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Teengirl Fantasy, ‘Tracer’ (R&S/True Panther)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 21, 2012
Label: R&S/True Panther

Everyone wants a piece of dance music right now. Media baron Robert F.X. Sillerman is spending $1 billion to build an electronic-music events behemoth to rival Live Nation. Ultra Music (home to Deadmau5 and Kaskade) and the hitherto unrelated Ultra Music Festival recently announced a “global alliance” that will facilitate cross-promotion of their doppelgänger brands. (Which one will be Jim Halpert, and which one Dwight Shrute?) And Las Vegas casino magnate (and Republican mega-donor) Steve Wynn is transforming all his properties into a playground for clubbers with bulging pockets. Dance music has entered its empire-building phase.

Teengirl Fantasy want a piece of the action, too — but just a little parcel of land to call their own. The two New York electronic musicians began seeding that plot with 2010’s 7 AM (Merok), a sprawling (in the best way) collection of hazy, horizontal, not-quite-dance music. Now, on their new Tracer, they really begin to reap what they’ve sowed. Incorporating elements of Detroit techno, Chicago house, and pre-glitch IDM — and invoking the classics’ spirit without getting mired in traditionalism — their hybrid strain is a jangled gene pool of bygone sounds nurtured by good old-fashioned craft.

Logan Takahashi and Nick Weiss are upfront about the fact that they discovered classic dance music the modern way: via YouTube, working their way through the forking family tree that connects Basic Channel, Wolfgang Voigt, Marc Kinchen, Larry Heard, and other cornerstones of 1990s club music. That list is as catholic as it is canonical, and you can sense the breadth of their curiosity all over Tracer. The opening “Orbit” pairs the sweeping string stabs of Massive Attack’s “Three” with a viscous bass line modeled after Renegade’s 1994 jungle anthem “Terrorist.” The breathy synthesizers from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” pepper the album with their gliding, pitch-bent attack. “End” features the requisite nods to Steve Reich and Ryuichi Sakamoto, while the glistening chords of “Eternal” suggest the more contemporary Joy Orbison. And “Do It,” the record’s most purist pastiche of 1990s house, borrows Marc Kinchen’s trademark organ stabs and then drives the point home with a vocal turn from Romanthony, a Chicago legend best remembered for his turn on Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”

The recent Oberlin grads — 7 AM was released while they were still in school — have repeatedly stressed that they’re less interested in replicating classic styles than in picking and choosing the best bits to be reconfigured into something new. The result is a patchwork approach to nostalgia, cherry-picking sounds from dance music’s collective memory and rearranging them into something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

Unlike other sonic rag-and-bone collectors, though, Teengirl Fantasy have made a conscious move away from sampling. 7 AM was a mixture of live machine jams and verbatim quotations; its standout track, “Cheaters,” succeeded in large part thanks to a soulful vocal lifted from Love Committee’s 1976 song “Cheaters Never Win.” The sample-free Tracer, in contrast, puts the emphasis on the musicians’ improvisatory process, capturing the long sweep of exploratory sessions in which they tap away at daisy-chained machines, tweaking knobs in real time until the sound almost seems to organize itself. They may add a layer of overdubs and edit down their multi-tracks, but the sense of flow is paramount.

As a result, their music feels less firmly fixed than much contemporary dance music, which is built brick by digital brick in music software: Drum patterns and arpeggios run slightly out of phase, and on “Mist of Time,” featuring Brooklyn’s Laurel Halo, the elements circle each other warily, like magnets repelling each other. Going by their gut, rather than a GUI, the duo evokes a thrilling sense of instability, of coming-into-being.

Don’t call it “lo-fi,” however. They’ve significantly cleaned up their sound since 7 AM, clearing away the cobwebs and narrowing their focus on nimble arpeggios and crisp, acid-house-inspired drum programming. Tracer‘s unusually luminous feel derives from Teengirl Fantasy’s turn to digital synthesizers, which give off a queasy sheen distinct from the customary sound of the old analog workhorses. (I don’t know if they’re familiar with Ken Ishii’s early 1990s records on the R&S label, but their glass-blown high end bears an uncanny resemblance; it seems fitting, then, that True Panther licensed this album to R&S for European distribution.)

Tracer is a short album, barreling through 10 tracks in just 40 minutes. And it’s here that it becomes apparent that, for all the delirious rush of these on-the-spot creations, there are still kinks to work out. The closing “Timeline” sounds like a coda to the superior “Eternal,” utilizing similar chords and slightly wonkier drum programming, and “Inca” similarly feels like a variation upon a variation. The album’s strongest songs, perhaps unsurprisingly, feature vocalists. On the slow, slippery R&B jam “EFX,” the Los Angeles singer Kelela provides a soulful center of gravity amid rickety hi-hats and wheezing, erratic synths; She’s apparently a newcomer, but her performance here suggests that she won’t remain an unknown quantity for long. (Amateur A&R tip: SBTRKT would do well to recruit her.)

“Mist of Time” similarly benefits from Laurel Halo’s slightly alien-sounding mezzo-soprano; even lurking in the background, she’s the force that anchors the song’s beatific drift. And Animal Collective’s Panda Bear does the same on “Pyjama,” threading the song’s dissipating sequences with long tones and multi-tracked harmonies. Without him, it would be little more than a sketch. You could argue that he even overpowers his collaborators: It sounds more like a Panda Bear song than anything else, but better that than a wan cameo.

The only vocal cut that’s not quite up to snuff is the pro-forma “Do It,” in which Romanthony strikes the familiar exhortative stance of so much classic Chicago house. Dance music needs its stock phrases, of course — it thrives upon them, and when done right, they can feel like the only words in the world worth hearing at that moment, even if it’s just “Work that body.” But Romanthony’s chorus — “I’m gonna do it / Do it / I wanna have some fun / I’m not the only one” — are not those words. What makes Teengirl Fantasy’s music so compelling is its inherent sense of doubt, a stark contrast to commercial EDM’s fist-pumping triumphalism. “Do It,” with its glossy keys and Auto-Tuned effects, sounds like the fruit of a genetically modified seed that has wafted from the festival main stage and taken root in their backyard patch of lumpy soil.

For all their magpie tendencies, these guys don’t have a didactic approach; ironically, it’s when they turn their efforts to a “proper” vocal house track that they come to seem like novices. “Do It” is the only moment where you sense that Teengirl Fantasy knew exactly what sound they were going for. They’re at their best when simply feeing their way around in the dark, as unsure as the listener as to what might happen next. Curiosity becomes them.