Death From Above 1979: The Punks Throw A Dance Party

We here at Rust Is Just Right are plenty excited for the return of Death From Above 1979, so much so that the anticipation of their upcoming new album and ensuing tour has obviated our need for Caffeine Shots of Dubious Safety, as our energy needs are now fulfilled by the pure excitement of this news.  A couple of weeks ago we linked to the clip where BBC DJ Zane Lowe introduced the new single “Trainwreck 1979” for the first time, and noted how he did a great job of articulating the particular joy that this long-awaited return created for a specific segment of the music-loving population.  Then Zane did exactly what every other DFA1979 fan would do after playing the song–he hit the repeat button and played it again.

Death From Above 1979 never reached a broad audience when they first hit the scene a decade ago, and due to the specific nature of their sound, this is understandable.  But for those us that decided to give them a chance, the intervening years since their debut You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine the fanbase has only increased our rabid love for the band.  Somehow, the ultra-simple combination of bass, drums, and vocals were all we needed (okay sure, there was the occasional synth/keyboard, but this setup constitutes 95% of the album); the stripped-down, bare-bones approach was apparently all that was necessary to write songs that still held up ten years later.  To this day, You’re a Woman is in my regular rotation and serves as the perfect soundtrack to a workout or a road trip.

First, let’s give some credit to the guys (Jesse F. Keeler on bass and synth, Sebastien Granger on drums and vocals) for the name of the band and their debut album–both are immediate attention-grabbers that leave the listener intrigued as to what the music could possibly contain.  The phrase “Death From Above 1979” is partially the result of an early cease-and-desist from the DFA record label for infringement, but the tacked-on year ended up providing a compelling juxtaposition.  The addition of “1979” as almost a non sequitur helps to reassess the original phrase, which otherwise could seem kind of empty; it also in a way gives an indication of the music, signalling that the band is going back near the roots of punk and dance music.  The phrase You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine also helps clearly set the agenda of the band, providing a clear dichotomy both between Man and Woman and Human and Machine.  The album focuses a lot on relationships, set to music that is both rhythmic and emotional.  It’s a perfect description of the music.

The key to the band’s success is what at first glance may seem like a liability: their limited sonic palate.  While there have been some successful rock duos over the years (with many of them benefiting from DFA1979’s initial breakthrough, to be fair), the majority of them have opted for a guitar over a bass.  It’s a choice that makes sense, since a guitar gives a musician many more melodic options, and can even double as a bass on occasion (see Local H; “Seven Nation Army”).  The reverse is not the case–while the bass on You’re a Woman uses plenty of distortion, it can rarely be mistaken for a guitar.  It does however give DFA1979 a distinctive trademark sound, making their songs immediately identifiable.

DFA1979 doesn’t just get by on a signature sound, though; there is a purpose behind their reliance on bass and drums.  By focusing on those two instruments, it strips a song down to its barest elements, down to the closest we can get to the basic fundamentals of melody and rhythm.  By placing this restriction on their songwriting, it actually opens up the creative possibilities because it allows the group to specifically channel their ideas.  The duo is then able to focus on writing catchy riffs and propulsive beats, going beyond the simple verse-chrous-verse formula, without worrying about any other sonic details.   It’s what helps give the individual songs such a long shelf-life–you never get bored listening to a song, because each song moves quickly from one riff to the next without ever losing steam.

The approach also helped the band seamlessly blend the raw intensity of punk with the fun of dance music, even better than some of their more-celebrated counterparts in the early 00’s dance-punk movement.  While other bands like LCD Soundsystem, !!!, and The Rapture brought punk elements to a traditional rock/dance sound, Death From Above 1979 seemed to work from the other end of the spectrum, pushing punk towards dance music.  It made for a fantastic live show–even if the mix was muddy or they didn’t nail every note, their energy is infectious.  Just check out their legendary performance of “Romantic Rights” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, with a memorable guest popping up midway through the song.  DFA1979 were never missing an edge, with their extremely-distorted bass and their lightning-quick tempos, but their songs also never lacked a danceable beat.  You could hear the elements of dance throughout their work, none more explicitly on the fantastic album-closer “Sexy Results”.

That’s why the band’s return is such an event, and how a generation of fans that were unable to see the band perform live the first time around (and didn’t feel like hitting the festival circuit in the last two years) are so excited.  And “Trainwreck 1979” is a fantastic appetizer for what is hopefully to come with The Physical World; if there was any justice in the music world, it would be universally deemed the mythical “song of the summer”.  We will be glad we can take DFA1979 off the “one-album wonder” list, and no longer have to wonder if the band could possibly follow up You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.

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