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Sharp Darts: Less Intelligent Dance Music

Telefon Tel Aviv discovers the virtues of good old-fashioned songwriting.

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Telefon Tel Aviv's new Immolate Yourself opens with a song called "The Birds," and at first it sounds like business as usual for the local electronic duo: swelling billows of ambient synth, colored by dabs of distortion, and behind them the steady heartbeat of a Moroder-style pulse. But the meticulously programmed glitch tracks that Charles Cooper and Joshua Eustis have made their name with never kick in—instead of one of their usual IDM-inflected microsuites, "The Birds" turns into a dark, almost scruffy techno-pop number, with actual human fingerprints all over it. This is Telefon Tel Aviv 2.0, and though Cooper and Eustis have taken a few steps backward with their gear, it's definitely an upgrade.

On Immolate Yourself the piled-up synth parts aren't all locked to the unwavering MIDI clock of a sequencer—many of them were played in real time, and you can hear the tiny imprecisions that distinguish musicians from machines. In the past Cooper and Eustis have recruited polished pros like Lindsay Anderson of L'altra and Canadian trip-hopper Esthero to sing, but here they handle all the vocals themselves, sticking to a breathy, understated style and burying their voices in the mix. The Rhodes electric piano that's come to characterize the Telefon Tel Aviv sound is gone, and the fractal-intricate programmed rhythms have been replaced by relatively straightforward beats and live percussion from a handful of guests. "On one of the [earlier] records there was a minute-and-something piece of drum programming that took five weeks to make," says Cooper. "It's like we were doing Claymation." Most important, the new songs feel like organic entities—that is, more like songs than like strings of carefully plotted points in a sequencer interface.

In the late 90s, when Cooper and Eustis began working together in their native New Orleans, "it was two guys poring over the computer, kind of writing the song from left to right in Pro Tools," says Eustis. "We conceptualized ahead of time but never wrote ahead of time. It's like forward thinking without forward planning. As a work flow now I realize it's essentially flawed."

For Immolate Yourself they wrote songs and recorded demos in advance, something they'd never tried before. "I understand why everyone does it that way," Eustis says. "Because it fucking works, man. It's a really tried-and-true method. And we're total amateurs at it."

At the beginning of last year it wasn't even clear that there would be another Telefon Tel Aviv album. "We took a long hiatus," says Cooper, that began even before their second full-length, Map of What Is Effortless, came out in early 2004 and didn't end till early 2008. "We didn't know if we were going to do this record until we got together one day and decided to do it."

Eustis has a slightly different take on the situation—he figures another album was inevitable, in part because they'd each been coming up with songs independently and needed an outlet. And it had to have helped that Telefon Tel Aviv had an offer on the table from Berlin electronic-music star Ellen Allien, who'd first suggested putting out their next record on her BPitch Control label in September 2006, when they were sorting out a collaboration with her partner Sascha Ring (aka Apparat) and came to see her at a Smart Bar show.

Even though Immolate Yourself doesn't share the clean, chilly, Teutonic aesthetic of much of the BPitch catalog, it's not necessarily a bad fit—like most of the label's output (and unlike Telefon Tel Aviv's previous efforts), it's more of a dance-floor record than a headphones record. Distance between creator and audience is a defining characteristic of IDM—artists seem to want their music to sound anonymous and alien, like the product of a self-evolving artificial intelligence—but Cooper and Eustis have closed that gap with their new approach, not only working their own voices into the tracks but creating something ragged, immediate, and direct.

"It's slow and textural instead of this skittery micro stuff that's by now been beaten into the dirt," says Eustis. Immolate Yourself is rooted in "the idea that the sound's living in a cable at some point, or living in a transistor or whatever. A capacitor or transformer. It was a physical thing at some point. Instead of plug-in stuff it was much more like, 'Oh, put the tape machine flat and set up two mike stands and we'll set up a 16-foot tape loop around them,' and it's all like arrraawwwaarraawww going in and out of tune."

"Josh was literally grabbing the tape," Cooper says. The band had mixed a couple synth parts to tape and were messing with the speed of the loop to subtly warp the sound. "It takes so much work to do on the computer and you can literally just reach out and touch the thing and there you go."

"It's pretty raw," Eustis says. "The whole record's completely out of tune. All of the synths are out of tune, everything's out of tune slightly. Most of that was intentional."

The album sometimes sounds like Violator-era Depeche Mode, and it carries a similar emotional heft. Even the dancier tracks on Immolate Yourself, like "Stay Away From Being Maybe," have songs at their core to hold up the layers of electronics, and Cooper and Eustis turn out to have a way with a hook. "Your Mouth" is resplendent with icy synth strings and throbbing electro drums, but it'd hold up fine played on an acoustic guitar with hand claps for accompaniment.

Eustis wrote about half the material on the album, and most of his songs and lyrics came from a dream journal he started keeping a couple years ago—he believes that music in a dream contains more information than anything you might hear while you're awake. "Whatever you're seeing in your dreams, you're not actually seeing it," he says. "It's just your brain sending nerve impulses back and forth.... Hearing's the same thing. You're hearing a concept and not the actual thing."

For Telefon Tel Aviv the trick seems to be turning those concepts into actual things. "The last record we were swinging for the stands," Eustis says. "And it was a swing and a miss for me at the end of the day, because I feel we were trying to make that for a specific audience that had heard our record but we thought we needed to teach them something. Which is totally presumptuous and bullshit. So we made this whole record that was basically a gigantic didactic disaster to me." This time, he says, he and Cooper decided, "Let's just make a fucking record."

Cooper and Eustis say they've got another album's worth of new material already written. They'll be touring heavily in support of Immolate Yourself, both in Europe and the States, but even if it doesn't find its audience—it's likely to turn off a lot of the band's old fans—I hope that next record gets made.

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