The looming future is a mere diversion on the Juan MacLean’s second album, a dance-floor odyssey with subversively pensive designs. “Left me for the great unknown/Lost you to oblivion,” Nancy Whang sings more than four minutes into the opening track, The Simple Life. Her words, floating mournfully over a disco beat and a pulsating bass line, are among the first on the album. She goes on to voice a more direct complaint — “Now you’re gone,” repeated as a refrain — that seizes on pain in the present tense.
The Juan MacLean, which formed early this decade, hasn’t always been so forthright with feelings. As an outlet for the electronic programmer John MacLean, the group was once inclined toward voguish robotic posturing, as on Less Than Human, its 2005 debut. Some of that coldness resurfaces here, most plainly on a track called A New Bot. But MacLean has also turned his ear to human relations, a reliable source of tension. He’s singing much more and making no discernible effort to dress up his unschooled voice.
MacLean’s production on the album combines synthesizers with live instruments, for a grittier sound than before. His working band features Whang, the drummer Jerry Fuchs and the members of a duo called Holy Ghost! (emphasis theirs). The group’s clearest inspiration is early-1980s synthpop, by the Human League and others.
Among the borrowed elements is a male-female vocal tag team with accusatory undertones. One Day and The Station efficiently nail a he-said, she-said dynamic; another track is called, plainly, Accusations. In Whang, a member of the dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem, MacLean has a formidable opponent, someone who can sing the line “I get so emotional these days” with disquieting cool. “Just because I’m flesh and blood/Doesn’t make me weak or fragile,” she states elsewhere, credibly.
By contrast MacLean’s attempt at naked vulnerability, on a ballad called Human Disaster, may be this album’s biggest misstep. But at least that song dissolves right into a near-perfect closer, Happy House, which was released as a single last year. Here, riding a giddy house groove, Whang once again makes her feelings known. “You are so excellent,” she sings, and once again the future barely registers as a concern.
The second track on Smokie Norful’s new album, Live, seems to know how you anticipate and absorb patterns in music much better than you do.
Norful, a smooth but powerful singer in the Donny Hathaway mold, is the pastor of a church outside Chicago, though he recorded this album at a 2,100-seat theater in Memphis, Tennessee. At the beginning of the song he sounds as if he were about to sermonize.
“I will bless the Lord at all times,” he proclaims (here the drummer starts counting off the tempo on the high-hat cymbal), “and his praises shall” (a slugging, windup drum pattern) “continually” (the horn line begins) “be in my mouth.”
It’s on. The melodic line, full of funk, repeats twice, and the composed core of the song, I Will Bless the Lord, begins.
Then Norful rap-sings a chorus about fighting the enemies of faith, with the horns and keyboards punching out a snaky shape stressing the upbeats, a counterpoint to the eighth-note swing of his delivery.
The chorus answers in persevering staccato, repeating the song’s opening words. So much information already, but here comes a gorgeous, moody Stevie Wonder-like bridge with a key change, then eight bars of transition, delaying the re-entry into the song, and Norful says: “I don’t know about you, but I will bless the Lord at all times! And his praises shall continually be in my mouth!”