Deconstructed is an ongoing series where we take apart the arrangement of a song to see what makes it work. This time, we’re going deep with ‘Lara’, an album cut from Montreal producer Marie Davidson.
After delivering a number of French-language releases both solo and in her cold wave duo Essaie Pas, Canadian Marie Davidson broke through to a wider audience in 2018 with her English-language Ninja Tune debut, Working Class Woman. Musically a mix of Chicago house, minimal wave, and EBM, the album was noteworthy for its sarcastic and scathing spoken-word vocals.
On the eve of a new, song-based album (to be released under the name Marie Davidson & L’Œil Nu), we take a look at ‘Lara’, a fast-paced and blistering dancefloor instrumental from Working Class Woman.
‘Lara’ is an instrumental in the middle of a vocal-lead album. Because of this, the musical arrangement is different than if it were a typical Marie Davidson vocal track, or even a 12” single. Sandwiched between two other vocal tracks, it functions more as an interlude within the long album structure. To make this work, Davidson keeps things changing at a fairly brisk pace.
We start with four bars of eighth-note kicks pushed back in the mix. This is paired with an industrial-style burst of noise run through a tight room reverb, followed by feedback and the sound of Davidson’s voice (the only time we hear it on the track). Given this opening, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was going to be in the vein of Throbbing Gristle or even early Chris and Cosey. But a short, reversed kick placed right at the end of the four-bar sequence snaps us into the main drive of the dancefloor-focused song.
The next section begins with the main kick, a heavy, meaty Roland TR-909-style bass drum. It’s not hitting 4/4 yet though. Davidson is going to tease us with whole notes first. The kick is doubled up with an acoustic closed hat sample, panned to the left. After five bars, it increases in time to half notes, doubling again to quarter notes for the final bar of the eight-bar section.
Pushed to the right of the stereo field is a ticking watch, programmed so it runs in eighth notes. This sets the 138bpm tempo for the song nicely and offsets the plodding, tentative kick.
Continuing the industrial feel of the opening four bars, we’re hit with a found sound crash on top of the second kick. It’s mimicking a snare but it doesn’t continue as such. We won’t hear it again for some time. Lastly, an arrhythmic ticking fades in after two bars, adding a counter to the watch.
The elements from the previous section—kick, hat, watch, and arrhythmic ticking—continue, and are joined by a dry snare from a Roland TR-707. The snare avoids resting on the backbeats, instead pounding out a military-style fill. It’s a very 1980s Chicago-house drum pattern, one that wouldn’t be out of place on a Trax classic. Additionally, the snares sit just off the grid, giving it a loose feel despite the dry, straight-from-the-box production.
The same backwards kick pulls us into the next section, which moves along after a speedy four bars. The kick continues hitting on whole notes, but now the first and third kicks are layered with a sound treated with gated reverb. The first kick is also accompanied by a dry, repeating mechanical bell, much like on an old alarm clock. In keeping with the theme, our watch has now doubled in speed to 16th notes, adding a sense of urgency.
A rim shot pattern sourced from a TR-707 joins the percussion, sounding on bar steps eight and 11. The rim shots surprisingly do not appear in the final bar of the section, upending our expectations. The use of 707 percussion adds a real ‘80s house vibe although the manic, almost performative style of drum programming is much more punk than dance.
The industrial found sounds continue from before but now the ticking has been replaced by a distorted, Jacob’s Ladder-type sound. It reaches a quick crescendo at the end of the four-bar pattern.
The restlessness continues with another four-bar section of percussion. Our kick (sans gated reverb layer) is still landing on only the first beat of each bar. By holding back the 4/4 kick, Davidson is effectively teasing us. We know it’s coming, but when? We’re already a full minute into the track. When will it hit?
Our snare fills return, accompanied by rim shots playing the same pattern as in the previous section. A tambourine, set far right in the stereo field and sounding in short bursts of three, enters the track on the second bar of this four-bar section. An insistent beeping, likely another found sound, intrudes in the middle of the second bar, adding a feeling of urgency. Lastly, we’re hit with the crash from section two, again on the second kick.
The acoustic hat one shot from earlier returns, this time playing a traditional off-beat pattern. With so much stop-start rhythm programming and disorienting found sounds happening, the regularity of this gives us a groove to hold onto, and signals that the main section of the song is finally coming.
Acieeed! At bar 29, Davidson brings ‘Lara’ into focus with an acid line. With its flowing, 16th-note programming and smooth delay, it’s more second wave acid than Chicago acid house (think Josh Wink or Richie Hawtin). But Davidson has never been interested in slavish, period-perfect reproductions. She’s happy to borrow what she likes from different eras. (See the trance-pilfering Earth EP from her duo, Essaie Pas, for more genre-hopping.)
As the filter opens over the course of four bars, the kick—now playing the expected 4/4 pattern—fades in around bar 34. The offbeat hat provides rhythmic drive.
