the juan maclean

By Nick Sylvester/GODMODE

WELL, I'M BACK. This is the second time I've written on behalf of the Juan Maclean, now on the occasion of the DFA dance-pop act's fourth full-length. It's called In A Dream, and obviously the music is great. You don't need me to tell you that. This is a press release!

What's changed in six years since my last PR masterpiece? Let's start with Nancy Whang. Nancy's voice has always been a kind of secret weapon on Juan Maclean records. But this album is her triumph. I won't spoil the album art for you. Let's just say she's front and center. This is the Nancy Show. You get all sides of Nancy on this record, a wide range of expression. She's matter of fact on "Here I Am," wistful on "Running Back To You," accusatory and just plain monstrous on "You Were A Runaway." These are all love songs, but emotions run wild. You can't pull this off without Nancy. She's not living in these songs. She's leading them.

What else? Like every Juan record, this one quotes freely from house and techno and disco. Dead drums and vintage synthesizers. This is a DFA record, after all. But early on in their decade plus career, the Juan Maclean stopped sound like genres and just started sounding like the Juan Maclean. Part of that is lyrical. I can't think of many dance acts who give this much of a shit about their lyrics -- how the words interact with the melodies that carry them. My favorite moment here is "Running Back To You," how the word "running" repeats in the hook and complicates what should be mere melancholy. Dontcha know? The diction is always off in all the right ways. It's never "You're so good" with Juan. It's "You are so excellent."

I also can't think of many house/techno acts who have this much fun with the arrangements of their songs -- the way different parts interact and play off one another. At this point in dance music, it's often either some painfully deliberate build or good ole soft-then-LOUD-then-soft-then-LOUDEST, the musical equivalent of ones and zeroes. Juan and Nancy's arrangements remind me more of the interplay on classic disco records. Like on their song "I've Waited For So Long," there's a line that goes "If you don't walk away it won't feel good enough." I love how the arpeggiated synth line that finishes out that bar sounds like it's actually walking away! I'll take moves like this over any drop ever.

These are songs, for sure, not abbreviated versions of club tracks. Which bring me to another thing I love about the Juan (and hate about them, but that's me just being competitive): They always get away with EVERYTHING. Let me explain.

For one, they always figure out a way to make the very old sound very new. The main groove on the first track here is a who's who of Detroit: phased hi-hats, Moroder bass, vocals on delay, spacey lyrics. You've heard this before. But the surprise chorus halfway through is what makes it work: "It's too late, don't play your games here anymore," Nancy sings. All that color and emotion... Like she's chastising the song itself.

For two, they always GO THERE. Like, THERE there. The sounds you're just not supposed to reach for, the Juan always reach for. If the gun's in the room... On the first Juan record, there was a song called "Love Is In The Air" with SYNTH FLUTE. "Give Me Every Little Thing" had SLAP BASS in earnest. This record, that song is "Charlotte." Those pad stabs, the guitar solo, Nancy's response vocals... I don't know how they made this work. Pure magic.

Pardon my logic: You don't get to this point in your career without getting to this point in your career. I bring this up because the dance world way too often privileges the new, and not many dance artists get to the point where they're writing songs as good as "Running Back To You" or "A Simple Design" -- two of my favorite songs in forever. So let's consider ourselves lucky. The Juan have weathered electroclash, disco-punk, electro-disco, techno, house, deep house, and whatever we can call the sound of today. They never feel totally in step with the moment, but somehow always feel right and necessary. Put differently: There's always something exciting to say about these guys. That's why we're both here.