Wednesday, December 10, 2014

album review: 'it's album time' by todd terje (RETRO REVIEW)

One of the biggest criticisms of 2014 in music as a whole is that it's been a bit of a boring year. Not in that things haven't happened or great albums haven't been released - I've got lists that are bursting at the seams of great songs and albums you'll be seeing very soon - but that there haven't been truly 'classic' records dropped or songs/events that really lit the world on fire. It's one of the reasons why there hasn't been a lot of critical consensus in terms of album picks on the year-end lists that have already been released - a few recurring names, but not a lot in common at the top.

And there is something to this argument. With few exceptions, music both in the underground and mainstream has seemed more reserved and less willing to shock or be in your face in comparison with last year, where there was a lot of that. Coupled with stagnation on the pop charts, it's led to a year where not a lot has seemed to have happened, and with rare exception, the top albums are a little more subdued, not as immediately quantifiable as outright awesome. And once again, with only a few exceptions, I can agree with that.

But discussing why this is the case is a little trickier. Some of it might just be burnout - too much of Kanye screaming and Miley's ass in our face might have just exhausted people and led them to be more accepting of quieter, potentially even less interesting material. As such, I've been wary of checking out the long-awaited debut album from Todd Terje all year. He's a Norwegian DJ who's been around in the electronic and disco scene for almost ten years, with a reputation for making what he himself has described as 'good, danceable elevator music'. In other words, it wasn't exactly a record that was screaming for attention - but, given some of the critical acclaim it has received, I was curious enough to check it out? So, is it really 'album time'?

Honestly, it might be, because I had a lot of fun with this record. And yet I get some of the odd reception to this album, some giving it a lot of critical acclaim while others are slightly more reticent. Mostly because It's Album Time is a bit of an odd slice of music, a slightly overlong, unabashedly cheesy record of disco crossed with spacey electronica, retro jazz and surf pop, and even flourishes of bossa nova. All of it makes an album that might not have the emotional heft or punch of a similarly backwards-looking record like Random Accessed Memories by Daft Punk, but it still is a uniquely fun and incredibly danceable record all the same. 

To describe how all of this works, let's start with the instrumentation and production, most of which is bright, flashy, and broad right from the opening track, from the fluttering high progressions that will eventually blend with the thicker horns and spacey swell. That describes the general musical tightrope that this album walks - a chintzy retro-style with lush strings, and horns and amazingly well-textured orchestration, where songs might evoke glossy noir vibes between blubbery splashes of effects that might have been cool for a time decades ago, but now come across as at best outdated and at worst unbelievably cheesy. And then you realize that's part of Todd Terje's entire point: he's mixing this album for broad tones that can be goofy as hell on their own, but thanks to the tight basslines and lower synth riffs, have a backbone of elastic tightness that can support them to the point where if you buy into the retro vibe, that veneer of cool still can have some shine to it. Take the song 'Svensk Sas' - with the bossa nova vibe, doo-wop low backing vocals, and melody line half piano and half grating in-your-face retro pop girl group, it could easily be played as a parody, but the tighter percussion escalation, you could easily see someone taking it completely seriously and making it kind of awesome.

And this album is at its best when it sticks to that tightrope, from the tight, occasionally chintzy keyboard melodies balanced against the echoing, shimmering synths and strings on 'Leisure Suit Preben' and 'Preben Goes To Acapulco', with the fluttering arpeggios, and textured drum cadences, to the spacey disco vibe of 'Delorean Dynamite' with a sick mid-song guitar line, to the lounge piano/elevator music that interjects squealing fuzzy synths and a drum solo for 'Alfonso Muskedunder' or the gleaming punch and fantastically catchy progression on 'Inspector Norse'. And that's not even touching on 'Oh Joy', easily my favourite track of the album that opens with stark crisp plucks before the synth crescendo begins over some African bongos and anchored by a solid piano line below the oscillating synths, and then the guitar comes in and the song explodes with swirling energy. Where this album struggles is on tracks like 'Strandbar' or on the two 'Swing Star' songs - the lounge keyboards work well against the punchy beat, but some of the progressions do feel a little underwhelming at points and really could have use a little more of the experimental flourishes and change-ups that came up elsewhere on the record. It's these moments can make the album feel a little long at points, and while I'm nitpicking, the "wet" style of production with the bubbling synths and popping beats can feel a little lightweight across the mix. Yes, it's intentional, but sometimes you get the feeling the keyboards could use the mix depth a little more effectively, and it doesn't quite happen.

And like most electronic albums, there aren't a lot of lyrics to really discuss - except for one song, a cover of the Robert Palmer track 'Johnny And Mary'. It's a shockingly melancholy song to include on an album with this many comedic flourishes, a downbeat track where Johnny runs around trying to find companionship - either on the dance floor or bedroom, and completely ignoring Mary at home - and yet Mary doesn't leave him. Both have no reasonable feel on expectations on finding what they want, and thus they're stuck - and with Bryan Ferry's rasp of a voice over the album's most restrained production, it shows the other side to this album. Not so much darkness but an aching sadness that comes with having comedic wit and being the face of the party, but finding no real satisfaction. Now many would suggest that a song like this doesn't belong anywhere on an upbeat dance track, but if you look beneath the glitz and broad strokes there is a certain melancholy beneath some of these songs, a strange loneliness that comes from someone wringing the most out of his brand of outdated cool for as long as he can. And you can be sure he's having a blast, but he knows it'd be better if he could recapture the starlight for everyone.

And yeah, that might be awfully poignant or even pretentious for what is, without considering subtext, an upbeat, goofy dance album, but it gives It's Album Time a certain emotional heft to it - a old comedian baiting the audience with a joke we've all heard a dozen times, and yet it's still a good joke that draws laughter. That's somewhat analogous to this record - it's broad, bright, and at points completely cheesy and ridiculous, but it's shows why some of that old-school style and charm worked in the first place, and that makes this record really shine for me. And I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's a solid 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. I'm not going to say It's Album Time is for everyone - it's not, and I know that I definitely have a higher tolerance for kitsch and 70s-inspired cheese than most - but if you're looking for a record that bleeds fun from every pore, It's Album Time is definitely for you.

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