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V/A - DFA Compilation #1

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Artist: V/A

Album: DFA Compilation #1

Label: DFA

Review date: Oct. 17, 2003

The buzz started over two years ago.

James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, two talented producers who met innocuously on David Holmes’ Bow Down to the Exit Sign, worked together on a number of records during 2001, but none more significant than The Rapture’s Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks on the venerable Sup Pop imprint, upon which they turned a promising punk band from the West Coast into a Lower East Side history lesson and returned the off-beat high hat to a prominence heretofore dormant since the early Reagan administration. Fueled by the collision of Vito Roccoforte’s vicious kit work and Luke Jenner’s tone-deaf guitar, the title track mangled and entangled disco and punk aesthetics for a generation of music lovers who still hadn’t heard of ESG or A Certain Ratio. For the overwhelming majority who hadn’t come of age listening to 99 or Ze records, punk seemed like a logical antithesis to disco; torn vintage t-shirts ripped in rebellion against leisure, a DIY movement dedicated to the destruction of decadence. This seemingly at-odds hybrid was, for all intents and purposes, new music in 2001 – and it was brought to you by the letters D-F-A.

The beat never really left, of course. Disco was not demolished at Comiskey Park in 1979. Abba records continued to sell like crazy throughout the 1980s. As the decade unfolded, however, history was decided, and as Gang of Four once said, there are “No weak men in the books at home”. Disco and its gay lineage were ostracized by the machismo arena rock that soon followed, its overt and nondiscriminatory sexuality doomed to exist in infamy/irony by a homophobic society scared to death by the AIDS epidemic, a Christian conservative death from above, so to speak.

Two decades later, aided by an internet with multiple truths and an underground raised during the fun-loving Clinton administration, the stigma is gone. Disco has once again been absorbed by the illuminati and annexed by corporate America, even as its irony cache grows by virtue of 20 years cultural hindsight. While the DFA wasn’t the first to bring the beat back (Daft Punk did this to techno in 1993; rock artists Le Tigre and Gogogo Airheart had each coast covered in 1998), Murphy and Goldsworthy took it the next step by putting it in the hands of the true tastemakers – the DJs.

Bands can’t be at 20 different clubs on the same night, but 20 different DJs can play the same slab of wax. Early in 2002, the DFA issued four vinyl-only singles – The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers”, LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” and The Juan Maclean’s “By the Time I Get To Venus” and “You Can’t Have It Both Ways” – and let them loose on the New York club circuit. Instead of oversaturating the scene with filler-drenched albums, DFA kept the quality high and the quantity low, driving up the hype and exploiting the supply-and-demand economic model to perfection. The 12” format also leant the songs three alluring characteristics: 1) a rarefied air of superiority (audiophiles love their wax); 2) a connection to the past, fitting since most of the music being referenced was originally unavailable on compact disc, and 3) a sense of primordial importance. In a society of ridden with disposable mp3s, these four single songs (and their accompanying B-sides) were large, heavy, and highly vulnerable. Cynics might dismiss the DFA’s tactics as keen marketing strategy, and they’d be right, but there’s an abundance of substance behind all this style: The Roxy Music reverb and curdling bassline on “House of Jealous Lovers”; the electro backbeat and mental masturbation of “Losing My Edge”; the Detroit reverence of “By the Time I Get To Venus”. Above all else, these cuts were made to move, and they succeeded in spades.

Accessory status soon followed and suddenly the DFA magic wasn’t limited to vinyl – it was on the sparkle-spangled lips of the New York City nightlife. DFA quickly became the crown jewel of hipster hubris, and while it’s tempting to hate on the beautiful people of Williamsburg, it would border on stupidity to let them ruin this party. In fact, DFA has gone the extra mile for the majority of young music enthusiasts who don’t have a turntable, assembling these songs and more on a CD compilation, aptly titled DFA Compilation #1. The disc also includes LCD Soundsystem’s “Give It Up”, a mindless slab of post-punk lifted straight from the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”, The Rapture’s enigmatic “Silent Morning”, and two Black Dice songs, “Cone Toaster” and “Endless Happiness”, the latter of which was included on Beaches and Canyons. (Dusted has exhausted our thoughts on Black Dice for now. Check out these reviews for more info: the Cone Toaster 12” and Beaches and Canyons.)

There’s no question that byte for byte, DFA Compilation #1 is one of the strongest compilation you’ll hear this year (up there with Ghostly International’s Idol Tryouts and Michael Mayer’s Speicher 1 mix). The real dilemma is the relative staleness of the tracks. As stated above, the DFA buzz is almost 30 months old now. For fans, there’s nothing new here, so the CD’s success will depend on its penetration into suburbia, who (forgive my sweeping generalization) may not get the insider jargon.

“Losing My Edge” is an act of modern-day genius, sans hyperbole, but anyone who hasn’t heard the track already may have trouble appreciating its wit. James Murphy laments a tale that every young, aspiring rock critic dreams of hearing. He’s a member of the music illuminati, but he’s losing his edge to all the “internet seekers, who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978”, meanwhile supplying us with the obligatory dose of irony that we seem to crave so badly. He was “there” when Can played their first show in Cologne (‘68) and he was “there” when Suicide held their first practices in New York (‘74) and he was “there” when Captain Beefheart started his first band. As the song reaches its apex (“I hear that everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody I know”), Murphy spews forth a sadomasochistic name-dropping tirade of hipster checkpoints – This Heat, Pere Ubu, Nation of Ulysses, Section 25, Sexual Harassment, The Normal, Scott Walker, The Slits, Mantronik.

By this point, it’s obvious that the song is completely tongue-and-cheek (“I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody”), poking fun at the only people who understand it, but it can’t deter the pleasure triggered from hearing your record collection screamed out in orgasmic ecstasy to an overheated MC505 Groovebox. In fact, the acerbic quality of the rant only enhances its effect, inextricably linking masochism with the beat, self-conscious pleasure with self-ridicule. Its appeal is similar to Jon Wurster’s hilarious Music Scholar bit on The Best Show on WFMU, captured on this album, but will these rock crit encyclopedic comedies alienate the uninitiated or inspire new-found obsessions?

In the end, I guess that question is moot. In fact, the DFA and their rise to underground stardom prompts a number of social and political questions that we could ponder over endlessly and without any real resolve. That’s what makes this tandem so intriguing. The bottom line is an answer that speaks to anyone inclined to move, whether you were “there” or not.

By Otis Hart

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