I often ask myself when listening to a new record: What is the problem that this album is attempting to solve? Teengirl Fantasy’s latest, Tracer, comes at a time when the role of the DJ is in transition. For nearly a decade, up in the booth, DJs have possessed technology enough so that the digital 1s and 0s can keep spinning indefinitely, seamlessly, and completely without human intervention, or at least for the time it takes the superstar DJ to repeatedly step away, drag on a cigarette, and churlishly fling a beer to the floor. With the advent of CDJs, vinyl emulation software, and laptop mixing, the average workaday DJ mix has become vastly more sophisticated, never mind how much of the mixing is being done live. This is only a problem insofar as, until recently, the rockstar DJ’s stage presentation still demanded some semblance of the universal pantomime for the DJ: one hand cupped to side of head, the other scratching an invisible record. Steve Angello, formerly of the Swedish House Mafia, in the damning video linked to above, eschews both gestures as he babysits a pre-recorded mix, in the process mortally wounding the Swedish House Mafia brand and prompting DJ Sneak to accuse the group of being “manufactured like coca cola.”
Teengirl Fantasy, for a certain niche market, represent the solution to this problem. They perform and record their songs live, their array of vintage drum machines and synths untainted by the light of a laptop screen. This keeps the duo virtuously busy during performances and also gave their last album, 7AM, an appealingly loose groove. I loved the haziness of that record and the way the beats veered in and out of phase, but on Teengirl Fantasy’s latest, the duo has tightened up its brand. Say what you will about the strange, strangled Philly Soul of Teengirl Fantasy’s breakthrough “Cheaters,” but the vocal was absolutely buried in dubiously tuned synths and hyperactive drum machines. On Tracer, sampled vocals have been replaced by guest appearances by Laurel Halo, Romanthony (the vocalist from Daft Punk’s “One More Time”), and Panda Bear. Kelela’s vocal on “EFX” isn’t adrift in the popstream; instead, the entire song is constructed around her voice, building to the snare rolls of that explosive chorus. Similarly, “Do It” is a classic house track, one which, unlike most of the tracks on this album, doesn’t skimp on the house hats as it erupts out of your headphones. In the next year, we’ll probably know if Tracer was the opening salvo of a move to garner club play with more functionally-produced tracks, but right now, Teengirl Fantasy still hit hardest at the level of the well-lit house party.
Although somewhat cleaner and more direct, most of these songs are still full of surprises and dub strategies, unresolved elements falling rapidly into and out of the mix like edges in a heap of rubik’s cubes. The blurred, disassembled feel of the first album can be heard on the Laurel Halo collaboration “Mists of Time,” but the thing doesn’t shuffle, sag, and right itself like the chillest tracks on 7AM, and their track for Panda Bear, “Pyjama,” breaks down, grinds to a halt, and flys apart on cue, but it doesn’t really move anywhere.
The edge of contemporary hip-hop is mostly gone, as well as 7AM’s overall analogue glow, but luckily, a new label and a new album bring a new round of influences. Tracer glimmers with the CD-ROM gleam of early-90s intelligent techno. Apropos of their move to R&S, Teengirl Fantasy sound inspired by the classic IDM and hardcore techno pioneered by that label, hearkening back to a time before digital editing and composing on personal computers was even possible. Synthetic effects, rather than samples, color their songs — note the imitable synthesized squelches, artificial flutes, chimes, and handclaps of “End” and “Inca.” “Vector Spray” imports a spritely mid-90s intelligent techno vibe, with hyperactive drum machines supporting a simple, lilting melody, undulating on flange, surfing on sine waves.
Maybe it’s the free-range drum machines and organic synths, lovingly performed and recorded live and by hand, with no software additives such as Ableton or Logic. Maybe it’s the artisanal retro fetishism of their gear, exhaustively catalogued in this interview, nostalgia-meter set fashionably to 1992. Maybe it’s their NPR stamp of approval. Maybe it’s just the smug look on Pictureplane’s face in this interview, but the way Tracer makes me feel like I am diving for the last bottle of gluten-free kombucha at a Whole Foods makes me yearn for a cake in the face, Steve Aoki style, washed down with some hi-fructose big-tent pyrotechnics.
Or haven’t you heard? DJ is the next Milli Vanilli. “We all hit play,” brayed deadmau5 in a quite entertaining blog post, proclaiming that anyone who can count to four can rock a party. He intended his bratty post as an exposé of the passive role of the DJ, with respect to the number-crunching ease of mixing with Ableton, but I would prefer to read his statement “We all hit play” with an emphasis on the We all. The defining feature of the DJ is precisely their lack of Romantic artistic expression. The longstanding theoretical interest in the DJ is inextricable from the possibilities in art and music opened up by turning our attention away from the artist. And as so-called EDM becomes the biggest thing, bigger than bro-step, and as DJs admit to just hitting play in front of the crowd — get this — no one cares. Hipster house recapitulates values of cultural capital and cache for the dancefloor, but the teenagers just keep partying, because they have no qualms about hitting play for themselves, hitting play for the rumble of the sound system, hitting play for the inventiveness of their drug designers, hitting play for the lights being flashed in their eyes, or — oh, wow! — hitting play for that polymorphous hand stroking your brain folds from out of the crowd. This is perhaps the most radical vision of the DJ: as a figurehead, and like all figureheads, ultimately powerless, a placeholder, an unrolled canvas across which to roll your paint-dripped body. And no matter how many times he breaks your heart, there will always be another Bachelor to mount the flamethrower-brandishing flying saucer, because it’s not the DJ counting to four that makes the roof levitate, but We all.