Settings (True Panther, 2010)
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Settings is a very short album with two occasionally overlapping job descriptions: it’s a taut and skillful and often satisfying platter of layered, methodical dance tracks, and it’s a wide-ranging sampler of insipidly perky fake-tropical sounds. The better half — see “Z” and “Real Life” — is peopled by living, breathing songs with great melodic weight, impeccable bass lines, and some instrument patches that happen to gloss as outmoded. The other half, in the vein of low-budget bar-mitzvah boogie “Three Trees,” offers all the cartoonish anachronism and none of the soul. Alone, either type of song — the really good ones, which are formulaic but persuasive, or the silly ones, which seem to be included here more for sonic consistency than out of any discernible musical necessity — would be easy to talk about without getting all messy and speculative. But together? Enigma central.
It’s hard, after all, given the present ascendancy of “chillwave” or “glo-fi” or “hypnagogic pop” or whatever we’re calling music that’s “supposed to sound like something that was playing in the background of ‘an old VHS cassette that u found in ur attic from the late 80s/early 90s,’” (thx, Hipster Runoff) not to read some big motivation into artifice like this, no matter how methodical its use or how pleasing its results. (The proper nouns are all different now, but Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” — stag movies seen without lust and so on — turn out to have held up pretty well.)
Tanlines don’t seem like a band with a big motivation. They’re playing at a more modest project, and doing it with a straighter face, than your Neon Indians and certainly your Das Racists. But the questions they leave in their wake are pretty similar: this impassive embrace of gaudy things, are they doing it seriously? Are they doing it for us to take seriously? Are they allowed to change their answer from song to song? Where does the shtick stop and the band start? Plus the great equalizer: does it really matter?
These questions may be wasted on Settings, if not for the strength of its best songs then for Tanlines’ pedigree as a remix team, which suggests an interest in discredited sounds that’s more long-term inquiry than hipster dalliance. (Other interesting questions that come to mind: ambiance aside, is the neon plastic backbone of Tanlines’ rework of Telepathe’s “Chrome’s On It” any less correct than the noirish grit it replaces? Why is it so much easier to get away with radar-jamming antics as a remixer than as the composer? Why wouldn’t we question the motives of, say, Mannie Fresh on the same grounds?)
At least for now, though, unlike High Places’ cloud castles or Blank Dogs’ haunted houses, the ends are too slender to be satisfied with the means. Settings doesn’t quite deserve to be drydocked with the rest of the chillwave scene, but without a sexier mythos or a coherent explanation of why it does what it does, it feels like a tiny step closer to that moment where “why not?” stops being a valid response.back