North American Scum: The Undeniable Legacy of LCD Soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem 2

What kind of person spends their Friday night watching a band cover songs of a beloved but deceased band? It was this question that recently played a part in convincing me to go see a touring LCD Soundsystem cover band that goes by the name “North American Scum”.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, LCD Soundsystem was a fairly popular (though arguably transcendent) alternative dance band that existed for roughly 10 years. They broke up in 2011, but not at all under the normal circumstances in which bands to tend to break up. There was no acrimony between band members. It wasn’t really about creative burnout, and it certainly wasn’t because the band was past its prime. In some ways, it didn’t make any sense for the band to break up when it did. LCD Soundsystem broke up following the release of their most commercially successful album, 2010’s This is Happening, after all. The band was the brainchild of lead singer James Murphy, who recorded most of the instrumentals himself, before touring with a rotating group of musicians. It was Murphy who decided that he had simply had enough. He cited the increasingly gray shade of his beard and his desire to do other things with his life for his reasoning to disband what seemed to be a band on the rise – and an extremely unique one at that.

You see, to merely describe LCD Soundsystem as a dance band or an alternative dance band, or even a dance-punk band is a disservice to their spectacular eclecticism. In their relatively short reign, LCD Soundsytem created widely diverse and weird music that mashed genres indifferently and challenged the notion of what dance music was supposed to consist of and sound like. Even now, it can be difficult to listen to LCD Soundsystem and understand what they were all about and why. But there’s a definite magnetism to their songs, even if you at first can’t quite pin down what it is or where it stems from. Their first album, LCD Soundsystem, was recorded between 2001 and 2004, and was then released in 2005. It’s a mix of “acid house, post-disco, dance-rock, post-punk, alternative rock, garage rock, psychedelic pop and other genres”. It was as influenced by electronica pioneers Daft Punk – see the ultra-cheeky “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” – as it was by rock megastar David Bowie.

The arguable highpoint of the album was “Losing My Edge”. “Losing My Edge” features Murphy mostly speaking and rarely singing over a dirty electronic beat for nearly eight-minutes, hilariously exploring the construct of “cool”, how it’s changed over the decades, the desire to chase “cool”, and the ridiculous but natural fear that “cool” will surpass you. “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables,” he says, “I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars”. He then follows that up with the even more humorously paranoid line: “I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody I know”. The song is exhibit A that LCD Soundsystem was a band whose ambitions skewed from the traditional rock band ideal of being “the world’s biggest band” or the electronic band desire to merely create songs for people to dance to. LCD Soundsystem had a different agenda entirely.

LCD Soundsystem

James Murphy didn’t particularly like the idea of going on tours and having shows where people stand around and listen to them. He wanted to play in dance clubs; if they were going to be a band, then he wanted their shows to have a party-like atmosphere. In 2007, the band released its second studio album, Sound of Silver to universal critical claim. It extended the band’s dance-party sensibility and predilection for challenging traditional song structures, while throwing a few more accessible singles into the mix, as well. All four singles can be found midway through the album. “Time to Get Away” is the second track and the least traditional of the four, followed by the brilliantly weird and riotously fun “North American Scum,” the intricate, catchy and thoughtful “Someone Great”, and the spine-tinglingly great “All My Friends”. It’s a more diverse and ambitious album than it’s predecessor, yet no less innovative and enjoyable.

With This is Happening, LCD Soundsystem aimed to truly go out on top. It opens with the fan favorite “Dance Yrself Clean”, a master class in momentum building that mounts into a controlled-chaos explosion of synthesizers, cymbals and screaming. Some of the lyrics are ambiguous and sometimes inscrutable, but the gist of it seems to be a simple message about appreciating the present moment. However, Murphy would tell you that he’s more interested in where songs come from than what they’re supposed to be about. That interest is what led LCD Soundsystem to creating music that, somehow, went on to mean far more than if they took a more literal approach.

Following the release of their last album, LCD Soundsystem went on a farewell tour that concluded with a massive last show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The experience was documented in a must-watch documentary entitled Shut Up and Play the Hits. It’s a fascinating concert film about a transcendent band that manages to transcend its own genre. It’s a beautifully shot and expertly edited piece of art on its own, but it’s also surprisingly powerful. The premise is that LCD Soundsystem is ending, which is sad, but, “if it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever”. It’s meant to be a celebration of everything that Murphy and the band were able to accomplish, and it’s clearly a thrilling and joyous one. But the documentary brilliantly conveys how even when you go out on a high and leave at the top of the game, that there’s a bittersweet flavor to it. It shows both how alive Murphy and the rest of the band felt when they performed and how much life they could breathe into a crowd. Although Murphy had his reasons and may have been right for calling it quits, when it cuts to black, it’s painfully evident that he will miss the band, and that likewise his band will be missed.

So over three years later, what does all of this mean? That was another one of the things on my mind heading into the show.

