In retrospect, maybe it was inevitable that electronic dance music would eventually circle back and start paying homage to itself. After all, this cycle occurs in every other type of music. What 15 years ago seemed like an inexhaustible frontier of musical possibilities has now become another cultural archive, ripe for nostalgia. Or, as some optimists would have it, rediscovery. You can put Blondes firmly in the latter camp. The New York City duo of Sam Haar and Zach Steinman make the kind of heady, no-nonsense house music that, in the early-to-mid 1990s, marked the term’s transition from a collection of specific, regionalized sounds to a worldwide phenomenon. Blondes’ self-titled debut album is comprised of a- and b-sides of the three singles the duo released in 2011, plus a couple new tracks. A second disc features remixes of album tracks.
The pairs of one-word song titles such as “Lover” / “Hater” and “Business” / “Pleasure” suggest a certain degree of self-seriousness, and the music has the austerity to match. This is house music, so a four-on-the-floor rhythm provides the foundation. Weaving above, below, and around it are solid, electro-influenced basslines; percolating, staccato synthesizers, and various psychedelic sweeps and swooshes. And lots of reverb.
“Lover”, Blondes’ very first single, remains the duo’s definitive statement. You get those chattering synths first off, then some shimmering synths, and then still more until the music swirls into a kaleidoscopic, amorphous vapour of sound. All this before the rhythm drops. And when it does drop, you’ll feel that euphoric release that great dance music creates. Add in some reverberating, disembodied chanting, and you have the perfect recipe for a peak-period anthem. A half dozen would-be peak-period anthems follow. Take any of these tracks on its own, or even as half of a single, and it is impressive and striking. Listen to seven of them in succession, though, and you slowly notice they all sort of blur together. The elements such as the synths and reverb that make each individual track stand out, start to come across as gimmicks when stretched out across the album. You can almost imagine Blondes cutting all of these tracks from the same take, as each one is a section of a single, hour-long composition.
There are wrinkles, of course. “Business” has some syncopated percussion that gives the track a vaguely ragga/dub feel, while “water” motors along in Giorgio Moroder-meets-Kraftwerk fashion, and “Gold” throbs with menace like a lost John Carpenter soundtrack. Still, these are variations on a theme, which would be good enough if any of them distinguished themselves. And the ambient closing track, “Amber”, sounds like a token at best. Aside from “Lover”, the one true standout is “Wine”. Here, layers of reverb and instrumentation build slowly and with real purpose. Not coincidentally, vocal samples feature here, too. This is a track that moves you from one place to another. It’s not terribly original, and in fact it could have come from a Hardkiss album from a dozen years ago. But it’s a sound that you may not have heard much of lately, and it’s done with emotion. Too bad you can’t say the same for most of the rest of Blondes.
Perhaps realizing the limitations of their sonic palette, Blondes and their label have included a second disc featuring remixes of album tracks. These don’t stray too far in mood from the originals, though they often strip away some of the elements that make the originals sound alike. That means you, reverb. In particular, Dungeon Acid delivers a sharp, lean, 11-minute take on “Lover”. Have Blondes rediscovered vintage, 1990s-era house music, or are they merely recycling it? The jury is still out.