By Greg Salter
Teengirl Fantasy appear to have always been something of an anomaly – Nick Weiss and Logan Takahashi, the duo behind the band, have recalled in interviews that they struggled to find anyone to play or collaborate with when they first started out because their approach and music was so unique. When their debut album 7am emerged, it was usually framed as another product of 2010’s chillwave set, but that was unfair. On 7am, Weiss and Takahashi built their songs out of pieces of the history of dance music – when it worked, as on standout ‘Cheaters’, their tracks sounded as poignant as they did euphoric, radiating a communal energy and displaying an undying love for dance music.
The duo appear to have gone down two routes simultaneously following 7am – they signed to R&S and released a one-off single called ‘Motif’ that, while not rivalling ‘Cheaters’ for emotional immediacy, suggested they could be about to unfurl an album of extended house and techno-influenced cuts, intended for the clubs. However, Tracer, the album that follows, takes a different tack, attempting to twist their tinny, dense but melodic instrumentals into almost-pop songs. As the album plays, you might find yourself wondering if this is something Aphex Twin or Autechre might have produced in the early days, if Warp had forced them to pool their acid house leanings towards actual songs, rather than deconstructing the genre from within. Suddenly their signing to R&S makes even more sense.
In fact, you can hear elements of early-90s IDM across much of Tracer, though it’s warped (excuse the pun) into new forms – take the dense frantic beats on ‘Eternal’ that could have been lifted from one of Aphex Twin or Squarepusher’s more aggressive moments but are tempered with melody and, er, panpipes here. Then there’s the metallic soundscapes of opener ‘Orbit’, which sounds like a lost single from Autechre’s (very good) Incunabula. It’s not a blunting of past experimentation though – the synths and beats on ‘Orbit’ are just as unsettled and unpredictable as their early-90s influences, but they tend to ripple and shimmer.
Eschewing samples, Teengirl Fantasy have brought in several guest vocalists for Tracer – these singers tend to either find themselves soaring along on the chaos below them or being engulfed by the duo’s hectic compositions. The Panda Bear track ‘Pyjama’ suffers from the latter (has there been a Panda Bear collaboration that hasn’t been a bit disappointing?), as his multi-tracked harmonies are flattened by the tuneless cacophony around them. Elsewhere, Laurel Halo fares better, possibly because her vocals are actually less strong than Panda Bear, and can nestle in their surroundings rather than fighting against them. The pure-pop moments – Kelela’s R&B turn on ‘EXF’ and Romanthony (of Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’) on ‘Do It’ – work best, with weirdness and direct melody sitting uncomfortably but interestingly together.
So, not all of Tracer comes off brilliantly, but there are definite moments when Teengirl Fantasy, with one eye on the dancefloors and 12s of the past and another on the charts, create something quite brilliant. It’s heartening to see the barriers between the underground and the mainstream (and between genres too) being increasingly played with at the moment – I’m thinking of Jacques Greene’s forays into R&B (again, not always completely successful), Azealia Banks’ collaborations with Lone, Machinedrum and the like, even Pictureplane’s hierarchy-free take on dance music. While often it’s not quite as easy to make a pop record as these artists might hope, it feels like this is interesting territory to explore. And Tracer sounds like a step in the right direction.