Back in 2001, two friends traveling across Europe reported back that the prophetic refrain of Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" had followed them across seven countries. Personal taste aside, any song that achieves that level of saturation must have somehow nailed its time and, most importantly, its place: in that case, a polyglot continent desperate for a "na-na-na na-na na-na-na."
Not long ago, another song scored the same feat in New York City. Its ubiquity has grown to alarming proportions since it was seized by the city's nocturnals -- the citizens of New York's dance clubs, warehouse parties, runways and rock shows -- as their anthem, the mnemonic for their own chic hysteria. For them, the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" manages to sum up a thousand nights of frantic sweat in its five minutes and seven seconds. As stunning as it is to behold, the song's success isn't such a surprise. New York's numerous midnight species are famously divided along stylistic lines, but the one thing they all agree on is the urgency of their hedonism. And no band compresses disco hedonism and punk urgency as successfully as the Rapture.
With critics still frantically triangulating antecedents to the band's sound -- usually citing the angular funk of post-punk groups like Gang of Four -- the Rapture's city-wide appeal endures, a case not so much of mimicry as of evolution. The stylistically pure California punk underground that birthed the Rapture couldn't quite hold them, and the band, ready to chart a new path, relocated to New York in 2000. The new setting exposed them to a range of musical styles, each one promising enticing new lines of flight beyond the borders of punk. It also set the scene for a now-legendary collaboration.
Every city is infatuated with the memory of itself at a particular time. For New York, it's surely 1978-1981, a period, so the memory goes, of unbridled cultural cross-pollination. Certainly three of the city's major contributions to music history -- punk, disco and hip hop -- were near their peaks, and in the confines of lower Manhattan every major musical artist seemed to thrive on the heat from these disparate elements sliding against each other. As much as gentrification, balkanization and sanitation have transformed the city's current landscape, those same forces have only deepened the city's affection for its period of lost creative ferment.
Enter Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy, music veterans and the co-proprietors of Plantain Studios, one of New York's foremost recording facilities. The two share an obscurationst's range of musical tastes -- one that embraces, among other things, techno, jazz, kraut rock and dub -- but their approach to music remains firmly rooted in the avant-radical DIY ethics of punk rock. To harness this shared musical obsession, the duo founded DFA records in 1999. Almost immediately their remixes for bands like Le Tigre established the signature DFA aesthetic: a uniquely evocative mesh of disco funk and electronic punk that perked up the ears of record collectors pining for the adventurousness of New York's heyday.
Proof of the chemistry between DFA and the Rapture can be found in the aforementioned five minutes and seven seconds of dancefloor history known as "House of Jealous Lovers." The sound they created for the record is a cross-breed of 4/4 kick drum and strafing guitar, a sonic hybrid that matches singer Luke Jenner's hysterical vocals with a propulsive disco bass line. As perfectly as these disparate elements fit together, though, the record's widespread success has also depended on a handful of shrewd marketing decisions on the part of DFA.
The first was to release the track exclusively in the DJ-centric twelve-inch vinyl format, a move virtually unheard of for a contemporary rock band. The second was to solicit a remix of the track from up-and-coming New York house outfit Metro Area. And before you could say "Emerge," deejays of every persuasion began mixing the record into their sets. Played alongside dance music, the track's rock fury hits the ear like an ambush. In a rock club, its propulsive low end makes all the songs around it feel stiff and tinny by comparison. In either environment, the effect is unmistakable.
The magical collaboration between DFA and the Rapture continues, and the latest result is the single "Olio." Where "House of Jealous Lovers" ruled the nightclub, "Olio" sums up the long, lonely walk home. Jenner's anguished vocals lend the new song a dark edge that points to another path out of punk: gothic theatricality. Of course, the precise direction of their forthcoming LP is anyone's guess. With the Rapture touring the world and DFA continuing to produce quality records by acts like Juan MacLean, Black Dice and LCD Soundsystem (James Murphy's alter ego), their as-yet-untitled LP isn't likely to surface before summertime. But New York has already waited twenty years. What's a few more months?
by Craig Garrett
[originally published in Boiler no. 2 (June-Sept. 2003)]