Released in: 2016
Genre: Electro House / Nu-Disco
Label: Ed Banger
Issue Date: 2016
Best Track: Safe and Sound
TRACKS: 1) Safe and Sound; 2) Pleasure; 3) Alakazam!; 4) Fire; 5) Stop; 6) Chorus; 7) Randy; 8) Heavy Metal; 9) Love S.O.S.; 10) Close Call
Justice is a French house duo formed in 2003, comprised of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay. While they have released a handful of singles in their first four years of activity, they are primarily recognized for their debut dance album † [pronounced Cross], along with the single “D.A.N.C.E.“, both released in 2007. Their second record, Audio, Video, Disco, came out in 2011.
Before going into Justice’s new album, it’s wise to place it where it belongs, which is within the context of another record: in 2013, Daft Punk — a much more famous French electronic duo — rebounded from the mixed reception of their third effort Human After All with Random Access Memories, in which they shed most of their house sensitivities and began using live instrumentation so as to create an updated disco sound. Not only was this record a smash hit, but it was the impetus for a disco revival in mainstream music, the effects of which linger to this day, as exemplified by Woman.
Of course, as with Daft Punk, Justice had elements of disco integrated into their music long before Random Access Memories; this shouldn’t be surprising, as house music stylistically originates from that genre. Cross, in spite of its rough, imposing dance sound, is meant to be an “opera-disco” album, and tracks such as “D.A.N.C.E.” and “DVNO” amply demonstrate the duo’s interest in that style. Audio, Video, Disco (2011), however, saw Justice dial back the aggressive tone of their debut and begin experimenting with rock structures. Both albums are equally great, but in some ways, the latter effort shows a move away from the debut’s “dance” element.
In that regard, Woman isn’t much of an improvement. The album marks a slight return to a more dance-oriented style, with the addition of a mix of funk, soul, and classic disco — a combination that shows Random Access Memories caught the group’s attention. To Justice’s credit, however, this addition is mostly sonic in nature, as the texture of the songs is smoother and more colorful, as opposed to the gritty aesthetic of Cross. The music itself remains firmly rooted in house, though it does host a couple of ballads to shake things up. That being said, the album does remain a far cry from their debut; whereas the near entirety of that record sounded club-ready, only a few cuts on Woman seem ready to reach the same sort of heights (I should clarify that I’m no expert in dance club culture, so be sure to take that last statement for what it’s worth).
The reason for this is that the group’s approach to song structure has changed here as well: with an average length of 5:30, the material on Woman takes longer to expand than anything off the two previous records, and with this, Justice place an unprecedented emphasis on the operatic side of their music. The 7-minute “Chorus”, for instance, doesn’t kick into its main rhythm right away; it slowly and dramatically builds up to it, and while the effect is very successful, it shows that the material doesn’t try to be as immediate as that of Cross. If you liked Justice’s debut, it’s not certain you will like Woman.
With that said, the album remains very strong in of itself. Out of all ten cuts, only two stand out as low points, which is nothing particularly surprising — after all, what is a Justice album without a dud or two? “Fire” is a solid sort of funk ballad, but it’s one that lasts almost 6 minutes and doesn’t go far beyond the hooks it introduces in the first third of its duration. “Heavy Metal”, in the meantime, oscillates chaotically between two grooves in its first half and only bothers introducing a memorable melody in its second. They’re nothing heinous, but since they last a good 10 minutes together, they make their mark.
Fortunately, the other tracks do manage to justify their lengths: aside from “Chorus”, there is also the more conventional single “Randy”, boasting a wonderful string-backed bridge as well as a particularly strong vocal performance from Morgan Phalen, who first appeared on Audio, Video, Disco. In fact, the actual dance numbers on Woman are all memorable; “Safe and Sound” is a great opener and lead single, with the album’s most powerful groove. The no-nonsense rave-up “Alakazam!” isn’t too far behind either; it may be the one track most reminiscent of Justice’s previous albums, as it only features a light touch of the record’s psychedelic sound.
The ballads also contain some choice material: among these, “Pleasure” and “Stop” are both easygoing songs with memorable vocals. The highlight in this category would be “Love S.O.S.”, which plays its absurd name (a name that doesn’t sound too far from what you’d find on an actual disco record, in fact) completely straight and turns out to work brilliantly as the album’s ending climax — “Close Call” plays out as more of a subdued epilogue, and works in that regard as well.
In sum, fans of Cross will have some reason to be disappointed with Woman, as it shows another failure to provide more of the visceral dance music that Justice first had to offer, but with that aside, it’s a definitive success in bringing house music closer to its disco roots, with a fair share of material that ranks up with the group’s best. It might be the duo’s weakest album yet, but only by a small margin.
PERSONAL RATING: ****½
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ***½
LETTERED RATING: Gamma