It’s become a cliché over the past few years that New York is lacking a definitive music scene. Midtown clubs play cheap dance tracks and hip-hop, downtown clubs host both an aging jazz set and any rock band who’ll play for beer, and uptown... well, uptown doesn’t really have clubs. Williamsburg features every brand of noisy experimentation, and Park Slope’s got a random country revival. All of which is fine — people come here to do their own thing, and variety is what keeps the city going. The downside is that describing something as a “New York” band then becomes totally meaningless.
Somehow, though, James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem beg for the modifier. Though primarily embraced by the downtown/Williamsburg hipster set before jumping to a major label and gaining worldwide attention, they still capture what’s happening in New York: namely, a handful of disparate things that occasionally share a common beat. This probably has more to do with Murphy’s longtime DJ/producer career than with a self-conscious attempt to freeze-frame his surroundings. The success he saw with LCD’s dance-centric debut was only an aftershock of the Rapture’s Echoes, which Murphy, along with Tim Goldsworthy, produced, released, and built the DFA record label/production team name upon. Echoes also solidified what people were beginning to call dance-punk, which tied Murphy’s name to creating a New York “scene” in the first place.
Murphy’s never been afraid to flaunt his influences — the biggest single off the debut was, after all, about Daft Punk — but his source material varies from disco to punk to classic rock. ‘Daft Punk is Playing at My House’ basically danced around a sped-up riff from Foghat’s ‘Slow Ride’ and the lead single off Sound of Silver, ‘North American Scum’ does the same for Pete Shelley’s ‘Homosapien’. ‘All My Friends’ is one epic piano buildup, but, despite the instrumentation, manages to sound like a Killers song, complete with a little uncharacteristic vocal bravado. Then, the last line quotes Arthur Russell’s ‘Go Bang’ — an unlikely combination, but it works in the context of all these random hints. Russell is a frequent point of reference, as are Talking Heads — bits like the creepy harmonies on ‘Get Innocuous’ and the scratchy rhythm guitar on ‘Us v Them’ sound straight out of Fear of Music. Yet Murphy’s never derivative: he works like a good journalist, or more appropriately, a proper DJ, assembling quotes from a bookshelf full of records and filling in the gaps.
Of course, just nodding to different styles doesn’t make this a “New York” record. The most memorable lyrics all track Murphy’s hang-ups with the city, from biting lines like “New York’s the greatest if you get someone to pay the rent” to the post-Giuliani lament ‘New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’. As many times as he claims to love the city, he can only register complaints: Bloomberg’s a millionaire megalomaniac, parties end too damn early, and flocks of rich kids moving here in search of the old, grungy New York only make things worse. Right though he may be, he’s only pointing fingers at his biggest fans: who originally bought his records but young New York transplants with money to spend?
It’s the same question that dogged him when ‘Losing My Edge’, the first LCD Soundsystem single, came out in 2002. The song was an eight-minute litany of snobby clichés and ironic jabs at kids who care more about their encyclopedic music knowledge than music itself (“I was there at the first Can show in Cologne,” “I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City/I was working on the organ sound”). But everyone who listened with a smirk had to feel a pang of guilt, too — it’s only funny if, to some extent, you’re among the people he’s making fun of.
So it’s a little contradictory that now he’s specifically targeting New York. Sound of Silver would be nothing without the variety the city lends it, and what’s more, it wouldn’t have much of an audience if it weren’t for the people Murphy disparages. The record’s Capitol release, if successful, might help debunk some of the mythology of New York glamour in other parts of the country and the world, but from a local standpoint, Murphy just sounds cranky. Maybe that’s the nature of a love/hate relationship, or maybe he should just move to Berlin and spare himself the frustration.