The fact that the news broke about the shocking and tragic passing of Charles Cooper, one half of the innovative electronic duo Telefon Tel Aviv, on the week of the release of the group’s third proper album is a morbid coincidence that calls to mind the recent passing of Heath Ledger (in a similarly mysterious fashion) just months prior to the release of his unforgettable role in The Dark Knight.
Cooper, who reportedly has suffered from a history of suicidal tendencies, was found dead at the young age of 31 on Thursday, January 22 after allegedly being last seen a couple of days prior in Chicago’s Wicker Park following a fight with his girlfriend. There is no word on exactly what the cause of the death was, though one can read the previous sentence and make up their own minds as to one possible endgame to such a tumultuous recipe of depression and confrontation. It is a true shame, in any case, that Charles is gone, because the music he created as Telefon Tel Aviv with his longtime friend and collaborator Joshua Eustis was nothing short of revolutionary with their undeniably unique and mesmerizing strain of minimalist electronic rhythm music.
Eustis offered this touching eulogy in a recent post on Telefon Tel Aviv’s MySpace page to his old friend: “Aside from Charlie’s singular genius and musical gifts, I can tell you that he was a total sweetheart of a guy, and a loving friend and confidant to people everywhere. His musicianship was surpassed only by his greater gift to the world - his warmth, his generosity, his unquenchable humor, and his undying loyalty to those whom he loved. In the spirit of honorable mention, however, I should mention that he had a shoe collection that was marvelous, knowledge of hip-hop that was profound and knowledge of wine that was subtle…I hope that when you hear our records, whichever one it is that you like the most, you will remember him and the joy that he brought to the world.”
The blog post is a most touching sentiment that makes it incredibly hard for me, as both a critic and a Telefon fan, to have to admit that Immolate Yourself is a bit of a disappointment. At least in regards to the high watermark Telefon Tel Aviv have set over the course of this decade as New Orleans’ premiere laptop experimentalists with such classic works as 2004’s Map of What Is Effortless and their masterful 2001 debut Fahrenheit Fair Enough. And while each of those albums did, in fact, have a semblance of “danceability” as it were, the abstract glitch factor of their work weighed far more prominent. Their adventures of creatively maneuvering between the lines of the rhythm machine while maintaining a minimal semblance of pop undertones was what made them such a popular act in the IDM community.
With Immolate Yourself, the duo’s first album in five years and debut on German electronica baroness Ellen Aileen’s Bpitch Control imprint, Telefon appear to have fully embraced the post-disco sounds of such popular indie acts as Booka Shade, Lindstrom and even their new label boss. You can hear Cooper and Eustis’ full embrace of Eurolicious waves of synthesizers and dramatic beat skittering on such new tracks as “The Birds” and “Helen of Troy”.
For longtime fans of Telefon Tel Aviv who were hooked by the impressionistic sounds of their first two albums that came to define the flavor of Chicago’s Hefty label, not to mention their incredibly imaginative remix work compiled in 2007, this drastic shift in style might not exactly appeal to the legions of office workers, graphic designers and late night scribes who looked to Telefon Tel Aviv’s amalgam of analog and digital means of sonic interpretation to inspire them while burning the midnight lamp. The thought of Telefon Tel Aviv creating music that sounds like generic background stuff you hear when your significant other drags you into your nearest American Apparel shop is akin to Boards of Canada eschewing their signature flavor to collaborate with Santogold. While it is understandable that Telefon Tel Aviv wanted to explore the styles conducive to being on one of the premier dance labels in Berlin’s robust music scene, it just does not feel right for some reason, especially in comparison to the fractured brilliance of their first two studio endeavors.
There are some truly inspired moments on Immolate Yourself, however, where the duo’s experiments with the dance idiom works to their advantage. Longtime fans of Telefon Tel Aviv’s Hefty output will find solace amidst the car commercial grooves here in tracks such as “Made a Tree on the Wold” and the early Philip Glass-like “Your Every Idol”, a moody pair of compositions that both of which are certainly more evocative of Cooper and Eustis’s initial method of operation than anything else on here. Regardless of whether or not you are fully into this new, more upbeat shift in their sound, Telefon Tel Aviv’s foray into Euro-dance does reach a stirring crescendo at the end of the album on the epic title track, augmented by a fascinating and disturbingly graphic video that oddly brings to mind a fusion of John Grisham’s The Firm, the Bodies exhibit and a live action recreation of the cover art for Yes’ Going for the One (see for yourself below).
For an act who records so sporadically, it would be a shame to see Immolate Yourself serve as Telefon Tel Aviv’s final recorded output. One can only hope that Cooper and Eustis’ vaults of unreleased material survived Hurricane Katrina, or that Eustis may one day continue to record new music, either by himself or under the Telefon Tel Aviv moniker. Sure, there are some moments of pure genius percolating in the mix of this new album. But for a group who seemed to have mastered the art of abstract sequencing and mood-setting instrumental composition at such a young period of their career, one can only imagine that Immolate Yourself was something of a one-off experiment utilized to get their club jones out of the way in order to make room for a new dimension in rhythm that could have very well blown us all out of the water.
Unfortunately, as of January 22, we will never have the chance to find out. And therein lies one of the first great tragedies of 2009.