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The music of the Juan MacLean, AKA the sometimes brooding, sometimes blissed-out alter ego of onetime tone-mangling spazz rocker John MacLean, has always been a venue for both euphoria and paranoia in a synth-pop sizzle, exploring relationships submerged in disenchantment and analog modulation.
"I think [my music] is analogous to my favorite dessert that is served at my favorite restaurant, Marlow & Sons, in [Williamsburg] Brooklyn," explains MacLean, name-checking a regular haunt of the production team/record label the DFA (also home of LCD Soundsystem), which has been MacLean's camp for nearly a decade. "They make this chocolate caramel torte that is absurdly rich and sweet, but they top it with big chunks of rock salt. It not only tempers the sweetness; it enhances it in a way that is not achievable by simply adding more sugar."
Indeed, the Juan MacLean's new self-titled mix CD, an installment in !K7 Records' venerable DJ-Kicks series, is like listening to this dessert. It is an undeniably uplifting, indulgent monologue on soulful deep house, a selection of songs partially intended to counter the indie/hipster world's aversion to pure house pleasures. But it also comes dusted with a tinge of melancholy that adds depth.
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The mix is a collection of 18 soulful tracks — almost all relatively new, yet with a timeless air — assembled with turntables and analog tape loops in a live take and informed by a producer's ear for classically minded EQ. MacLean used vintage channel strips to carve out frequency clashes as well as a tube compressor to apply an eras-blurring, take-them-to-church gel. ("It made the mix very 'thick' and 'chunky,'" he comments.) The final touch is an appreciation of dance music song structure — not just a deconstructed series of utilitarian DJ tools — previously hinted at on his 2008 13-minute Chicago club throwback "Happy House," which is almost a Frankie Knuckles homage.
MacLean recognizes that melody and vocals may cause the sound to be perceived more as "feminine" in contrast to, say, contemporary "electro" bangers who unrelentingly brick-wall clubbers. He has no problem with this, however, as he acknowledges an agenda to promote four-on-the-floor dance music — be it jackin', acidic, cosmic, or disco — that conjures up sweat-streaked human interaction rather than distorted, locked-down filter showcases. "I'm more interested in pop music, I guess," he says.
The somber, more-bitter-than-sweet component comes in the context, as MacLean turned to the DJ mix after an unexpected break in his touring as a performing artist, brought upon by the abrupt death of his friend and bandmate Jerry Fuchs (a drummer who can be heard on the Juan MacLean original "Feel So Good").
This is perhaps another reason the Juan MacLean's DJ-Kicks lean toward the prime deep-house atmosphere of catharsis wrapped in contradiction, as this house resides squarely between the spiritual and the sexual. MacLean, whose personal material has often delved into detached fantasies, wants his DJ-Kicks to present something funkier, more human, for dancing away the pain.