Here the tambourine returns, lashing out the same three-note pattern. Davidson is a very drum machine-focused producer, and that really comes across on ‘Lara’. It has the immediacy of someone performing with a drum machine rather than playing back notes drawn into a timeline on a DAW.
At bar 41, we’re introduced to a heavy, industrial clap, upfront in the mix. It’s more cold wave than house, betraying Davidson’s minimal synth roots in both her duo Essaie Pas with her husband, Pierre Guerineau, and pre-Ninja Tune solo work. The heavy clap is panned slightly to the left and treated with gated reverb. Notice how the gated reverb on the clap is panned to the right, giving the song some extra stereo width. Although there’s an acid house vibe happening, the general drum programming is in keeping with modern techno, in that there’s no emphasis on the backbeat. This clap is no exception, hitting on step six in the bar.
As the acid line continues to squirm and wriggle, Davidson adds percussion to increase tension. The three-note tambourine line gains a fourth note, while the heavy clap is joined by a dry TR-707 clap, pushed to the right and slightly lower in the mix. It’s programmed on step 11. The rim shots return as well.
After four bars, the heavy, industrial clap gains a new position, now appearing on steps six and 12. Working Class Woman is full of sounds that reference classic ‘80s EBM and ‘Lara’ is no exception.
You may have noticed that many of the turnarounds in ‘Lara’ happen every four bars, rather than the usual eight or 16. ‘Lara’ is a restless, energetic song, almost punk in its energy. It’s less interested in taking you on a journey than amping you up, like the Ramones doing acid house.
If ‘Lara’ were a traditional pop song (which it decidedly is not), the next section of the song would be the bridge, a connector between two sections.
This begins with a change to the acid line, from the flowing pattern of before to a more clipped line with staccato notes and a few rests to break things up.
The percussion has changed as well, with the hats hitting in 16th notes on top of the acid line. There is a resonant, conga-like percussive sound underpinning the hats as well.
Another four-bar turnaround. In a reprise of the introduction sections, the kick is back to playing whole notes. This is joined by the snare rolling in 16th notes, with a rest at the end of each bar that recalls the hat and conga sound of the previous section, which have now disappeared. The hats go back to the offbeat while the rim shots sound in twos, as in section 4. There’s also a second rim-shot-like sound pounding away underneath the snares.
Lastly, there’s a white noise riser, mixed low, that resets with each bar turnaround. This keeps the energy high; all tension, no release.
The bridge continues, with the snares now pounding out the fill from the beginning of the track. They’re joined by the tambourines playing their four notes, the rim shots, and the 707 clap. The industrial clap returns, which plays once a bar for four bars, and then twice in the remaining four bars. rim shot-like percussion sound that was introduced in section 12 is now playing on all sixteen notes and is really driving forward.
At bar 69, the tambourines, rim shots, and 707 clap drop out and are replaced by a pitched-down version of the industrial clap, now striking on step four. As the staccato acid line continues to fluctuate, a synth bass sound fades in, repeating monotonously in 16ths, all while the new 16th note percussion sound continues.
The synth bass that arrived in section 13 becomes a full-on bassline and the song is underway in earnest. The EBM-inspired line underpins the acid—now returned to the main pattern—with low notes, playing first an Ab for four bars and then another Ab one octave lower for an additional four bars, pinning everything to the key of Ab minor. The bassline will continue in this way almost until the end of the song.
The percussion changes here to rhythmically fall in line with the bass, with both the rim shot and hats becoming more complex. The closed hat is also joined by an open hat, alternating in a funky, disco-inspired pattern. At bar 81, the tambourine joins in, playing straight 16th notes.
Instead of introducing new sounds for each change in pattern, Davidson recycles the same sounds. This is in keeping with her minimal aesthetic and comes from both Chicago house and ‘80s EBM. When your setup is hardware-based you make the most with what you have.
Never willing to sit still and let the groove ride, Davidson changes things again at bar 85. The snares return to the fill pattern, with the industrial clap now on step six of each bar. The rimshots continue as they were but the open hat disappears, with the closed hat returning to the house-style offbeat pattern. The tambourines are nowhere to be found.
Bar 89 sees the industrial clap now repeating as in part 10. The tambourine is back for more, playing its four-note pattern. The rim shots return to their less complex pattern. The hats carry on in a disco style.
The percussion continues as before, joined now by the low-pitched industrial clap, programmed on step four. There’s a real feeling of chaos now, as all of the percussive elements are jockeying for attention.
At bar 97—the final stretch—the bassline begins to break up, playing only the first few or last notes in each bar. The rim shots mirror the bass, hitting at the same time. The two industrial claps are now both playing, sounding out a kind of call and response. There’s a fever pitch and the momentum can’t be sustained much longer.
At bar 101, all of the percussive elements and the synth bass fall away, leaving just the acid line to continue, unmolested, for the final six bars.
If you enjoyed this tutorial you might find our book ‘The Secrets of Dance Music Production’ a helpful resource for similar tutorials.