DFA Compilation #2 (DFA)

What are DFA’s bands so cranky about? This bite-size New York indie–James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, the label’s in-house production team, are also two-thirds of its management–is on top of its little world right now, and that world’s about to get a lot bigger.

Over the past few years DFA Records has released two dozen or so singles, albums, and remixes emblazoned with its scribbled lightning-bolt logo (the initials stand for Death From Above), and almost all of them are at least interesting. Some have even become subcultural hits, notably LCD Soundsystem’s friendly-fire massacre of their own record-geek clan, “Losing My Edge,” and the Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers.” More than a few fans will buy anything DFA puts out–precious few labels have inspired that kind of devotion to their curatorial aesthetic since the glory days of 4AD and ZTT in the 80s. And though the DFA folks are still being cagey about the details, they’ve reportedly just sealed a deal with EMI that’ll get them international distribution and the magic attention-drawing effect of big money.

So it’s a little weird that the label’s bands come off so cynical about success. Their Williamsburg scenemates the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio are a few rungs higher on the music-biz ladder already and don’t seem to be sweating it. Maybe this don’t-give-a-fuck detachment is actually one of the team’s marketing strategies. DFA’s singles are released only on vinyl (though promo copies go out on CD), so the turntable impaired have to wait–sometimes for more than a year–until the label decides to compile them on CD. The second collection of DFA vinyl, a triple-disc package imaginatively titled DFA Compilation #2, is due on November 2.

With the exception of a few records by the delay-pedal-happy squeaky-noise group Black Dice, the DFA catalog is steeped in dance music’s history and happy to allude to it–though the allusions often seem intended to declare the artists’ distance from their sources. And when DFA bands bring words into play they almost always repudiate the hedonism of the dance floor, suggesting that the good time a mighty groove promises may be an illusion or at best a meaningless lifestyle accessory. Dance music has mocked its own premises before (Cristina’s “Disco Clone” and Hot Chocolate’s “Mindless Boogie” were fine disco records that snickered at the subculture that spawned them), but rarely with such violence.

One example is Pixeltan, the dance project of former Black Dice drummer Hisham Bharoocha, which has just had a few three-year-old recordings polished up and released, both as a 12-inch single (“Get Up / Say What”) and on Compilation #2. (Like everything else DFA works on, it circulated on the Internet for many months beforehand.) On the single’s title track vocalist Mika Yoneta taunts her audience, yelling “get up” like a demand (sometimes “get on up,” a la James Brown on “Sex Machine”). She shrieks, abuses the mike, and eventually shifts to a wordless “oo-oo-oo” that recalls Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Then she starts muttering “You can say what you want but it doesn’t mean it’s true” while her overdubbed voice is still cooing away.

The single’s B side includes “That’s the Way I Like It,” which is most certainly not a KC & the Sunshine Band cover: Yoneta delivers the title phrase with a sneer, as if she’d just said, “You don’t like it that way? Tough.” Her only other lines are “back to the back to the back to the beat,” in a rhythm copped from the Todd Terry Project’s 1988 single “Back to the Beat,” and “what we gonna do right here is go back, way back, back into time”–a pronouncement from the Jimmy Castor Bunch that Terry sampled on a few other tracks at around the same time.

The grooves on Pixeltan’s single, though, are about as far from Terry’s ultramechanical skitter as it’s possible to go without leaving the realm of fast 4/4 dance music. Bharoocha spends most of the record playing a 70s disco k-sshnk k-sshnk beat that’s not quite square–it’s a little off balance, as if it’s meant for dancers in orthopedic shoes. And the boiling bass part–virtually the only other element in the mix–is electric, distorted, and somewhat out of tune, overwhelmed at times by Bharoocha’s onslaught of cymbal smashes. Pixeltan’s sound is dirty, rock based, and imperfect–a deliberate affront to the clean-lined aesthetic that’s been the standard on dance singles since Giorgio Moroder first plugged in his sequencers.

Pretty much everything that’s come from DFA so far has been made by Murphy, Goldsworthy, and their inner circle and has the same withering attitude toward the happy talk and pristine symmetry of contemporary club music. LCD Soundsystem is Murphy’s own group, and features Nancy Whang, who’s also sung with another DFA project, the Juan Maclean. The chorus of LCD’s single “Yeah” is its title repeated 51 times, in the most disengaged and cynical tone Murphy and Whang can manage, followed by an inflectionless “hey hey hey hey”–and at the end of the track the wiggly, glittery groove dissolves into a mass of screeching noise. (The “Pretentious Mix” and the “Crass Version” of the tune, respectively, end disc one and begin disc two of Compilation #2.)

Gavin Russom, who works at DFA’s Plantain Studios, made this spring’s “El Monte” 12-inch (it’s also reissued on the new anthology) with Delia Gonzalez, one of his partners from a performance group called the Fancy Pantz School of Dance. A fluttering analog-synthesizer instrumental, it maintains the illusion that the drums are just about to kick in for over 14 minutes. (They don’t.) Gonzalez and Russom also have a new, beat-driven single, “Casual Friday,” which appears on Compilation #2 credited to Black Leotard Front: “I was leaving the office / I took off my dress,” they chant vacantly, while a couple of backup vocalists follow tentatively behind, trying to echo the lines but matching neither the rhythm nor the pitch.

The best DFA track of this year’s crop isn’t officially one of the label’s records. It might as well be, though–Murphy and Whang are all over it, and it’s got their signature combination of groove and disgust. It began life early this year as a widely circulated MP3 identified as “This Is the Excuse” by 2 Many DJs, and later turned up on the Soulwax album Any Minute Now (Pias) as “NY Excuse” (everybody in 2 Many DJs is also in Soulwax, but Murphy and Whang were just making cameos). “Ex-cuse me?” Whang snarls at the beginning, as if somebody’s just asked her to do something nasty. She’s backed by a synth bass that’s as attitudinal as she is: every note seems to be accompanied by a hard little puff of air.

The drums, this time, are steady as steel (and almost certainly from a trap kit–there’s the unmistakable sound of a real stick on a real snare). Instead the electronics keep drifting out of sync, buffeted by Whang’s fury. For the better part of six minutes, she spits the same lines over and over: “This is the excuse that we’re making! We’re making! Is it good enough for what you’re paying! You’re paying!” Never mind that most of the people who’ve listened to the track downloaded it for free. Whang’s making the heretical suggestion that the magic of the discotheque doesn’t create a bubble impermeable to the polluting influence of commerce, that every dance record needs to be its own justification, and that the people who buy or even just hear her music, whether clubgoers or faithful DFA fans, should make sure they don’t get a raw deal. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s good of her to point it out.