It’s interesting to note how thoroughly Teengirl Fantasy and their Oberlin College compatriots, Blondes, have integrated into dance music’s broader landscape since first appearing in 2010; Teengirl Fantasy with their promising but not-quite-there debut, 7AM, and Blondes with a sticky EP full of cosmic disco turns and vertically climbing house by the name of Touched. Although aesthetically different, the two shared a common birthplace and–profane accusations of “hipster house” aside–a compelling outsider, pop reconstructionist mold. In 2012, Blondes is a hooky house duo on RVNG INTL and Teengirl Fantasy is doing convincing techstep impressions of 80s electro pop and R&B on London’s R&S. And both have been remixed and since validated by dance titans like Andy Stott and Actress, respectively. You might say the stage has been set.
The Actress remix in question showed up on the B-side of Teengirl Fantasy’s R&S debut, “Motif”, back in June. “Motif” was a patient but fantastical seven-minute journey full of milky synth crests and pebbled percussion hits. Above all it showed an unending array of unique structural variation, flirting in equal parts with techno, house, and electro, as well as a grip on an instantly identifiable sound, an approach similar to that of R&S labelmate Lone‘s with his own galactic rave aesthetic. The single alone made good on the promise hinted at by 7AM. Teengirl Fantasy’s sophomore LP, Tracer, however, (interestingly bereft of “Motif”) struggles with many of the same problems that the duo’s debut had.
Tracer is A weird album. I don’t mean that to be a crass assessment or anything. Teengirl’s production style just seems aggressively untraditional. Sometimes that’s commendable, as is the case with “Motif” where the track is able to find a momentous core to wrap its various figures around, but other times (most of Tracer‘s vocal-less tracks) it feels bluntly amateurish. It’s hard to tell whether the duo is simply flailing while they search for somewhere solid to land or if they’re operating with a more abstracted approach in mind, but on tracks like “Orbit,” “Eternal,” or “Inca” things never congeal beyond a collection of tropical arpeggios, flighty synth sounds, untethered melodies, and a scattered borage of kick drums and snares into a perceptible song. It’s ultimately a structural problem. Most of these tracks lack any visible nucleus from where their disparate pieces can extend and it results in a number of frustratingly directionless compositions.
Unsurprisingly, when the duo introduces vocals to the mix, as was the case with the breakaway standout from 7AM, “Cheaters,” it centers things considerably. Tracer features a number of vocal collaborators including Panda Bear and Laurel Halo, both of whom are used to a more textural effect, and, while Halo’s turn is mostly forgettable, Panda Bear’s shuddering robotic croons add some welcome emotional peaks to an otherwise neutralized landscape. But the real standouts here are the tracks that most resemble straight-up pop songs. Both “EXF,” featuring Kelela, and “Do It,” featuring Romanthony of “One More Time” fame are excellent and replayable as hell. Kelela delivers some level-headed half-whispers above a sea of clicking percussion and splashy, manic synths before the whole thing explodes upward and outward. The vocals soar and the duo slides a deliciously hefty low-end into place. The production remains as intricately weird as ever, but with Kelela guiding the way, there’s a nice drive and a neat asymmetry to the track. “Do It” is a percussion-heavy club burner with a fittingly anthemic turn from Romanthony. It’s patently a Teengirl Fantasy track, but it nearly has mass appeal.
Tracer finds Teengirl Fantasy edging closer to fulfilling a potential that’s been there since day one. Aesthetically, it’s as interesting as 7AM and with the aforementioned vocal tracks in play, it’s not hard to see where this duo’s current strengths lie. “Motif” is still their only purely instrumental track to knock it out of the park and the ground they have to cover to reach the same heights isn’t vast by any means. Coming up with interesting sounds isn’t an issue for these guys, it’s putting them together that is. Teengirl Fantasy remains a worthwhile project. Here’s to hoping they can deliver in three.