The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

With its black and gold cover depicting a Dali-esque cross and track titles like “Genesis,” “Let There Be Light” and “Waters Of Nazareth,” you could be forgiven for thinking that the eponymously-titled debut album by Parisian dance duo Justice represents an attempt by Andrew Lloyd Webber and/or Jeff Wayne to go nu-electro. “Genesis,” for instance, begins with portentous fanfares and tympani, played sketchily as though on an ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder. But when the beat abruptly kicks in, accompanied by the ultra-dirty fuzz synth bass which reveals itself to be a central characteristic of Justice’s approach, soon to be joined by spirited handclaps, pointillist shadows of chords and Pac Man sound effects, it is clear that this is the best dance album to have come the way of this seldom-dancing author in some time, if one defines “dance albums” as springing from the direct, ineffable lineage of the perfect first two Daft Punk records. There is here an equally confident stride to Justice’s rhythms, and also, and very importantly, a fine way with tunes; while one acknowledges the disadvantage of this being the token 2007 dance record bought by people who wouldn’t venture anywhere near a dancefloor, and thereby ignoring more threatening characters like Kiki or Ellen Allien, the record certainly inspires, or re-ignites, a spirit of bliss within me. Their instinctive control of dynamics is demonstrated at the magic two-minute mark of “Genesis” where the drum track suddenly doubles in intensity and the bass begins to wobble – and at the track’s climax we are treated to cascades of Liberace piano.

This quickly splinters, and a sudden rush of wind leads to “Let There Be Light” (the album is programmed as one continuous suite) which launches itself via its major key through a hard hi-hat, Radiophonic Workshop organ burbles, all sounding unusually close to an indie War Of The Worlds – but then there is that beetlebrowed bass, sudden spurts of crackles in both channels ensuing from a sublime build-up sequence of abrupt cutouts. Drums and bass intensify, and just as it is about to go over the cliff edge, the storm breaks, and through the clouds peeps a simple synth melody which leads into what sounds like the theme from a cheerful daytime soap opera (that tactic is again used on the otherwise gloomy closer “One Minute To Midnight” with added Vocoder).

“D.A.N.C.E.” undoubtedly qualifies as the best use of a children’s choir in dance music (yes there’s the Go! Team, but the kids there were sampled) this side of the Smart E’s deconstructing “Sesame Street” on TOTP back in 1992 – note the “catching all the lice” line. This flows into a rainbow coalition of avant-Britfunk with chunky slap bass and worrisome keyboards (“The way you move is a mystery”). “Newjack” goes further, switching so rapidly between harsh beats and a central Brothers Johnson sample that it may be termed microfracture house; as the elements dart in and out of each other’s cloisters, like an elusive de Chirico dream, the switches become disorientating, discomforting; as with Arthur Russell’s “Let’s Go Swimming,” it appears danceable from a distance, but closer up, it’s an only partially accessible labyrinth. This all resolves in a buzzsaw grind, which in turn works bitonally with, or against, sparkling, high-pitched synth curlicues.

The determined stride of the rhythm persists through the two-part “Phantom”; in part one, the beats and sounds cut across each other too fast to grasp, and the synth bass becomes especially grinding. As we move into part two, the bassline now appears to fall through a succession of encroaching trapdoors, but the track resolves into a baroque and vaguely elegiac string line played against constantly opening and closing doors and bleeps. One is reminded of what the B.E.F. of Music For Stowaways could have achieved had they kept at it.

An uncomfortably tactile choir and thudding drumbeat (emanating, it would seem, from the inside of the listener’s ear) bookend “Valentine” which otherwise consists of a lovely Supertramp electric piano line, though Justice are noticeably more adventurous in their harmonies. Still the music sounds too close to be real. “Tthhee Ppaarrttyy” features vocalist Uffie, drawling about what she does when the day’s over, that is, indulge in hedonistic all-night club life – but her chants of “Let’s get this party started right” (a memory of a long-lost 1988) are voiced more listlessly than you might expect; the music which accompanies her voice is not for the most part hardcore beats but a slow tempo, balladic musing occasionally disrupted by a disturbing and cynical car horn riff. The idea is that this is not quite life, is already foredoomed. “Dvno,” featuring guest singer Dvno (who sounds like a sopranino and particularly anxious Tiga), is a disturbed façade of coolness – every time he asks (himself?) “Just figure out how cool I am,” the “cool” is looped into an inhuman, drowning snarl. The very fine post-post-punk electro-stampede of the track (very close to their remix work for DFA 1979) barely conceals an unspecified but deep hurt.

“Stress,” meanwhile, is nearly unbearable; a dog-whistle string sample from David Shire’s “Night On Disco Mountain” (from Saturday Night Fever) loops madly into and around itself. The effect is rather akin to a moth being trapped within a strobe light, and when the track eventually descends into a morose John Barry cymbalom and merges into the earthbound fuzz signals of “Waters Of Nazareth,” it’s something of a relief. The latter boasts the heaviest beats on the album with an unclean quality which splendidly exemplifies the nowness of the best 2007 dance music. Eventually, four stately, climactic organ chords solemnly rise, like a reproachful but forgiving sun, to interact with the rhythm. It is a wonderful resolution to the record; even if, like me, your interest in dance is currently more centred around the desire to learn the tango, Justice is endlessly listenable and danceable, poignant and bracing, filthy and cleansed.

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