When I arrived midway through the first opening act, the Castle Theatre was less than packed. But that’s not to say that it was empty. There were probably forty people there, most of whom were most likely college-aged and many of whom seemed to know people in the band, a six-piece local funk band called Flaccid. After the show, their lead singer, Nolan Kelly, informed me that they were from nearby Normal, IL, so this added up. Their dedicated fans made up for what they lacked in numbers with passion, because the small crowd lost their minds every single song – and for good reason. Flaccid played an energetic and thoroughly entertaining set full of original material and heavily improvised, funk-infused versions of classic hits, such as “Psycho Killer” by The Talking Heads and “Heart of Glass” by Blondie. Their original song, “Here and There” is a really fun and aggressive, punk rock-flavored jam that deserves a bigger audience. When I found out after the show that Flaccid won a competition to qualify for an entry into this past summer’s Summer Camp Music Festival, it made a lot of sense.

(You can listen to and download their music at flaccid1.bandcamp.com, including recordings from the very show I attended, as well as “Groove Thing”, the first single from their forthcoming album. Be on the lookout for the album early next year!)

The second opening act was a band from Urbana, IL called Sun Stereo. They’ve been around for three years, have toured across the Midwest, and they’ve built an impressive following in a short period of time. As per their own website, Sun Stereo delivers “a hybridization of organic and electronic elements with Beatlesque vocal harmonies, electronic soundscapes, nu-age story book lyrics, and a funk your face off horn section.” Having witnessed it, I’d say that’s pretty accurate. Their single “Better Than Yesterday” is a delightful earworm, full of exuberant horns, as well as manic keyboards and dream-like vocals from Kelly McMorris. I highly recommend it. By the end of their set, the crowd was starting to look to like a more normal-sized crowd, to my immense satisfaction. It’s not so much that I was uncomfortable with the prospect of a small, intimate setting as much as I was just excited to see more people excited about celebrating the music of LCD Soundsystem.

I must admit I’ve had a fascination with cover bands since high school, when I read a chapter of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs that hilariously and thoughtfully dissects a Guns N’ Roses cover band. It suggested that the guys in that particular cover band were more attracted to the rock star lifestyle than they were in actually commemorating Guns N’ Roses. It seemed almost unfathomable that that would be the case with North American Scum; James Murphy and his merry bunch of collaborators were known for the music they made behind the scenes and the shows they put on onstage, not their offstage exploits. Before the show began, I found myself thinking a lot about what it was, then, that motivated this particular group – a hodgepodge of musicians from Digital Tape Machine, Cosby Sweater, and Spare Parts – to recreate the LCD Soundsystem experience.

But once it started, all attempts at deep hypotheses vanished, because I realized that the band was there for the same reason that I was really there: These guys love the music of LCD Soundsystem. It obviously wasn’t about nostalgia or any vicarious desire; it was simply about passion. Better yet, North American Scum proved to be fantastic LCD Soundsystem imitators. Well, imitating might not be the right word – they’re not Rain – they imitated a sound rather than a look, but they did so well. Each member played their respective part in capturing LCD Soundsystem’s distinct sound. Joe Hettinga (Digital Tape Machine) provided keyboards and backing vocals; Marcus Rezak (Digital Tape Machine) played guitar; Colin Scott (Spare Parts) played bass; Nick Gerlach (Cosby Sweater) filled multiple roles, including keyboards, EWI and percussion; and new Cosby Sweater drummer Jeff Peterson handled the drums. The most impressive, however, was the lead singer, David Embry of Cosby Sweater, and really, he had to be if the project was going to work. James Murphy was a singular talent whom I knew would be difficult to emulate, but Embry did his absolute best impression, opening with the defiant taunting of “You Wanted A Hit” and nimbly alternating between crooning, groaning, screaming and sing talking his way through each hit as the band boldly zigzagged through LCD’s proudly strange discography. From the repetitive charms of “Yeah (Crass Version)” and “Us V Them” to the quiet-sing-along-turns-dance-party vibes of “Dance Yrself Clean” to the delirious social satire of the band’s namesake, North American Scum hit a good portion of the highlights.

Looking out at the crowd, I saw a mixture of young people who had been there since the beginning of the show, obviously hardcore LCD enthusiasts and a large portion of people who just really, really liked to dance. Fists pumped, arms waved, and bodies moved in manners both coordinated and erratic. I saw human beings jumping up and down, bros inexplicably shoving each other and girls elegantly twirling hula-hoops alike, but all of whom had in some way been touched by a band that has been deceased for over three years.

Throughout Shut Up and Play the Hits, pop culture writer and thinker Chuck Klosterman (fitting, I know) interviews James Murphy, asking probing questions about the interiority of the band, Murphy, and his decision to willingly close this chapter of his life. Near the end, Murphy reveals that he’s cognizant that walking away could be a mistake, and moreover, that it could be his and the band’s greatest failure. Three years later, it’s hard to tell if ending LCD Soundsystem was a bad idea or not. Witnessing people live it up in their memory was a cool experience, but I don’t think it was one that could answer that question. Perhaps we’ll never know. But the fact that we’re still contemplating it or that we ever contemplated it at all is kind of ironic in itself. Murphy never set out to make LCD Soundsytem into a band that people wanted to see go on forever. This is a man who never even wanted to be in a big touring band in the first place; he just wanted to make music and create distinctly personal art. Leave a mark, a stain.

When the people in the audience joined North American Scum onstage as they closed their show with “All My Friends,” and I felt myself getting goosebumps, it was quite clear that they had. The band is no more, but this is still happening.

LCD Last SHOW

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He’s currently writes about television for Voice of TV, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices,The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future. 

 

 

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