Animal Collective’s Panda Bear and Daft Punk collaborator Romanthony add vocals to this hipster-friendly collection of electronica songs.
You might as well call the duo behind electronica act Teengirl Fantasy bona-fide hipsters given their credentials and friends in their Rolodex. Nick Weiss and Logan Takahashi were first interviewed by Pitchfork, that bastion of hipster culture, a year before they’d even released their first album, 2010’s 7AM. The UK’s Guardian newspaper also gave the group serious ink as a “band of the day”, also well before their debut album had been unleashed. They were additionally booked to play the May 2011 version of All Tomorrow’s Parties, which was curated by none other by hipster friendly act Animal Collective. So it should be of no surprise to see listed in the credits of the duo’s sophomore follow-up Tracer vocal contributions from the likes of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (you know, the “cool” one in the group, or seemingly cooler than Avey Tare, at least, in that he makes better solo albums) and the presence of Romanthony, who sang on Daft Punk’s “One More Time”. And we all know where Daft Punk sits in the hipstersphere in terms of being the de facto house music house band, right? (Please see “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”.)
So, given all that, you’d have to think that Teengirl Fantasy, aside from its pedophiliac-baiting name, is, well, cool. Or at least the sort of thing that would get you into the good graces of anyone at a Williamsburg party if you did a little name dropping. With Tracer, Teengirl Fantasy largely proves that they are generally worthy of the ink being written up about them – with a caveat or two that I’ll get to in a few moments. Tracer is a straight-up, purportedly sample free (and I’ll espouse on that, too, in a minute, so patience there, grasshopper) album of bouncy, somewhat experimental indie house music. In fact, Tracer has the hallmarks of a band trying desperately to stay out of the mainstream: slippery and glitchy electronic polyrhythms, meandering tracks that wallow on as though the band were taking a stroll through a gigantic field, obscure (but not too obscure) collaborations, and an overt feeling of ‘80s retro cool. All of these things are basically ingredients to make an electronic outfit hip or trendy amongst those who snivel at the mere thought of being a hipster. Teengirl Fantasy is also out to strengthen their cultural currency by being as “authentic” as possible – and that means reportedly throwing out the samplers on this latest release. However, that doesn’t mean that they’ve thrown away their keyboard presets. “Do It” is such a rote late ‘80s or early ‘90s house anthem that you can almost imagine CeCe Peniston singing over it instead of Romanthony. And “EFX” has the same woofy dog-sounding, if not airy and sparkly, keyboard sounds that are practically lifted from ‘80s dancefloor one-hit wonder Nu Shooz, particularly their song “I Can’t Wait”. Throughout Tracer, Teengirl Fantasy manage to be original without actually being, you know, original.
The duo’s biggest asset with Tracer is conversely its biggest liability in equal measure: its collaborations – which is to say that they either hit the mark, or miss it entirely. “EFX”, a trance track that features L.A.-based singer Kelela, is a clear highlight, because it might make listeners of a certain era fondly nostalgic for mainstream music of the mid-‘80s with all of its backwards-looking keyboard sounds and production techniques. It’s a perfect distillation of pure pop, and it’s a song that’s easy to get a little lost in, even if it is essentially a bit of a slow jam and more apt for the chill out room than the dancefloor. Similarly, “Do It” is on the other end of the spectrum and is a rousing club anthem, one that aims to puts Nikes on the floor. It, too, is a bit of a throwback and sounds like it could have come out the watershed of popular music that the early ‘90s wrought. However, other contributions practically sink the album in experimental twaddle. Panda Bear’s take on “Pyjama” is an utter trainwreck: it sounds like he’s singing lyrics to another song entirely over the stuttering tribal rhythms of the track. So, sorry folks, Person Pitch this ain’t. The album’s final vocal contribution comes from Laurel Halo on “Mist of Time”, which, given its title, sounds exactly like inconsequential video game music from 20-odd years ago. Maybe Myst?
Other than that, Tracer is full of traces of melodies and snatches of ideas on its instrumental tracks, and they are ... interesting, if not wholly successful. My favourite is “Vector Spray”, if only because its name sounds like something out of an early Jonathan Lethem novel. Generally speaking, a great deal of these songs kind of wander and meander their way through a retro-futuristic soundscape, making these pieces something that could have stumbled out of Blade Runner or maybe, just maybe, a Jean-Luc Goddard film in terms of the fact that they don’t appear to have any narrative sonic form. My sole bone of contention with many of these tracks is that they feel somewhat experimental for the sake of being experimental. They lack a full-bodied quality, a soul, perhaps – which may seem odd as we’re talking about a genre that is as clinical as electronica. However, there just seems to be an overall feeling of something tangible being missing from many of these instrumentals: they just kind of hover and don’t really go anywhere or latch onto any snippets of sonic wash that would seem memorable in the least. They’re aptly more suitable, then, as background music. Whether that’s a failure or a commendation is pretty much open to interpretation and your point of view. However, there’s no sense of adventure or the feeling that you’ve stumbled onto something new when you listen to Tracer’s traces.
Still, “Do It” lays out this lyric, which is emblematic of the entire album: “I want to have some fun, I’m not the only one ... / Gonna have a good time, you know it’s yours and mine.” And, pretty much, Tracer is exactly that: a good time. A not overtly memorable one, but one that you can go to the club with, nod your head with at all of the appropriate moments, dance a little bit to, and come down with from a drug or Red Bull fuelled high. That doesn’t make for a superlative release, but credit Weiss and Takahashi for trying to change up their songwriting approach and try something new, if somewhat repetitive. With Tracer, Teengirl Fantasy seem to know exactly who they are and the audience they’re trying to reach, and seem simply content in trying to be as “cool” and “real” to a select group of people as possible. There’s nothing necessary wrong with that, at least in the music world, but as anyone who is cool and knows it knows, just being yourself and trying to be something that you’re happy with is the best way to go about it. Tracer, alas, sounds like it’s trying to play a little bit to the expectations of others: the trap of having a Rolodex with somewhat famous or credible names in it. Maybe next time, the duo behind Teengirl Fantasy should just make a record for themselves first.