YET ANOTHER TWO GEMS FROM THE BROOKLYN SCENEby Todd Simmons
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: THIS IS HAPPENING (DFA)
SHARON JONES AND THE DAP KINGS: I LEARNED THE HARD WAY (DAPTONE)
LCD Soundsystem and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are on the road this summer promoting their excellent new albums. The two veteran bands are also serving notice that the moniker “the Borough of Kings” now refers to Brooklyn’s decade-plus creative streak and continued critical dominance. Representing two different scenes within the Brooklyn scene, these two prime movers have their own labels and recording studios and have worked tenaciously, and successfully, to get their music heard around the world. This is Happening and I Learned the Hard Way are two more Brooklyn classics that have busted out far beyond the borough.
I Learned the Hard Way is the kind of gritty, Stax-inspired funk and soul album that was on the cusp of extinction not too long ago. The record, a dazzling, authentic collection of hard-knock cuts, was produced by Daptone label co-founder/bass player Bosco Mann and recorded on an Ampex eight-track tape machine in Daptone’s own Bushwick recording studio. Passionate proponents of analog recording, the Dap Kings make clever use of their vintage gear and old-school production methods, with sensational results. The deft, sturdy rhythm section and old-school horns provide the ideal foundation for the stirring voice of Sharon Jones, who, with a cool confidence, bobs and weaves around the beat while she narrates cautionary tales of heartbreak and salvation. Her work on I Learned is so strong that she has willed her way into conversation alongside the great singers of the genre. Gladys Knight, Lyn Collins, and the other great ladies of soul have some legit company at this point.
The talented and troubled Amy Winehouse liked the Dap Kings’ style so much that she used some of her major-label dough to hire them, minus Miss Jones, as her backing band in the studio and on the road. The results was the multi-platinum smash hit Back to Black, which made Winehouse a mainstream star and Sharon Jones eager to show the world who came first. Now that Winehouse has stumbled in and out of jail, unable to create a follow-up, Jones once again has the Dap Kings to herself, and the group’s new record is a revelation. Creating an album with the period authenticity of an old James Brown record, they honor the tradition without sounding like a tribute act—not surprising, since Jones has too much real life to draw from to fake it. Jones has fought record industry stereotyping and didn’t really find her musical footing until she was 40, but she also knows the blues in other ways. Among other things, she claims to have been the “world’s first black wedding singer,” and she has worked as a prison guard at Rikers Island. She lives with her mother to this day, in a Far Rockaway project. And she is living the life of a touring pro at the ripe age of 54. She doesn’t need to imagine what the blues are.
James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem is touring their third full-length album, This Is Happening, and once again raking in the sort of critical praise that can paralyze a young band. But Murphy is no Joe Buck neophyte—his DFA record label released the album after his 40th birthday. The group’s name was meant to be attached to a single release and then put to bed, but the New Jersey native had no interest in starting a band or catering to the ambition it takes to hunt down stardom. Unfortunately for him, when “Losing My Edge” was released on a DFA compilation, it became an instant underground classic and arguably the most riveting single of the ’00s. There was an immediate appetite for more of Murphy’s punk-edged dance music. With Murphy, an accomplished D.J., and producer who could also play drums, bass, guitar, and piano, there seemed no harm in recording a second single, and a third—resulting in similar approval. Before long he had a self-titled double album to release on his own label, a real band to play the stuff on stage, and then a second and third album. Sound of Silver (LCD Soundsystem’s second) was the pick of a lot of writers, including this one, for album of the decade. With This Is Happening, Murphy has delivered the goods again.
The album’s first single, “Drunk Girls,” is a song about intoxicated scenesters awkwardly trying to relate to each other and negotiate some sort of social liaison. With hints of David Bowie’s late-’70s guitar tones, and traces of Kraftwerk, Lou Reed, New Order, Pixies, and Talking Heads, it will likely be a staple at parties for years to come. “One Touch,” according to Murphy, was inspired by the forgotten Philadelphia darkwave band Executive Slacks as well as the Eurythmics and Bronski Beat. It’s one of several tunes on the record where a smoothly flowing mood, highlighted by Murphy’s keen social observations, is suddenly interrupted when the volume of the synth is BLASTED into the red unexpectedly. This is the sort of production trick that requires a lot of faith in your audience to go on the journey with you.
It is typical of Murphy to give props right and left and cop to his influences instead of dodging the subject or disingenuously claiming to have never heard of anything before he started writing songs. His knowledge of music history, and downtown history in particular, is extensive, and he is fully aware of all the dead soldiers lining the Bowery that kicked in the door for artists like him. Even so, he says this is probably the end of LCD Soundsystem as we know it. “It’s the last of this kind,” he told the Vancouver Sun on the band’s stop in British Columbia. “It’s the last album, tour, video, single. I’ll probably still make some music as LCD Soundsystem, but I don’t think we’ll tour anything like this again. I want to keep making singles, LPs, whatever. But to keep doing this band in this fully-blown-band way, which it was never intended to be, takes all my time. I can’t do anything else: no time to produce other bands, no time to work with my friends, to work on DFA Records, no time to try weird new things that I’d like to do.” Like more soundtrack work on the heels of the superb job he did for Noah Baumbach on Greenberg. “It’s been 10 years. You wouldn’t be in college for ten years. It’s like being in the army; it’s not something you do forever. It’s been an amazing number of years, but the clock’s ticking on it.”
A sad thought. But, given Murphy’s track record, also an exciting one.
Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village.