The Juan MacLean

Had the notion of acid house not been comprehensively explored at the tail end of the 1980s, we might have minted the term to describe the Juan Maclean’s I Can’t Explain, which is inspired by mind-expanding drugs and old-school house music. John Maclean—operating solo here, rather than in the company of Nancy Whang—says that he created the EP’s tracks “after weekends of head down dancing in dark clubs,” fine-tuning them across months and years of club play; just as significantly, he produced each track under the influence of psychedelics, “mostly LSD.”

House music plus hallucinogens is not a new idea, but it is a surprisingly rare combination, given how well the two elements compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Much psychedelic music is long-winded and diffuse, while house music is too often wedded to efficiency, and it is the push and pull between these contrasting ideas—the groove and the ramble, the strait-laced and the psychotropic—that drives this excellent EP.

Rather than the tweaking 303s and rough drum programming of classic acid house—which today sounds closer to proto-techno than it does the smooth thread count of modern house music—I Can’t Explain offers disco loops filtered into abstraction, with the cumulative effect like a DJ Sneak or Cassius record glimpsed through a narcotic fog. (A rather erratic 303 line does turn up towards the end of “City Life Disco,” but this is a rare moment of rough and tumble among the sweet kaleidoscopic soup.)

The EP’s four tracks (joined by a rather superfluous remix by Berlin-based producer Alinka) are maddeningly simple on the surface: just drums, bass, and a couple of brief samples. The brain-bending effects of this rather dogmatic mix arise in the EP’s production, where the sources are treated to a world of echo, phase, and dissociative effects. The beat on “City Life Disco” is so bathed in springy reverb it seems to almost double up on itself, like a rhythm that has bounced free from a passing King Tubby record.

Having so little to play with means Maclean’s production has to be perfectly calibrated: sufficiently repetitive to establish a rolling groove but with enough difference to sustain interest. Maclean expertly uses subtle variations in rhythm, tone, volume and effect to create shifting sonic sands over the four lengthy songs. The EP’s title track is based around one brief vocal sample which floats in and out of focus like a kiss in a daydream. Listening to this hypnotic composite feels being spun around and down a brightly colored helter skelter, a whirl of gentle adventure.

“Leave Me When You Can,” meanwhile, connects a slightly muffled disco drum loop, a snippet of vocals, and an exquisite production effect that sounds like wind rushing past a penthouse window. You can imagine Maclean fiddling with the song’s ingredients as his buzz intensifies, channeling the music’s warm lysergic rush. Despite the chemical distractions, though, Maclean is savvy enough to introduce an enchanting wrinkle, allowing a few bars of hi-hat to slip delicately out of time before bringing the elements back into line.

Whether it was the drugs or the power of old-school house, Maclean appears to have squared a circle on I Can’t Explain, as the dancefloor-friendly Juan MacLean of “Happy House” meets the hallucinogenic adventurer behind 2021’s Ritual Device—a record of drones intended for “psychedelic journeying”—and getting along famously. A lot of truly terrible music has been made under the influence of psychedelics, but Maclean’s gambit turns out to be both mind-expanding and pulse-quickening.

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