasn’t rehashing old ideas, it was failing to meet long-established standards of the group. Unlike the expansive, slow-burning, and attention-holding journeys the longer tracks on This Is Happening took the listener on (such as with the bubbling synths, cheeky guitars, and hyper-meta lyrics on the captivating 9-minute track “You Wanted a Hit”), many of the over 5-minute tracks on American Dream were one-trick, and quickly became stale (such as with the yawn-inducing, directionless dissonance on “other voices”). Where previous albums succeeded due to the subtleties of Murphy’s honest lyricism, American Dream was a bloated collection of meandering, pseudo-political ramblings that LCD Soundsystem’s all-too-faithful fanbase surely ate up. As Joseph Stannard of The Wire so eloquently put it: “It’s a slab of nothing, a media spectacle for the terminally impressed.”

So what does LCD Soundsystem have to offer in 2019? Electric Lady Sessions. You guessed it—it offers very little in terms of momentum toward something beyond their impressive past. To be fair, the album is a collection mostly made up of previously-released songs performed live and in-studio, and so there isn’t a huge amount of “new” to be expected here. However, one would think that, a full two years after the release of a mediocre album, LCD Soundsystem might have put out something grander than a collection made up entirely of their previous works plus just three covers—especially given the fact that two years was once the average turnover time for an entire new full-length from the group. On Electric Lady Sessions, dance-oriented electronica tracks taken from American Dream and pre-disbandment works are either unchanged or changed for the worse. Live, “american dream” sounds particularly identical to the way it sounds on record. Perhaps in-studio replication is impressive to some, but the existence of a live studio carbon copy of an already existing track seems pointless to me. The vocals on “Get Innocuous!”  are more polished, clear, and audible than in the original, taking away from the latter’s hypnotic, synth-led, and robotic appeal. The album’s three covers are cute and perfectly harmless homages to the band’s influences, but pale in comparison to each and every one of the originals.

All of this is not to say that Electric Lady Sessions is without any captivating moments whatsoever. The fact that touring members of the band join James Murphy in-studio here adds an element of excitement and rawness to the more post-punk-oriented moments on the LCD Soundsystem discography. “Emotional Haircut” finds the group full of guts and energy as James Murphy belts it out in a stronger and more commanding vocal than ever before. Distorted guitars and urgent drums make the track’s ending feel like a thrilling roller coaster that the listener wants to ride over and over again. “Call The police” sounds so gritty and overblown that it feels as though it is being performed on stage. James Murphy sounds like a bona fide rock star, and the backing vocals only add to the general feeling of extravagance.

Still, Electric Lady Sessions mostly feels like a continuation of the self-serving victory lap that LCD Soundsystem began running in 2017 and, unless you are interested in what is mainly just a jumbled up mess of what the group has already released, I would not bother wasting your time with it. James Murphy and co. broke new ground in the late 2000s, and no one can take that away from them. However, they have yet to even sniff at that level of innovation since they have reunited. Hopefully their next full-length LP expands on their experimentation with a more fully-formed post-punk sound hinted at on this album’s recordings of “Emotional Haircut” and “Call the Police,” rather than the painfully tired sounds on most of Electric Lady Sessions, which are long overdue to be put to rest.

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