Although they’ve been together since 2008 and on the blogosphere radar for a while now, Tanlines took their sweet time releasing a proper full-length debut. Mixed Emotions shows there’s good reason for that: While it shouldn’t be a surprise that skilled, experienced producer types like Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm could put together some well conceived and meticulous sounds, it’s not every day you hear a first album that’s such a polished product. Even though much has been made about the duo’s proficiency with polyrhythms and Afropop-isms, what stands out about the twosome is something more plain and simple: its straight-up electropop chops, in the form of hummable keyboard lines and stuck-in-your-head choruses.
It’s hard not to get a good feeling about Mixed Emotions if first impressions mean anything, considering how it’s frontloaded with two singles worthy of the designation. Leadoff number “Brothers” starts out a bit atmospherically with a synthetic wash of swooshing, oceanic noise, but it gains traction and builds interest as Emm’s cooler-than-you voice somehow adds both a tinge of goth and a little soul to bring more texture into the mix. “All of Me”, on the other hand, doesn’t bide its time for anything, cutting to the chase with percolating keyboards and crisp, peppy beats, like if Delorean went all-out pop. So who knows what the vaguely relationship-y refrain of “Pardon me for asking / Pardon me for thinking / All of me is asking / All of me is thinking” is referring to, but that’s not the point as the lines worm their way into your subconscious, set to strutting synths and syncopated beats. If there are any mixed emotions being expressed here, they’re all good, on the spectrum between chilling out and ramping things up.
The singles, though, may not even be the catchiest tracks on Mixed Emotions. Coming on the heels of the two leadoff pieces, “Green Grass” somehow ups the ante with a denser, richer soundscape and more driven melodies, approximating what Cold Cave might be like if it lightened up sonically and thematically. Machine music with a warm heart, “Green Grass” manages to come off futuristic and organic at the same time, thanks in part to Emm’s searching vocals, like when he delivers with the existential chorus: “There are a lot of things there / I don’t understand / I don’t know why.” Building sparkling riffs and echoing percussion on top of what starts as a simple piano chord, “Not the Same” gives you an idea of what a minimal xx composition would sound like being all tricked out, especially when Emm’s wobbling, soulful croon and a touch of electrified strings enter the picture. And that’s not to mention “Real Life”, which has been Tanlines’ calling card for a while now, providing a healthy sampling of everything that the duo is good at doing. Buoyed by what sounds like a drum circle made up of ethnicky percussion alongside rapid-fire programmed beats, the easy vocals and carefree synthesizer lines float over the crisp rhythms with a poppy appeal that doesn’t try too hard.
On much of Mixed Emotions, Tanlines are so intuitively good working within a techno-pop idiom that it’s easy to forget that they’ve got a big imagination that at times needs more development and fleshing out. Indeed, it’s when they stray from their blueprint that Mixed Emotions yields some mixed results and you begin to notice the natural growing pains that go with any first disc. Coming off a little too chipper and giddy in the context of the whole album, “Lost Somewhere” feels gimmicky, whether it’s the electro take on yacht rock or the cutesy referentiality of lifting the chorus from the Beach Boys’ “I Know There’s an Answer”. On the other hand, the low-profile “Cactus” is almost too subtle, coming off like a techno remix of a mid-tempo Vampire Weekend tune with its deconstructed curlicue guitars. But the one real head-scratcher on Mixed Emotions is the after-hours soft-rock of the coda “Nonesuch”, which would be more appropriate as mood music for some once stylish, now dated ‘80s thriller than as the capper of an otherwise forward-looking effort.
Still, Mixed Emotions achieves what a striking debut should, offering up some strong pieces with a singular identity, while also showing that Tanlines are willing to stretch themselves a bit, even if their experimentation might lead them to some dead ends. Here’s hoping, though, that it won’t take Tanlines four more years to show how far they can take their sound.