Another season, another chance to dust off the well-thumbed treatise on the future of DFA. Sinkane’s late-summer grooves recall the humid soul of Marvin Gaye but without the social commentary. Meanwhile The Juan MacLean, now the trading name of John MacLean and Nancy Whang, go stratospheric on In A Dream.
There’s a riot going on, but Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab doesn’t want to write about it—he just wants to evoke its tension, its pregnancy. The dusty keys on the opener, “How we be”, are cut through by Motown flutes and a surprisingly jagged bass guitar figure. Later, “Hold tight” is a taut, sparse wonder. Gallab’s vocals, so often a bit naïve in their beauty, here sound unhinged, desperate. The crazed Hammond organ drilling through the chorus is another component in the song’s mastery of mood, as is the more astral final minute.
Mean Love is the work of a talented songwriter, equally at home in the cities of the Great Lakes as he is on the beaches of the tropics. The trouble is, these two sides of his craft rest uneasily in the same bed. On “Galley boys” and “Moonstruck”, two slices of beach-pop shot through with languid twanging of lap-steel, Gallab sounds inordinately chilled, his vocals a millisecond behind the beat in a manner part-slacker, part-uncomfortable. Set against the lovesickness that surrounds them, they are unwelcome tourists.
The Juan MacLean are anything but. Absent a throne-sitter, the DFA empire arguably needed a comfortable heir. In MacLean and Whang, they may have found a pair. In A Dream opens with “Space is the place”, a Pink Floydian ego-trip featuring cocksure, unbecoming lashes of guitar and dense slabs of analogue synthesizer. Two minutes from the end, there is a brief spoken-word interlude, which augments the theatricality of the album.
From there, the tale cuts to a throng, on a dancefloor, with the explicitly house-y “Here I am”. Cut-up snippets of moaning and exhalation bring to mind Disclosure’s recent revelations. The boys from Surrey have picked up a washed-up diva, Mary J. Blige, of late; MacLean prefers the laconic emotional distance of Whang. The tattoo of the NYC skyline across her bicep is the only reminder that she has a home, she has roots—on the album, her remove reigns supreme.
Of course In A Dream has its nervy moments, as you might imagine from heirs slipping around in shoes several sizes too big. “Love stops here” is almost halted in its pacy journey by MacLean’s treacly vocals. In its quest to revisit “You wanted a hit”, the anthemic torch-song qualities of “Running back to you” are almost scorched by a few roomier diversions. But these are the missteps you forgive someone for when they’re settling into a position of power.
Just at the right moment, In A Dream delivers its masterpiece, its manifesto. “A Simple design” bounces celestially along wordless backing vocals, a shuffling beat, and an orchestra of filtered keys. There are aspects of glorious weirdness, as with the reedy, untethered lead synth that wends through the song. And Whang deploys as much heart as she’s capable of, summoning the requisite emotional response from any warm-blooded listener. Satiety and release from expectation; the consolation of friends in the heart of artistic stasis and questioning. Theirs is the happiest house of all.