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Tensnake’s Occasionally Sublime ‘Glow’ Is Another Shot in the Pop-House Revolution

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 11, 2014
Label: astralwerks

Tensnake’s Glow peaks early, which is perhaps to be expected of the debut album from a guy who has been cranking out well-received, retro-leaning house music for almost a decade; has one bona fide semi-smash under his belt; and can’t wait to show us what he can really do, and who he got to do it with him.

And so, after the introductory “First Song” — a rippling bass-music mood-setter — we’re treated to “Love Sublime,” a buoyant, mid-tempo number that’s probably the best D Train/CeCe Peniston pastiche you’ll hear this year. The featured singer, Fiora, has been bubbling up for a few years now, mostly alongside trance-pop types like Armin van Buuren and Arty, but it’s immediately clear from the effortless way she inhabits the song that this is the kind of thing she was born to sing. And with Nile Rodgers’ flickering guitar licks lending extra shimmy to the mix, we’re immediately meant to understand that this is a Serious Record, a Heritage Record, a Humble Contribution to the Disco Continuum.

(It’s also a #humblebrag, of course, because not just anyone can get Nile Rodgers on their record — although, given the Chic legend’s recent collabs with Daft Punk, Avicii, Mystery Skulls, Disclosure, Sam Sparro, and Chase & Status, it seems to be getting easier.)

That’s track two. Glow peaks again with its penultimate cut, the dreamy “58 BPM,” a gelatinous synth-pop power ballad that sounds like it’s been cut at 33 instead of 45, and surely ranks as the most affecting song ever dedicated to a tempo. (Indeed, it may be the first song ever to use beat-matching as a romantic metaphor.) It gets its ping-ponging LinnDrum rim-shots from Prince’s Purple Rain and its general air of plasticized melancholy from Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” but it’s Fiora that really sells it, her multi-tracked close harmonies rolling through the song like beads of mercury.

Both of these songs find Tensnake (a.k.a. Marco Niemerski) doing what he does best: taking faintly retro sounds and making them feel not just current, but necessary. That’s what he did with “Coma Cat,” his breakout single from 2010, just before the ’90s-infatuated house revival really took off. It was an electro-disco shot across the bow of a moldering tech-house scene, and it made his name: Released on Munich’s Permanent Vacation label before getting picked up by British dance powerhouse Defected, the tune went to No. 85 on the U.K. singles chart — an almost unthinkable feat for an artist who came out of Hamburg’s underground techno scene.

But since “Coma Cat,” and after the subsequent chart success of canon-aware dance acts like Disclosure, Duke Dumont, and Storm Queen, we’re suddenly swimming in the lush production values and record-collector genuflections that are Tensnake’s stock-in-trade. The bar has been raised (or the pool diluted, anyway), and Glow often seems confused as to how to distinguish itself from the vast, milky constellation of immaculately produced, frustratingly polite dance/pop/R&B hybrids that define the sound of 2014 at its most nebulous (yet ubiquitous).

In between its two peaks, the album is unfailingly tasteful, impressively craftsmanlike, and sometimes quite fun. “Selfish,” featuring a singer named Jeremy Glenn, is a note-perfect approximation of Suddenly-era Billy Ocean, right down to the DX chimes and gleaming chord stabs — and it’s a solid song to boot. (If Chromeo ever need a third member, they know whom to call.) “Feel of Love,” a co-production with Jacques Lu Cont, sends Jamie Lidell soaring atop jaunty chords and more of that satisfyingly dry LinnDrum programming; as with anything Lidell gets involved with, it’s vaguely unhinged in a way that sounds tailored to last-call sing-a-longs (and/or the closing credits of Fletch), and buzzy as an ice-cream headache. Nile Rodgers turns up again on the sleeker, sultrier “Good Enough to Keep,” in what amounts mostly to a one-chord cameo, while Fiora once again occupies the song’s center of gravity like a molten substance; trainspotters, meanwhile, may connect the rubbery bass line to Justus Köhncke’s classic “2 After 909.”

But Glow tries so hard to keep the mood pneumatic that it starts to feel over-stuffed, even at just 55 minutes long. “See Right Through” and “No Relief” both filter ’90s deep house tropes through the sparkling production of the present day, and they have their charms; there’s something fresh — and even kind of cheeky, in a record-nerd way — about the latter track’s willingness to mash up Depeche Mode, Larry Heard, and “Calabria 2007.” The sweetly melancholic “Kill the Time” and “Things Left to Say,” meanwhile, are overshadowed by the far superior “58 BPM”; all those ribbon-y background vocals and brooding keys begin to feel a little cloying, and the same goes for the sketches that flesh out the album.

The best of that bunch, though, is “Listen Everybody,” a soulful miniature that sounds like a tribute to OutKast’s The Love Below. The dubstep-oriented “Holla” helps to amplify the album’s scope; disconcertingly, though, its central riff is a dead ringer for SBTRKT’s “Heatwave.” And who knows what to do with “Ten Minutes,” a minute-long neo-soul sketch that’s accompanied by a woman exaggeratedly panning Tensnake’s whole M.O. “I had been listening already for 10 minutes to this Tensnake shit,” she drawls, derisively. “What the fuck are you guys talking about? Whatever, I don’t need tinkly, ’80s, ‘C’mon, let’s wear a tank top,’ fuckin’ rah-rah shit — I just want something hard. I want, like, big bass, like wah-wah-wah, dubstep, clubstep, electro, you know?”

The joke, presumably, is on her, because we all know that that’s not what Tensnake does. (That being said, there is a smidgen of wobble bass in “No Colour,” and it scans as rather gleefully incongruous, given the context.) And perhaps he’s also making fun of his own tinkly ’80s predilections. Now if only he could convince himself that he’s good for more than that. He’s got the reassuring glow down pat; a little bit more spark, and he’s there.