- SPIN Rating:8 of 10
For the last decade, Oslo DJ/producer Todd Terje has indulged scholarly fetishes for '60s lounge music, '70s disco/prog/jazz-fusion, '80s TV show themes, and '90s electronica, yet his buoyant output resists the weight of history: The dude rocks a party with rollicking flair. He's got the sensibility to impress serious music heads — his 2012 EP It's the Arps was performed exclusively on vintage ARP synths, the sort favored by '70s jazzbos — yet his sunny mutant grooves remain fundamentally fun. While much EDM keeps getting more automated and commoditized, Terje's countless singles, EPs, remixes, and re-edits have grown more articulated, better played, and, most importantly, increasingly individuated: Terje's particular house music emphasizes its humanity.
With one notable exception, his long-awaited long-playing debut It's Album Time is solely instrumental, but always feels as though Terje [pronounce it Terr-YEAH] is singing via his sounds. His compositional voice is playful, but exacting, like an eccentric, joke-cracking professor who nevertheless schools well. On track after track, Terje dances to his own drum — not in that hokey put-your-hands-in-the-air way, but as if pop-locking breakdance kids had hooked up with Bob Fosse's Broadway babies to reinvent the funky robot for the 21st century.
Like Daft Punk, Terje looks to the past's version of futurism to transcend today's numbed-out consensus beats. "Intro (It's Album Time)" sets the tone with a sci-fi title sequence's sense of expectation and wonder as multiple synths tinkle, twitter, and ultimately soar to the heavens. He comically undercuts this auspiciousness with "Leisure Suit Preben," which starts out lumbering with a trudging synth bassline and scattered wah-wah quacks but suddenly turns lyrical and foreboding, as if a femme fatale had ensnared our spy hero. The harmonies grow lush and overripe, delightfully evoking a bygone European soundtrack composer's florid impression of African-American jazz — not the real thing, for Terje never forgets that he's generations and oceans removed from his sources. With "Preben Goes to Acapulco," he sends his homegrown protagonist hustling south of the border via '70s-squeaky synths and tightly wound syncopations.
In the credits, Terje lists his equipment with a gearhead's glee — "ARP 2600 with St. Eric Mods" (an old synth refurbished by a contemporary Dutch lab), "NI Abbey Road Drums" (new drum software engineered to sound old), and "my brother's double bass." He's both analog and digital, synthetic and acoustic, and playing most everything himself, but the result still swings. Taking a tip from his countrymen in Mungolian Jetset, he offsets psychedelic quirks with dazzling technique on "Svensk SAS," which features layers of scatting grunts intertwined with a deliriously tropical melody.
Terje's inspirations may largely be retro, but he's one of the leading lights of a current Scandinavian scene that's essentially neo-Balearic — the 21st century version of '80s Ibiza's melodic, anything-goes DJ approach, the one that thrived before Brit jocks colonized the Spanish Mediterranean island. It's this dubby but joyous vibe that he brings to his fleet-footed numbers. He even calls one "Oh Joy," which re-imagines synth icon Jean Michel Jarre with a hi-NRG makeover. For three minutes he teases a suspenseful, sequencer-driven build out of keyboards soloing in harmony like the Miami Vice version of Thin Lizzy. Then, finally, those Abbey Road drums enter, and the rest just rockets into dancefloor ecstasy – once again proving that as nerdy as Terje gets, the guy can jam the fuck out.
He nevertheless hedges his bets on It's Album Time by rightfully including some single and EP tracks that deserve a broad audience, one that doesn't collect pricey import 12"s and scattered mp3s. It's the Arps's "Inspector Norse" and both parts of "Swing Star" reappear in slightly tweaked form along with a condensed edit of last year's "Strandbar" that judiciously reduces its "disko" mix's nagging piano chords, thereby maximizing their impact. New cuts "Delorean Dynamite" and "Alfonso Muskedunder" strike with similar stealth: Terje spices up the former's space disco motif by riffing Nile Rodgers-style on his Fender Tacocaster (yes, that's a real guitar). On the latter's speedy samba, he lets his multi-instrumentalist skills fly and nimbly recreates the wordless vocal razzmatazz of bygone sibling harmony group the Free Design.
Nearly every EDM pan-flasher has launched their debut disc with a teen-accessible vocalist, typically with crass results. Terje takes the high road by enlisting Bryan Ferry, whose solo and Roxy Music classics he's already remixed. But whereas his re-imaginings of "Don't Stop the Dance" and "Love Is the Drug" emphasize rhythmic uplift, Ferry and Terje's cover of late crooner Robert Palmer's originally spritely "Johnny and Mary" is so willfully lethargic it resists both club and radio play.
Palmer's depiction of a woefully mismatched couple is that singer's career highlight, a canny distillation of the doomed love games Ferry still embodies. Here, the 68 year-old Casanova whispers it with a vocal apparatus so worn by cigarettes, late nights, and a bajillion supermodels that he can barely sigh the air out of his lungs. Terje casts Ferry in what feels like a Fellini dream sequence playing at a nightmarish fraction of its intended speed, as if Marcello Mastroianni can no longer leave his bed, much less lure vixens to it. Terje can make an aging gigolo's commentary on the folly of his misspent youth the centerpiece of his otherwise invigorating dance album because he's the rare crowd-pleasing DJ whose musical skills trump his proven ability to move butts.