April 12, 2007

A Golden Sound: LCD’s New Punk Classic

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The mark of any good musician exists in the way they execute the connection between musical ideas and their means of expression. When the circuit is complete, the vision becomes clear; it’s as if the musician is not speaking to us with instruments, lyrics, verses, choruses and arrangements, but rather their message is unmediated, or that it could not be delivered any other way.
Listening to James Murphy, the man behind LCD Soundsystem whose effects on twentieth-century American music are probably still mostly unknown, you get the feeling that something really powerful is afoot. It all begins with the creation of LCD Soundsystem’s unique approach to music, what might be called electronic rock and roll. Murphy’s music draws inspiration from these two places: the grooves and heart-throbbing magnetism of electronica combined with the soulfulness and lyricism of American rock and roll and the energy of punk.
All of Murphy’s songs on Sound of Silver come together only after lengthy development; the track length on this album definitely averages more than five minutes apiece, with many extending into seven and eight minutes, as electronica songs usually do. Murphy’s biography seems to reflect this sort of unusual length, since his route to LCD Soundsystem has been circuitous, even accidental. After quitting the writing staff of Seinfeld (he thought the show had little potential), Murphy started out playing in two small New York City bands — I haven’t heard any of Pony or Speedking, but if you think Pixies, I think you’ll get the idea. He then moved into sound production for Six Finger Satellite before, at the age of 29, discovering ecstasy, dancing in clubs and electronica. In 2001, he founded DFA Records with Tim Goldsworthy, in 2005 LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled double-disc debut came out — an excellent album by many standards — and the rest is history.
A typical LCD Soundsystem song is easily recognizable because it comes from Murphy’s rich tradition in so many different kinds of music, and goes a little like this. Murphy eases you into the song by sticking to the basics of rhythm: drums and bass. Sometimes the sound is definitely acoustic, other times synthetic. The drum sets the pace and the bass the key — the two plod unhurriedly along together for awhile. Soon enough, riffs begin to add up, either on guitar or electronic keyboards, completing the musical exposition of the song.
This is where a great electronica song would end. What really completes the song and brings it into more familiar (and I think, relatable) rock, however, is when Murphy begins speaking and talking to us. The voice behind LCD Soundsystem isn’t exactly a mind-blowing one, but it certainly is versatile. First, Murphy can do something I usually think detracts from music, which is sing-talk. While most of his verse lines don’t change much in their pitch, Murphy makes up for a melodic lack by connecting the way he articulates the words with the meaning behind them. For example, if Murphy writes about losing someone and feeling lonely, his voice becomes halted and softened, as if he were crying. On the other hand, if he wishes to direct his message about the humiliation non-Americans subject Americans to, he shifts more to what’s called head voice, and his voices grates there against the back of his throat like he’s yelling.
Of course, and here’s the best part, Murphy can sing when he needs to in many of his well-constructed bridges and choruses. Looking at Murphy’s sizable physique you’d never guess it, but this guy really has a superb range especially in upper registers. His falsetto is dead-on, which he often uses right before beginning a vocal line, and he can also hold notes normally out of a man’s range to bring across particular moments of emotional intensity, like despair or jubilation. Like many strong electronica songs, Murphy delivers these vocal gifts only after length development, saving the best for last. It’s not the way the Beatles would have done it, but this system of delayed reward is far more satisfying, even cathartic.
Murphy cites punk as the foundation of his musical influence; although decades of development has distorted punk’s original intentions, I believe it’s for the better. Right for its specific time and place — culturally, politically, musically — the fact of the matter is that our age demands a different sort of punk sound, one that takes advantage of the exponential increase in harmonic variety since the ’70s — remember that things like hip-hop, house, even “world music” weren’t really around, or at least prolific enough to be mainstream, until later. One of Murphy’s best attributes is his tacit recognition of these developments, as well as the current music scene which boasts exciting, energetic bands like The Rapture or The Klaxons. At press time, Sound of Silver stands at #46 on the charts — not bad at all for such a revolutionary, underground musician like Murphy. Whether he’s leading or accompanying a new direction is unclear but irrelevant — LCD Soundsystem is inspiring and genuine: truly a visionary endeavor that may never lose its glossy varnish.