The first great album of 2004 has already arrived. From the opening swell of the Loyola University Chamber Orchestra crashing through a giant barbed wire fence of glitched stabs of sliced beats, to the closing wall of found sounds of "At the Edge of the World You Will Still Float", it is plainly obvious. Telefon Tel Aviv has advanced the art of the laptop album to beautifully refined heights with A Map of What is Effortless, the follow-up to their critically acclaimed debut.
The duo of Joshua Eustis and Charles Cooper has infused this album with so much soul and sweat that it is destined to go down as a classic of the genre. Never resting on a repeating loop or groove, nor filling the LP with a couple of "mood pieces" to accompany the real standouts, Telefon Tel Aviv is the real deal, as special to electronic music as a young Jeff Buckley was to singer/songwriters.
Flawlessly produced and engineered, Map of What is Effortless combines the organic sounds of real pianos and flutes (and chamber orchestras) with some of the best glitch sounds this side of Dntel. An always exciting ebb and flow of the gentle ("When It Happens It Moves All by Itself"), with the humorous ("My Week Beats Your Year"), it is the sheer unpretentious audacity of a young duo on the rise that allows A Map of What is Effortless to sound so... well, effortless.
While most of the tracks feature vocals of some kind (usually distorted, stretched and affected in some magical way), even the instrumental pieces hold their own as standouts, which is often not the case with albums such as this. The LP's first truly heart-wrenching moment comes with the elegantly floating "Bubble and Spike", where an angelic sounding Lindsay Anderson sings among slices and pops of beats and snippets of her own impossibly layered vocals. It brings to mind the best efforts of Everything But the Girl and Sigur Rós and it's especially affecting coming as it does immediately after "My Week Beats Your Year", where Anderson plays the role of a ridiculously arrogant club girl, out to prove in an elegantly-wasted deadpan that her fabulous jet-set life carries the same frequent expectancy as your going to the grocer.
The LP's title track again uses the Loyola University Chamber Orchestra to conjure up a Craig Armstrong-inspired bed of strings that acts as a relaxing intermission to the fried beats of the album's first half, before breaking down into a coral reef of sliced-up abstraction.
"Nothing is Worth Losing That", the album's sixth cut, has the same mastery of momentum that the aforementioned Sigur Rós uses to such effective extremes on their records. Bursting with walls of sound just as the listener expects it all to fade into silence, and then breaking everything down to its simplest parts when the moment seems almost too big to stay intact, it is a masterful display of arrangement, and structure.
"What it Was Will Never Again" is the most Sigur Rós-inspired cut of the entire album, sounding as if it could have come right off of ( ). But Telefon Tel Aviv hold it back, and simply end the cut just as Sigur Rós would have blown the roof off the building with a majestic wall of guitar. I'm not sure it works entirely, as it seems as if there isn't much point in building to such heights only to end it as if it never existed, but nevertheless... It might be the one flaw on an otherwise flawless collection.
Damon Aaron returns to close out the LP with "At the Edge of the World You Will Still Float", which sits somewhere between Seal and the Broadway Project, as all of the album's ideas and sounds come together for a final bow. It's a fitting ending to a record that packs a lot of those ideas in, without ever coming across as anything but cohesive.
Map of What is Effortless may very well be Telefon Tel Aviv's bid for stardom, as the duo takes the sounds and ideas of their 2001 debut, Fahrenheit Fair Enough, and expands them to new heights. Its structure and more mainstream feel may alienate some fans of their early work, but it would be unjustified as it is undoubtedly clear that Telefon Tel Aviv have created something of a minor classic here, one that will no doubt grace quite a few writers' year-end lists, and if there's any justice in the world, the shelves of quite a few record collections as well.