For any mid-range, indie-credible artist nowadays, cutting a live album seems particularly bold. Bands such as Wilco and My Morning Jacket—who imbue their more concise studio compositions with an extended-jam aesthetic in the live setting—rely on their respective cult followings and extensive touring schedules to support recorded live efforts. It also helps that both bands lean heavily on the ages-old “you have to see them live” mantra to bolster the success of their live albums. Wilco’s Kicking Television and My Morning Jacket’s Okonokos both effectively feature inspired interpretations of each band’s studio material and alter their listeners’ perception of the original music by capturing at least a little of a live performance’s magic.
LCD Soundsystem make subtler departures from their recorded material in live performance, but the vehemence and sheer passion with which James Murphy and co. attack their material easily ranks the band among the most exciting live acts in the last decade. It speaks volumes to their skill that LCD Soundsystem abstain from “jamming” or “improvising” in the traditional sense. They are first and foremost an electronic dance band, originally conceived as Murphy’s one-man studio project. Seeing LCD Soundsystem in concert and listening to them on record feel like polar opposites, and make efforts like The London Sessions necessary.
While not technically an actual concert recording, The London Sessions still manages to replicate some of the nuanced drive and pure energy that make LCD Soundsystem concerts so unforgettable. Stripped of all colorful production and studio trickery, The London Sessions offers a playfully tight, shockingly raw performance that improves on the band’s studio material in almost every way.
Sound Of Silver standout “Us V Them” kicks it off with a syncopated cowbell and bass pulse, a quintessential ingredient in LCD Soundsystem’s trademark disco picnic. Around the one-minute mark Murphy’s voice floats in, quietly harmonized by drummer Pat Mahoney with a delicate complacency completely uncharacteristic of the album version. Although veering a little too close to the band’s “live” version of the same song recorded for Los Angeles’ KCRW public radio station, “Us V Them” still stands as LCD Soundsystem’s defining introductory staple, and The London Sessions would seem incomplete without it. Plus, hearing Murphy whisper “Nancy” to beckon in his fellow band member Nancy Whang’s keyboard tones is a sheer delight.
This Is Happening’s “All I Want” follows, demonstrating how a nuanced departure from its studio material can help the band reinvigorate songs in fresh, unlikely ways. The unstable slides of the guitar and the piano’s quivering notes drive more persistently than on the album, and yet the song feels necessarily relaxed, more of a slow-burner than a frenzied ballad. Murphy’s gradually swelling voice, underlined by dizzied synths and backing “ooh la la la’s”, culminates in a visceral, pained wail completely absent from the studio version. We cannot see Murphy’s eyes while he desperately begs to be taken home, but his intense range of emotion feels stunningly more palpable than ever before.
The same emotional urgency inspires “All My Friends,” and along with the added background vocals before the last verse, the song soars to previously unattainable heights. Murphy does not operate alone however, and credit must be given to the strikingly talented band backing him. Hearing Nancy Whang breathe seductively in rhythm with “I Can Change”’s brief percussive breaks, or realizing the impossible precision with which bassist Tyler Pope trades octave licks with drummer Pat Mahoney’s rapid fire cymbals on “Pow Pow” makes for sharp, grippingly refreshing entertainment. Breakout hit “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” bounces along a lightly snapped, funk-flavored bass line before bursting into the electric crunch of its central refrain. “Drunk Girls” races toward its climax with all the burning fervor of a 70’s punk band, and retains a more inherent integrity than its studio counterpart.
The London Sessions cannot capture the radical interpretations, passionate spontaneity, and unabated energy of LCD Soundsystem’s live shows. What it does offer is a taste of the band’s raw talent and utter commitment to live performance. Stripped of all the pretenses of studio production, this record injects new life into a group of songs already overflowing with liveliness.