Disco Still Not Disco

New York Rockers Remember How to Dance

"When I was little, I always wished that I'd grow up to be surrounded by gorgeous men," self-described fag hag Margaret Cho cracks in her movie I'm the One That I Want. "And now I am, and I should have been more specific." I know what she means. When I moved to New York 10 years ago, I imagined that I'd find the kind of scene I was pretty sure there'd been a decade or so before that: rock bands who really understood dance music. I figured that there was a modern equivalent of ESG or Konk or Liquid Liquid practicing under every bodega, that there were dozens of people like Arthur Russell who could drift easily from playing in twitchy guitar bands to producing club classics, that there was always an arty dance party happening somewhere on the Lower East Side.

Of course, there wasn't. Clubland and live bands have had next to nothing to say to each other for years, and the general absence of a "New York rock scene" (i.e., a bunch of popular local bands that run in the same circles) has always been a little embarrassing to explain to out-of-town visitors. I spent years wishing for a generation of local guitar bands that would catch the groove like they did around 1980, and now that scene is finally happening . . . and I should have been more specific.

As much as I love those 20-year-old rock-dance hybrids, I didn't mean that their successors should ape them directly. See, for instance, Liars' They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (originally released last year on Gern Blandsten, it'll be reissued on Mute next month). They've got a bunker-buster of a rhythm section, crunchy and muscular but more suited to dancing than to the indie head-nod. Their towering barker Angus Andrew is really fun to watch onstage, too. But their style relies on barely digested chunks of their source material. Liars' death-disco beats and unresolved riffs closely paraphrase early Public Image Ltd., especially given Andrew's Australian-accented monotone chants. They were polite to name one of their songs "Tumbling Walls Buried in the Debris With ESG," since its first two minutes are just ESG's "UFO" plus words. Actually, since ESG just released their first new single in 10 years—"My Street" (Soul Jazz), effectively a rewrite of their 1982 song "It's Alright"—"Tumbling Walls" sort of counts as Liars copping a move from one of their contemporaries. Does that make it more cool, or less?

Liars, stuck on top of a monument
photo: Joe Dilworth
Liars, stuck on top of a monument

A bunch of other young New York bands share Liars' overt, band-specific nostalgia for the Mudd Club. Interpol's single "PDA" (Matador) is a trembling fist of a song, but singer Paul Banks does a nearly undiluted Ian Curtis impression, and the band's got a serious Factory Records jones in general. (Their first full album, Turn On the Bright Lights, comes out next month; let's just say Morrissey was right about Manchester having a lot to answer for.) Soviet's We Are Eyes, We Are Builders (Head) pairs Depeche Mode's synth settings from A Broken Frame with by-the-numbers New Romantic singing, scrubs them of idiosyncrasies, and doesn't give them any decent melodies to play with. And even though Radio 4's enthusiastic Gang of Four and PiL swipes are endearing on their album Gotham! (Gern Blandsten), when they opened for Clinic at Chelsea Piers a few weeks ago, they just sounded like a tribute band.

The funny thing is that you can tell the Yeah Yeah Yeahs like most of the same records; it's just that they internalize their rhythms more thoroughly, and turn them into garage rock. (Free tip for any band that wants to be "raw": Don't get a bass player, and you're most of the way there; play with a slide, and you're set.) Five of the six commercially available songs that they've parlayed into an international buzz are on their self-titled EP (just reissued by Touch & Go); one of those is a fantastic Jon Spencer Blues Explosion impression, "Bang," which is about 16 "fuck"s away from Strokes-style radio-readiness. (That bit at the beginning where Karen O whispers, "bang bang bang, the bigger the better," is as sexy as "Hot In Herre.") Their arrangements are sparse, trebly, and distortion-heavy, but a lot of the beats are imported from post-punk dance music. It's not so evident on their EP (with a few exceptions—check out the slinky opening of "Art Star"), but the new songs in their live set give Brian Chase's drumming room to encourage ass-shaking. "Tick," hearable on a couple of live-on-the-radio webcasts, revs up the ksshunk ksshunk of Hurrah's playlist to escape velocity. "YYY want remixes! Please remix!" reads a note on their Web site. Not a bad idea.

Another two NYC indie-groove bands were actually spawned in the Bay Area: !!! and Out Hud (who share several members) put out a magnificent split 12-inch three years ago, and subsequently moved out here. !!! are a stage-crowding high-speed funk mob—10 or so people, about half of whom play drums. Their show at the Knitting Factory in June ended with a quarter of the audience shaking it with them onstage. And one of the greatest live-music moments I've experienced this year was Out Hud doing the reverse: Near the end of their one-song, half-hour-long set at Spa in February, they put down their instruments one by one and jumped into the audience, dancing like they'd never heard anything as exciting as their own song, and leaving the bass player and drum machine to finish it off. There are hints of the Disco Not Disco compilations and old New Order instrumental B sides in both bands—the brittleness of the beats, the occasional dubby slashes of guitar—but they sound like they come out of shared instincts more than specific homage. (Out Hud's years-in-the-making album will be out this fall; !!! have a second album due next year.)

James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, the production team known as the DFA (Death From Above), are more deliberate about their pastiches. The first batch of 12-inch singles on their own DFA Records sound like manifestos for difficult disco. Two out of four are by the Juan Maclean (formerly John Maclean of Six Finger Satellite). "By the Time I Get to Venus" is a trifling retro-electro instrumental with ridiculous Linn-drum fills, but the other one, "You Can't Have It Both Ways," is pretty inspired. It's a club record too weird to play most places where people go to dance: Nancy Whang chants consonant nonsense in a hypnotist's voice, the beat mutates by degrees, and burbling analog synths chase their tails until they're frothing and flailing. (It claims to be "live," meaning there's crowd noise dubbed over the whole thing and extending into the runout groove.) The Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" single, DFA's housified remake of a year-old song with a dub by techno producer Morgan Geist appended, is a gilt-edged application for Disco Not Disco 2002—it sounds like what would happen if Masters at Work preferred strangled screams to diva acrobatics and Arto Lindsay's guitar playing to George Benson's. Too bad "Silent Morning," on the other side, isn't a Noel cover.

DFA's masterpiece, though, is "Losing My Edge," by Murphy's solo project LCD Soundsystem. Over a clipped one-note sequencer chug, Murphy makes like the ultimate jaded hipster ("I was there at the first Can show in Cologne . . . I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit—1985, '86, '87"), affecting the nearest possible American equivalent to a Mark E. Smith accent. Then, as the music morphs through guitar-bass-drums and back to sequencer-synthesizer, he expectorates a catalog of hipster hitmakers: "This Heat, Pere Ubu, Nation of Ulysses, Todd Terry, the Germs, Section 25 . . . GIL! SCOTT!-HERON!" Maybe it's a parody of Le Tigre's "Hot Topic." More likely, it's just that if you understand the joke, you're the butt of the joke. The song ends with Whang cooing, "We all know what you really want," again and again for a full minute, as the song's target audience squirms and giggles uneasily.

The only way to respond to an accusation like that is to ask, What do we really want? We want more stuff like this, or I do, anyway. Reissues of formerly uncool early-'80s groove bands like A Certain Ratio and Malaria suddenly have cachet, and young New Yorkers are following their example because it's about time the rock underground got something new to dance to again. But I can't help noticing that I like some of these bands less on their own merits than because they remind me of music I already liked. What I really want is for them to do something that New Yorkers 20 years from now are going to want to rip off.

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