It would be unfair to pretend all this mumbo jumbo about getting the indie kids to dance again is unwarranted. There will always be the faithful denizen of wall-leaners who look as if they’d be having more fun reading some Bret Easton Ellis novel than watching their favorite bands perform their favorite songs. John MacLean, the former Six Finger Satellite axe-man, has something for both crowds. On Less Than Human, his debut under the conspicuous solo guise The Juan MacLean, he shows he’s just as concerned with giving the dancers room to move as he is with stretching a sly smile across the faces of stubborn stillborns.
With the help of longtime friends James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy of DFA, Less Than Human is filled with robotic grooves that flourish in layers that recall other great dance acts without simply sounding like a rehash of influences. Opener “AD2003” is a short but fitting Kraftwerk emulation that grows with springy energy. “Shining Skinned Friend” follows with dance-punk flair and a bass line echoing “House of Jealous Lovers.” Pulling from the Six Finger Satellite catalog, the song’s robotic rock tells the story of a love triangle between a man, a woman and the man’s gay friend, who happens to be a robot. From more of a disco front, “Give Me Every Little Thing” hits like a lively version of Daft Punk mixed with LCD Soundsystem-brand non-sequiturs.
Aside from these tracks, destined for bins of DFA twelve-inch singles, it’s the more reserved songs that give The Juan MacLean its appeal. “Love Is in the Air” has a light nimble bass line and a flurry of sanguine flute, and “In the Afternoon” acts as a somber shuffling interlude that feeds into the more upbeat “My Time Is Running Out.” The album begins to wear thin near its end, despite that the final two songs themselves are fantastic — “Crush the Liberation,” with its Mahjongg-style echoic chorus, and “Dance With Me,” with its lazy vocals courtesy of Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem. But with so much emphasis placed on wandering atmospherics, the songs get lost in minute after minute of ambient building.
But it’s these moments that make The Juan MacLean more than just standard DFA shtick. Less Than Human lives up to the production duo’s reputation for making quality dance records, but it also explores enough outside territory so as not to feel like the next album out on the conveyor belt.